Happy new year, Wildwood Middle School! I hope that you all had restful and restorative breaks.
During our holiday, I found myself reflecting a great deal on what it means to raise daughters (in fairness, it’s a topic that I think about a lot anyway—I have a book of poems coming out this year titled Daughters of Your Century which is all about my girls). I could start this story with the cake-decorating board game my older daughter Sonia got for Christmas as juxtaposed with the green energy circuit set my nephew of the same age received—and I will get to those—but my recent thinking started, and therefore I think this post should start, with the new Beyoncé album.
The self-titled album arrived fairly spectacularly in December, produced in secret and released without fanfare on iTunes as a “visual album,” complete with videos for each song. For those who appreciate contemporary pop music, it’s a powerhouse—full of soaring ballads and gritty dance numbers, with some very interesting song structures and production. Among other concerns, the album has a particularly conflicted relationship with feminism, and what it means to be female.
The track that most directly deals with the issue (though there are several—“Pretty Hurts” is a beautiful meditation on, well, beauty), and the one that first caught my attention, is “Flawless.” The reason it caught my attention, aside from it being an excellent song, is due largely to the presence of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on the credits. You don’t often see a novelist as a guest artist on a pop album—by way of a contrast, the other guest spots on the album are Drake, Jay-Z, and Frank Ocean. Adichie’s name also caught my eye because her first novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, was a book that I read some years ago and was greatly affected by (I recommend it, if you’re looking for a brilliant historical novel).
About 90 seconds into the song, Beyoncé breaks off and Adichie comes on, with a quote from a TED talk she gave titled “We Should All Be Feminists” (and amen to that title, by the way—I’m going to borrow a page from Beyoncé and sample it!):
We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls: you can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful, otherwise you will threaten the man. Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is most important. A marriage can be a source of joy and love and mutual support. But why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage but we don’t teach boys the same? We raise girls to see each other as competitors, not for jobs or accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing, but for the attention of men… Feminist: a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.
It’s a surprising moment—and indicative, it would seem, of an interest Beyoncé has taken in gender equality. In addition to writing a recent editorial for The Shriver Report, she also cautions in the lyrics of “Flawless”: “I took some time to live my life/but don’t think I’m just his little wife.” The concerns Adichie addresses in her talk are likely familiar ones to girls and parents of girls—along with the “princess phase” that Sonia is thankfully moving out of, the emphasis on marriage in the popular culture and imaginative worlds of young girls is strikingly pervasive.
Of course, the gendering of experience and expectation extends well beyond Disney movies. Annie Murphy Paul recently cited a study in her Brilliant Report which noted that parents talk about numbers and number concepts, a practice that paves the way for numeracy and mathematical interest, about twice as often with boys than they do with girls. It’s just one of myriad examples of the diffused nature of the messages girls get about how to act in the world—what to be interested in, what to ignore, how to fit in. This is a topic that Rachel Simmons takes up in her book The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls with Courage and Confidence. Toward the end of the book, Simmons relates the story of Oprah Winfrey struggling early in her career to find her place. A supervisor suggests changing her name to “Suzie”; she tries to read the news in the polished voice of Barbara Walters. Ultimately, what Oprah described as “the greater voice of myself” won out—the voice of her core self, of what she truly believed. As Simmons notes, “This is the voice we want every girl to hear, loud and clear.”
So how do we achieve that, as a school community? How do we work toward nurturing that authentic voice? The American Psychological Association released a foundational study on adolescent girls about twelve years ago that listed some of the factors that ensure success for female students in schools. Several of them are things I’m happy to say I see on a daily basis here at Wildwood—innovative teaching, not emphasizing competition, and the opportunity to connect with caring adults. But in looking back at that study’s findings, one thing really caught my eye: “Teacher’s recognition of girls as key players in their own lives.”
So to that end, allow me to use this space to share and invite my colleagues to do the same. Here is a picture of two girls who are more than key players in my life—my daughters Sonia (5) and Alma (2), the lights of my life and the inspiration for my work as a poet and as an educator:
Last week they went to the Natural History Museum, and apparently were quite impressed with the dinosaur skeletons there. I’ve had the chance to bring them to school a few times, and I will do so more, so all you middle schoolers can meet them.
As I look back on those two board games, cakes and circuits, which were gifts given in a very progressive and critical-thinking family and community, I also find myself reflecting on another important element of discovering the greater voice of ourselves. I am taken back to a blog post Head of School Landis Green wrote several years ago on the value of heterogeneity:
While those of us who want our schools to reflect a range of human experience journey on, the movement toward standardization and homogeneity subtly whittles away at the potential for future success in creating the type of complex school communities that reflect the diversity of cultures that have been at the center of our country’s rich, resilient, and generally—albeit, evolving—respectful culture. Our society’s strength lies in the coming together of differing cultures, informed by the differences among us, including the varying religious, racial, socio-economic, and ethnic backgrounds that have been a part of our history from the very beginning—and the diverse talents and passions of the populace.
What I believe, and what I believe we teach here at Wildwood, is that we become our best selves not in isolation, but in community, in conversation, through collaboration. And while both Jacob and Sonia took to their gender-determined games with gusto, it was also nice to see them inviting each other over and over again into their imaginative worlds, and watching those worlds be transformed by their differences.