Kate is a confident, polite and well-liked Grade 11 student who generally takes school seriously and gets good grades. She is a curious and passionate student, interested in a wide range of subjects. She reads the newspaper and is aware of many social and political issues.

In social studies, Kate’s teacher initiated a project, asking students to choose from a selection of topics and develop a position about the topic. Then, they would pair up with someone who would take the opposite position. On a designated day, the two students would engage in a formal, structured debate.

Kate was very excited about the project. She had chosen “affirmative action” as a subject, and would be arguing in favour of it as a social policy. She had been matched with Byron, who was a fun, popular and laid-back boy. She already knew quite a bit about the topic because she had read about it in the paper and discussed it with her parents. For the project, she did extensive research on the internet and was extremely well prepared for the debate.

During the debate, it soon became apparent that Kate knew a great deal more than Byron. She argued articulately and convincingly in favour of affirmative action. Byron had not done a great deal of work and could not respond to many of Kate’s arguments. He felt embarrassed and fell back on a strategy that had worked for him many times in the past – he began to joke around and make fun of the process, getting the other students to laugh at the same time. In response, Kate continued to argue, but when she saw that Byron was not taking it seriously, she expressed her frustration, by saying, “Well if you’re not going to take it seriously, I’m not going to bother.” She walked back to her seat, ending the debate.

After class when the students were out of the teacher’s earshot, Byron said angrily to Kate in front of the other students, “What’s your problem? Are you some kind of ball breaker?” Kate’s jaw dropped, and she stood still, shocked, as Byron and his group of friends walked off laughing. Later, Kate overheard some other students talking about the incident. “She’s such a bitch,” said one. “Yeah, she was so aggressive with him. She just talked on and on and didn’t let him say a word, poor guy,” said another. “I don’t know who she thinks she is. She should lighten up and take a pill,” said a third student. “She’s so aggressive and overbearing! I feel sorry for her boyfriend!”

Kate was still reeling and hurt by Byron’s earlier comments when she heard the students in the hallway. She felt devastated and at the same time mystified by her classmates’ attitude. It just didn’t make sense to her and she decided to talk to her closest girlfriends about it. At lunch, she told them what she had heard in the hall. “I can’t believe what they were saying. It was so mean.” “Oh Kate, don’t worry about it. It’ll pass. Everyone really likes you so I’m sure they’ll all forget about it soon,” said her friend Zhang encouragingly. “I know it’s embarrassing, but you just need to lighten up about it. Don’t let it get to you,” said another friend. “No!” said Kate. “Sure I’m embarrassed but that’s not the point. If I know more than Byron knows because I worked harder, why shouldn’t I show it? Just because I’m a girl, I’m not supposed to talk too much? Or get angry if he laughs and makes a big joke out of something that’s important to me? That’s not fair! They wouldn’t react that way if I was a guy!”

The girls looked at each other, somewhat chastened by Kate’s strong tone and words. “Sorry Kate. We didn’t think about it that way, but you’re right,” said her friend Julie. “They probably wouldn’t have reacted that way if you were a guy.” They gave each other a hug and in her mind, Kate resolved to never let herself be pressured to stop talking about things that were important to her.