Why no one tells you how to be a woman

You hear this refrain often. You hear it in fond toasts by groomsmen. You read it in Father’s Day greeting cards with pictures of old timey vehicles on the front, the hood popped open. “You showed me how to be a man,” they say, and these tributes are usually followed by specifics. You showed me how to shave,  how to parallel park, how to hook a fish,  how to cook a perfect ribeye on the grille. Or maybe it’s just a general platitude offered to someone a man admires. A salute to a strong oak of a man who stood firm even when the winds of change or his son’s mood swings or his son’s girlfriend-of-the-month swept through.

I take no issue with this tribute, even if it is sometimes an affectation. We need men to mentor well, to usher in a new generation of moral leaders. We need good men to model virtuous manhood. I don’t think anyone is arguing against this the business of Showing a Boy How to Be a Man.

But no one ever tells you how to be a woman. Never, never have I ever heard a bridesmaid tell another woman,”You showed me how to be a woman.” Mother’s Day Cards are usually covered in flowers with floral script, populated by words like “sacrifice,” “patience,” and “love.” There is no mention of womanhood–there is no holiday or occasion to salute Being a Woman. I have several theories about why this is.

The first is that the business of being a woman is murkier. Womanhood cannot be boiled down to feats like tying a bowtie or changing a tire as are the hallmarks of manhood. Womanhood is evolving for each of us, by its very definition. The entry into womanhood is often marked by a change so profound it is uncomfortable. Just now, for instance, I have lost all 2 of my male readers who are afraid I’m going to mention something about menstruation. The horror. But if we are honest, this is part of the reason womanhood is so veiled in mystery. Each girl will go through a reproductive change at a time over which she has absolutely zero control. If you think about it, it is incredible how something that has been happening since the beginning of time to girls is still something each one has to learn how to navigate for herself. She has to listen to her body, understand its rhythms, overcome the discomfort and pain that reminds her regularly that the business of being a woman is so freaking fluid.

Another reason is that we seem to be afraid of proactive womanhood. Instead, womanhood is often reactive. You don’t have to look far to see evidence of this. We could spend a lot of time discussing what this past presidential election taught us about proactive versus predatory behavior, but it is just a microcosm of a larger culture that favors women tossing up the white flag of surrender rather than canvassing for a cause about which she cares.

This is why Wonder Woman blows us away–because a girl reared by all female elders to fight evil is so radical an idea we don’t even have a context. Then she goes and partners with a mere mortal of a man and doesn’t emasculate him? Holy Novel Narrative, Batman.

If machismo is the affliction of believing too fiercely in one’s manhood so that he belittles women, there should perhaps be an equivalent for women. There is no womanismo, though. Women who are independent to the point of self-sufficiency are often portrayed as simply man-hating. What a shame that no one tells you how to be a woman because that might threaten men.

There is a final reason I believe we don’t tell girls how to be women, and I think it’s the saddest of all. I think it’s because we lack creativity about what it means to be a woman. 

Forgive me if I am too strident here, but why am I more likely to read an article about “How to fight an attacker” than I am “How not to raise a rapist”? Why do colleges and universities need to teach matriculating co-eds about self-defense, about not being ruffied, about the protocols one should follow if one is sexually assaulted?

What if we spent half the time and energy expended toward reacting to the inevitability of rape and instead fueled our energy reserves toward cultivating an equitable world for girls and boys. What if instead of raising awareness about rape culture, we poured a modicum of those resources into investing in the awesomeness of girls and their interests?

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Remember those Nike commercials “If you let me play sports…” and all the gnarly residue of girls who are allowed to participate in athletics? Well, it’s 2017 and we don’t need to use that kind of weaksauce language anymore. We don’t let girls play sports. Boys rarely have to ask to be let to do anything. We just encourage them to play sports, if that’s their jam. And we should not be surprised if they grow up to be men who don’t ask permission. Who don’t need consent. In 2017, we don’t let girls play sports. We expect girls to play sports. And we expect them to be the ones coaching us in 10 years.

How sad that our definition of what it means to be a woman is often so lacking in scope and imagination. I’ve heard of so many friends giving their daughters smartPhones and the attendant restrictions. All the things not to do, the people not to follow, the behaviors not to replicate. This is all incredibly important, but what does it leave us with in terms of cultivating creativity in girls? Is there a Girlfriend’s Guide for How to be Awesome Online? A crib sheet for how to be a woman who inspires?

***

I recently was feeling the freight of all this as I sent my daughter to camp. I was nervous about what she might encounter in girl world, bunking with all her besties away from me for a week. I met her counselor who introduced herself with a confident handshake and told me about her plans to become an English secondary education teacher. I was smitten and grateful for Counselor Raquelle. I was reminded how my nervousness could infect my daughter in negative ways, how it sent the message once again that being a girl was a liability and not a plum assignment.

Missing my daughter one evening, I logged onto the online portal of camp photos for that day. My son saw it first, the image of big sister at camp. It was as if she had memorized the Amy Cuddy Ted Talk.

Once again, I was smitten and grateful for another girl. Showing me that being a girl can be proactive, creative and awesome, lest I forget.

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On the first time you learned your student passed away

The Facebook page was eerie, like seeing the faded lettering of an erstwhile business still on the brick storefront. It said, “Remembering Francis Angelo,” and my stomach dropped. I don’t know why this student came across my mind this morning but it occurred to me I hadn’t seen him come up on my feed in recent months. I’d wondered if he had beaten cancer, gotten married, launched his own gubernatorial campaign.

But instead the timeline had ceased and all that was left in its wake were digital artifacts. A video of the thank you speech he gave at a fundraiser his friends must have thrown him before he received his transplant. It was a wonderful speech, casual but sincere-sounding, and then he pivoted and proposed to his girlfriend.

He died just weeks later. He didn’t get to run for office, using his superb writing abilities. He didn’t get to say his vows, in sickness and in health, pinned to all the hopes of  many more years of health with his beloved. I wonder if he got to see his brother come home from the Army before he passed.

I’m sure much has been written and eulogized about Frank already, so I will not heap more platitudes onto the pile. I think the part that feels heaviest to carry, though, is that he was the first student I ever had in the first class I ever taught, and he is now the first student whose death I have learned about. And I learned of his death in such an inorganic way that it was difficult to process. How he was once sitting in my class, reading texts I can no longer remember, but whose Boston accent I surely can, and how he was so young and how this was all so flipping unfair.

As a teacher, you don’t necessarily know your students better than their friends and surely not their parents, but there is something distinct about a teacher’s encounter with the people she teaches. The relationship is an evaluative one, certainly. But it is also one that must be built on trust in order to thrive, to have some measure of success. Simply by virtue of being a student, a student asks of the teacher, Will you treat me fairly, will you challenge me appropriately, will you remember me after the last grades are turned in? In turn, a teacher asks, We are going to read hard texts, will you follow me outside of what is comfortable? Do you respect me enough to listen and receive? Will you remember the things we learn long after the final grades are filed?

I came to know my students in all the ways a teacher does: discussions and tests and groveling e-mails to excuse their tardies. These are not necessarily singular to the profession of teaching, but they are privileges I enjoyed.

I want to dig up a paper Frank wrote and send it to his parents, offer them one more tactile artifact of his originality and accomplishment. But then I remember that they are his parents and their treasures are unique to the unending bond of love they have for their son.

I? Was only his teacher. What I’ve learned over many semesters in college classrooms is that this is sacred, too, in a way that maybe only a teacher can know.

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The most expensive T-shirt I own

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I didn’t buy this t-shirt nor did it come with a price tag affixed. But I know that it’s the most expensive piece of clothing I own.

I don’t treat it as such. I don’t handle it gingerly, afraid that it might tear at the seams or unravel at the edges. I don’t wash it irregularly so that its painted letters don’t quickly fade. In fact, I wear it often and with pride because, as I mentioned, it is the most valuable piece of clothing I own.

When I was a youth worker for the City of Boston, I served every day at a community center in a neighborhood I had never been to before, not even driven through once. I didn’t know anyone who lived there, in the patchwork of tidy triple-deckers and eateries that ranged from Salvadorean pupusa shops to Italian eateries to Chinese restaurants to Vietnamese pho houses. The neighborhood comprised effectively an island and most of the kids who grew up there knew one another. They confessed they didn’t bother skipping school because someone would see them on the corner and call their mother.

Most of the youth I worked with lived in a housing development complex. I had never visited a housing development, never walked through the block after block of unimaginatively designed structures and marveled at how there was no green space, how there were so many children living throughout the complex and yet there was no space for them to play that was not concrete.

So the kids came to the community center where I was based, where I did a job for which I received no training, in a place I wasn’t so much as even acquainted with, with a population of kids whose lives were unfathomably different than anything I had known. In my arrogance, I thought that I was the good thing that had come their way. A college graduate, a creative program person, a self-proclaimed lover of kids.

I did everything wrong. I presumed when I should have asked. I got angry when I should have laughed. I muscled through on my own when I should have sought help. Most of the programs I ran were a bust. The boys humored me, the girls came and asked me questions about sex. I thought I had what they needed, if I could just organize a better program of activities. If only they would come every day, I could meet their needs. My bosslady was so patient with me. She would say, “The only problem with you is that yaw not from heeyah.” I laughed and only sort of knew what she meant. I started asking a music shop if they would let me take their leftover sample CDs to give away as prizes. The kids started looking at me like a prize dispenser, popping them out like Pez. I made $22,000 a year before taxes. I still thought it was about me.

During an outdoor program I organized, there were a ton of water balloons which, since these were teenagers, became a ton of water buckets filled and thrown. I didn’t have a change of clothes. Someone handed me this Mayor’s Cup t-shirt, one from a stack that were just hanging around in the closet.

By the time I was a year into the job, I knew that I would be getting married, that I would be moving on. I took the LSAT with my co-worker Kamau. We knew we couldn’t stay making the money we were making. We wanted to do the most good.

After I got back from my honeymoon, I started interviewing for other jobs. I had deferred law school but I still wanted get home earlier in the day to spend time with my hew husband. I soon found 9-5 administrative job that I could walk to from our apartment.

On my last day working at the community center, I had not wanted to make a big deal about my departure. I wasn’t sad that I was leaving, but I was sad that I wouldn’t see how the kids would grow. I wouldn’t know who went to college and who had a growth spurt over the summer. I wouldn’t hear their voices change and watch their girlfriends change and offer to drive them home when they didn’t have enough change for the bus fare.

On my last day, only one kid came back to say good-bye. He had been by far one of the hardest kids to reach. He hated school and just wanted to play basketball. He seemed to break one girl’s heart on Monday and have found a new one to break by Tuesday. I didn’t understand his goals; I didn’t understand how I could help him.

But he came back to say good-bye. He sat with me in the office, his pristine baseball hat with the manufacturer’s silver sticker still on the underside of the wide brim. He looked up from under that wide brim and asked me about my plans. I told him I thought I’d probably go back to school so that I could eventually teach. He nodded and bounced a basketball under the table. We hugged it out and he went to go shoot hoops.

Whenever I wear my Mayor’s Cup t-shirt, I think of what it represents. I think how it was handed to me when I had nothing else to wear because I was a pilgrim. I remember how hard it was to earn respect as a pilgrim. I think how I’d never had to learn how to love kids who were hard to love before. I remember how after nearly two years, they returned that love to me. At least one did. He handed it to me like it was a free t-shirt. One that I would be so grateful to receive, one that still makes me feel so privileged and proud, not only because I got to love but was loved well in the end.

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