Before you read on, I’d like you to watch this 2-½ minute video of a girl testifying before her local school board. Rather than be influenced by my experience of the video below, I’d love it if you would note your first reactions and what you noticed. Please post them in the comments, if you would like to join the conversation.
In the video, 9-year-old Sydney Smoot delivers a well-prepared and clear speech laying out her objections to the state assessment test (FSA). The video was posted on two of my favorite news-gathering sites, boing boing and The Mary Sue, and has received nearly 1.5 million views.
When I clicked play on the video, I was looking forward to hearing this girl’s perspective on standardized testing. As a critic of standardized testing, I pay attention to those who question and opt out of tests.
Instead of listening to Sydney, I couldn’t stop watching the adults in the audience, whose reactions were also captured by the camera recording the speaker. Emotions such as delight,, tenderness and regard intermingled with the one that I reacted to the most: amused condescension.
Sydney owned that speech; she became more passionate the longer she spoke. The speech was serious, yet there was an almost constant hum of chuckles and laughter throughout. At the end, she received a standing ovation. As I watched the video, I couldn’t stop thinking, “Those adults would never have responded to another adult the way they responded to Sydney.”
The adults in the room were, of course, delighted to see a young girl speak before a publicly elected body, a rare thing indeed. The adults were also entertained by the spectacle of a child speaking publicly in an adult forum. It’s as if she were a trained monkey, not a human being with an opinion who cared enough about the topic to prepare a speech and deliver it to elected officials.
The idea of speaking to an adult body would not occur to most children because they know in their bones that they are powerless. As individuals, they are not consulted when debating public policy. They are a monolithic group to be acted upon. They are not counted–they do not count.
When I was a child, I attended a small community church with my parents, who were active in the church leadership. Both my parents sang in church, so I joined the children’s choir. I began singing solos when I was Sydney’s age and continued to sing for the congregation through my teenage years. Those were formative experiences, because I developed a passion for singing that continues to this day.
In spite of that, I recognized the reactions I saw on adult faces in the video because those same reactions were directed at me when I was a child performing in an adult forum. All I had to do was show up and perform. It didn’t have to be good or well-rehearsed; the applause was given lavishly no matter what. Adults who performed also received applause and appreciation, but the appreciation was not patronizing as it was for me. On some level the applause was demeaning and I knew I couldn’t trust it, even though I came to crave it. I am still learning to accept applause without feeling like a fraud.
In addition to finding the adult condescension offensive, I had other reactions to Sydney and her speech. Without thought, these questions bubbled up: Did her parents help her write it? Did they rehearse it with her? Does she understand the big words she used?
Those questions are as offensive as the chuckling adults. Despite years of shedding adult privilege at The Clearwater School, I am still a product of a culture that does not see children as people and therefore has insane expectations of them. Those questions would not bubble up while watching an adult speaker, and even if they did, a “yes” answer would not be damning. Adults who are unpracticed at public speaking generally DO get help preparing and rehearsing their remarks. The POTUS has a speechwriter and speaking coaches, for heaven’s sake. And why did I wonder whether Sydney knew the meaning of the big words in her speech? Insulting.
For me, the best response to the chuckling adults and my offensive questions is to keep noticing with humility, compassion and a commitment to grow.