sealPurdue News

December 1996

Professor discovers secret world of junior-high girls

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- The '80s song that told us "girls just want to have fun" might have been closer to the truth if it said they just want to be like everyone else.

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Even when they scribble on the bathroom wall and pass notes in math, young teen-age girls follow a strict code of conduct in conformity with their peers, according to a book on the secret writings and literature of junior-high girls.

Margaret Finders (FIN-ders), assistant professor of English and curriculum and instruction at Purdue University, followed six seventh-grade girls for one year, reading everything they wrote and read. In "Just girls, hidden literacies and life in junior high," Finders describes the highly constricted world of young adolescent girls.

"Whether they are the social queens or the tough cookies, each feels she has a role to fill in public or at school," Finders says. Only at home, in private, do they let down their guard and explore their individual interests.

Finders' study won an award for Promising Research in the Teaching of English from the National Council of Teachers of English.

Peers are all-important at this age, and the opinions of the group dictate an individual's public behavior, she says. "One girl called herself a feminist in sixth-grade writings. However, a year later she hid her thoughts and writings on the subject for fear of being labeled a lesbian," Finders says. Another girl enjoyed reading about sports, but hid her sports books because they weren't considered cool. Another never read a book at school, but was a voracious reader at home.

"Many people view adolescence as a homogeneous stage, because outwardly, young teens act and behave much the same," Finders says. "Actually, there is great diversity among this age group. The problem is they feel such pressure to belong to a group that they are not at liberty to make their own decisions. Whatever they do, they must always check it out first with their peers."

Despite invitations from teachers to read and write whatever they wanted to, in class the girls read only fiction and wrote about personal experiences. "One girl expressed a desire to write about important issues, but would not do so for assignments," Finders says. "Instead she and the others stuck to personal stories. When asked why, they said things like 'well that's what you're supposed to do' 'teachers consider it good writing' 'it's the only thing that counts.'"

The teachers were surprised when Finders told them the girls' comments. Finders -- previously a junior-high teacher for 13 years -- says her study shows a need for teachers to understand the social constraints of junior high. "We need to unmask the ways in which social relations and thinking processes impinge on each other," she says.

Finders suggests that teachers get away from the trend toward freedom of choice. "If I were teaching in a junior high today, I would add more structure," she says. "By assigning everyone in the class to write an issue essay, you actually free them to write about things important to them."

She says teachers also must accept the idea that classrooms are not safe havens. "There will always be kids who have more power. So, we might as well talk about the politics involved," Finders says. She suggests that teachers point out the politically charged situations in the texts they read in class. "Don't simply talk about good literature, but ask questions about power, motivation and censorship."

In the absence of such critical thinking, teen magazines were the Bible the girls followed. YM, Sassy, Teen and Seventeen defined their values and opinions, Finders says: "The seduction of these magazines is powerful. Articles and advertisements are laid out so as to look remarkably alike. These girls readily appropriated the words, experiences and images of the magazines as their own."

In examining their writings, Finders found layers of what was hidden. "There were things hidden from teachers, parents and peers," she says. "Notes in class were hidden from teachers, graffiti on bathroom walls were generally hidden from teachers and parents." Things done at home were hidden from peers.

However, even in the apparently secret domain of the restroom stall, the rules applied. If a girl wrote that she liked a certain boy, then no one else could write his name until she crossed it out herself or until someone asked her permission. "These writings served as official documentation," Finders says. "Relationships locked into print could not be disputed." It also served as a way for the girls to feel power over the boys, something they didn't normally have, she says.

Of course, when romances went sour, revisions had to be made. "Girls made arrangements to meet at a particular time in a particular restroom to read and revise the walls," she says.

As one might suspect, sex was a dominant theme in notes and graffiti. "When they pointed out to me things they had written on the bathroom walls, I was amazed at the sexual language they used -- words they would never speak," she says. "In one note, the writer deliberately used a different color ink to write a sexual term, which she did three times."

This preoccupation with sex evolved through the year as seen in the secret shorthand the girls used. "S.S.S. was a way to close their notes. At the start of the year it meant 'Sorry-So-Sloppy' but later it took on a whole new meaning when it became 'Stay Sweet and Sexy,'" Finders says.

Note passing was not only a form of communication but a way to determine status. Finders says notes could only be passed to those persons considered to be equal in status. Those girls who wrote and received the most notes were perceived to be the most popular. Receiving notes from boys heightened their popularity.

To keep notes private, note folding became a special skill. "A note could have no rough edges that might catch on a pocket lining. It must be small and streamlined," Finders says. "And, it must be easily manipulated in the palm of one hand in order to avoid detection as it slipped from hand to hand boldly under the nose of a teacher.

"Girls wrote, circulated and responded to notes while reading aloud, participating in classroom discussions and completing written work." They had to pay careful attention to what they were doing, but Finders says it was a game they played to make the teachers appear foolish and the teens powerful.

As for content, the notes were always pretty much the same. "The notes were generally about making social arrangements for after-school activities and requests for help in making romantic contacts," Finders says. "The girls all said they could write whatever they wanted -- but they never deviated from the standard. They even criticized those who did."

At first, Finders knew the girls censored the things they wrote and showed to her. However, the girls eventually opened up. "I told them: 'I'm not your teacher, I'm not your mom. I want to know what it's like to be in junior high, and you are the experts,'" Finders says.

Source: Margaret Finders, (765) 494-3732; e-mail,
Writer: Beth Forbes, (765) 494-9723; e-mail,
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

Photo Caption
"Just girls, hidden literacies and life in junior high," is the result of a study by Purdue educator Margaret Finders, who followed six junior high girls for one year, reading everything they wrote. She says their public lives were so restricted by their peer social-network that only in secret did they reveal thoughts that differed from the norm. (Teachers College Press, $17.95)
Black-and-white photo, electronic transmission, and Web and ftp download available. Photo ID: Finders/Girls
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