Last week I spoke to fifth-grade girls about my career as a writer. Seems like just another day at the elementary school, except I'm a woman speaking to a gender-separated classroom where "no boys allowed" provides for more open dialogue. I was frightened.
I clacked my heels purposefully to two of three tables in the room and instructed those girls to raise their hands. Those hands represented the number of women in journalism school. I asked two at the third table to raise their hands. Those painted little nails and clanging bangle bracelets were the number of women who would make it to editor.
Sadly, the students were not surprised. In the fall, the Princess asked me if there had ever been a woman president. No. She told me she wanted to be president. I congratulated her, and I told her I did, too, at her age. She asked me why I didn't even try. I told her that, like most girls, I lost interest in politics and real-world news in junior high. I promised that I wouldn't let that happen to her.
So we were both quite excited when her class decided to focus on reading the news and creating a newspaper. Each Monday, Princess would choose one article to read and respond to. I showed her lots of different newspapers; she chose the big Sunday edition to browse for her first story. She choose a "business" story based upon its short length, and when I found her two hours later, still staring at the page with tears welling in her eyes, she said: "I can't do this. I'm not the kind of person who reads and stuff."
What happened here? What happened between the fall, when we are going to be president, and the winter, when she, at the age of 10, has already decided the kind of person she is? I was livid. Where did she get these ideas? We read the article together, and she wrote her paragraph. I decided to contact the teacher, so I could check out this classroom. The timing was perfect. I would visit the week they began writing opinions of what they've read.
After the hands went down, the teacher asked me, "Why do you think there are fewer women on the editorial boards?" My mind chanted, "Verbal filter. Verbal filter. You want to come back, don't you?" I told them there are many complicated reasons; I told them we as women don't speak out enough, and when we do we get called "bossy" and "angry." I told them that "calm down" is code for "we don't want you women to think." I hope they remember that, since this 30-something still faces those fears each week.
I explained that men have always been in charge, their friends are men and when they go to hire someone, they choose a friend they know is loyal and trustworthy. I did not call this the "Old Boy's Club," despite the blood dripping from my bitten tongue. Surprisingly, the teacher nodded her head at me, and she took this moment to stand up. "Ladies! Did you hear that? This is important. When you go to middle school next year, it is important that y'all have each other. You may not like one another, and y'all might get on each other's nerves, but you will need each other to get ahead. Never burn a bridge as girls because you will need each other." I narrowly refrained from cheering, "You go, teacher-girl!"
I encouraged them to read all types of newspapers and read all manner of story lines. Don't stick with the "Southern Style" or "Wedding Announcements." Yes, they are fun and not wrong in and of themselves, but we don't want to limit our knowledge—brains are more important than fashion. I did not tell them about wage gaps or the fact that reporters hardly make enough to pay daycare. I did not tell them that 60 percent of athletes are women, but only 8 percent of those women appear on the sports pages. I'll get around to these things later, I suppose.
Finally, I gave them time to ask me anything they wanted.
"How old were you when you started writing?"
I told them I won the writing award in fifth grade. Inside, I wondered if that was my peak.
"Does it hurt your feelings when someone does not like what you write?"
Yes, but I'm glad they are reading. I mean, if they really hated it, why would they want to read it? They just disagree, and that's OK.
"I'm in the middle of a story and don't know what to write next. Does this ever happen to you?"
Yes. Daily. As they get older, they will learn that the writing process can sometimes be comparable to childbirth.
I left the room after promising to come back to help them write their opinions and create a newspaper. I heard some whisper: "She's so cool. She's so funny." I thought of our tabloids covered with young, troubled women. I realized that no one is telling my bonus daughter anything society does not reinforce for her, and the only hope for most girls to get through puberty with an ounce of self-esteem is sticking with each other and having good role models. I promise I'll do that for her, no matter the trouble it gets me into. I can do no less for a future president who is that kind of person, no matter what ditzy actresses or the Old Boy's Club may tell her.
This is good Emily. If I weren't such a strong and well-put-together-man I would shed a tear. Crying is for girls and girly men. I'm gonna encourage my grandkids to act like they don't see limitations or restrictions.
- Ray Carter