The Girl Effect

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The First Year

Just look:

pictures of the first year.

We’re not sure what will happen next, but in this house we still have hope.

Squanto’s Journey

A confession:  I love Pilgrims.

I think Pilgrims are underrated, misunderstood, and oversimplified.  “Pilgrims” by the way accurately refers only to those Puritans who sailed on the Mayflower and established a colony at Plymouth in 1620.  For instance, while Pilgrim chastity is the stuff of legend, you might be interested to know that all sexual deviance–from homosexuality to sex with turkeys and goats (which really is historically documented: in one incredible scene in which a young man accused of the latter actually points out the specific turkeys he had relation with…)–was considered the same order of sin.  And while they did believe that everything was Providential (according to God’s will) they knew one could never really, truly know that one was elect. You might be pretty certain, but you could never be positive.  This led to much study and scholarship, cultivated soul searching and personal responsibility. The rebelled against the corrupt Anglican church and thus cultivated, ironically, a kind of independent thinking.  They worked hard and were humble. All those stereotypical New England Puritan virtues are based in some interesting historical fact.

Moreover, their journey from grave persecution in England to Holland to the “New” World took over 13 years, and the passage and arrival was difficult and epic.  They arrived in winter, in Massachussets, to a wild and unforgiving coast. True, the Native Americans had survived there for a long time, and there were other colonies, but the Pilgrims were ill-equipped for the task.  Plus, nearly half of their 100 members died that first winter. It was a difficult and terrible time, and no one was certain of survival. But thanks to the help of the Wampanoag and especially the Pautaxet Squanto, they survived and even thrived. Thus, the first Thanksgiving really was a feast of plenty and of thanks, and it was attended by twice as many Native Americans as Pilgrims. Also, it lasted 3 days, at the end of which the Indians shot and offered 5 deer to the colonists, which no doubt helped them through the 2nd winter. And while this interval of good will between Pilgrims and Indians did not last, it was real and significant, and it marked a turning point in the colony’s success.

So one of my missions (in life? in my family?) is to translate what was incredible about their story in a meaningful and balanced (and, of course age appropriate) way. I think that if you consider the first Thanksgiving in the context of the Pilgrim’s really extraordinary exile, hardship, adventure, starvation, illness, compromise, and reliance on the Indians,  it becomes, truly, a kind of miraculous story of survival and success and a moment of peace and possibility.  Modern Thanksgiving is about none of this, and I think that’s kind of too bad.

For instance, how many of us celebrates Thanksgiving as a religious holiday? (Which was certainly part of the Pilgrim’s feast, since everything returned to God..)

And how many of us really, truly celebrates it as a feast of harvest or plenty?   How many of us shop exclusively at farmer’s markets for the season’s bounty for tables? How many go and shoot the abundant native fowl or deer in our regions? Or even bother to search out an heirloom bird? Or fish in local waters for the abundant catch available at harvest time? (there were a lot of lobsters in New England).  That we don’t is okay, of course. Traditions morph.  But I do think it’s important to remember what started all of this feasting anyway, and remember that simply being thankful for family and health and abundance in our middle class home is something we should do everyday of the year. It seems sort of empty to me to make this the only focus of the holiday. Then again, I do have a PhD in American literature. I love history. And Pilgrims.

In sum: I think the day is enriched for kids if it’s put into an accurate historical and sort of somber historical context.

Thus: every year, we make a Thanksgiving movie (See 2007 & 2008). This year, Ella, who is on the fast track to becoming a spy reporter and has a penchant for writing nonfiction decided we had to make an Historical & Fun movie.  Of course, I leapt at the chance in and in less time than it takes to Google Mayflower, I was parsing my grad school copy of William Bradford’s journal-turned-formal-account of Pilgrim History, Of Plymouth Plantation and reading her the juicy bits about the journey and the landing at Plymouth and the first Thanksgiving (but not, of course, the turkeys…)  The book became our primary source for the film (which should be released this weekend, God of the Pilgrims willing) and I never thought I’d see the day my 7-year-old parsed a footnote of a 17th century text looking for a detail.

Of course, I’m not recommending you all go read the entirety of Bradford’s account, which really is best studied in a PhD seminar, but the short DVD William Bradford: The First Thanksgiving in The Animated Hero classic series is excellent as far as Pilgrims go.  It’s historically accurate and gives children a good sense of their decades of hardship and deprivation as well as the absolute necessity of Squanto and the Wampanoag in their surivival.  Paired with the really excellent Squanto’s Journey by Joseph Bruchac, which details Squato’s kidnapping, the decimation of his tribe, his return to America and his providential meeting with the colonists,  your child can have a fuller, deeper, more balanced and accurate sense of what that first feast was all about and why any of us should give a damn about the Pilgrims and Indians and in the first place.

Next year, it’s Squanto’s turn.

Ella & the Bears

Before Ella was born, a friend gave me/her  a small stuffed Polar Bear. It was one of those cute soft toys you throw in the crib and see which one the kid clings to. As it turned out, the Polar Bear became attached to her hip, arm, mouth, hand…you name it.  The bear was a part of her, and because it got so dirty, I bought 2 more to keep in rotation. But of course it didn’t take long before she sussed me out and all three took up residence in her crib.  Now, even though one has been around the world only to be returned, good as new, by Santa, Snowy, Icy, and (the one whose name I forget) are still the most essential bedtime companions. Snowy, the original and most loved it totally thread bare and flattish, but no matter.

But these beloved animals have actually made her care about real polar bears, and provided a nice way to talk about the bears, their habitat, the dangers of global warming and pollution.   When we talk about turning off lights and recycling and when she donates her lemonade money to saving the arctic funds, it’s sort of like taking care of Snowy’s relatives.   Let’s just say I try to make it real for my kids when I can, and sometime the real world is connected to the fantasy world by the most tenuous of threads.

So, in honor of Snowy and empathy inspired by endangered species plush toys I offer you this:

Email President Obama and see the World Wildlife Fund for more information on how you can help. They’re a terrific, kid-friendly group. Donate even a small amount for your favorite cause, and let your child write the letter.

One Year Later

The need for involvement remains as strong as ever.

Child’s Play

This weekend the NYT Magazine ran a piece about the Obama marriage that quoted Obama on the significance of his election. When Michelle Obama asked him during the primary season what would distinguish his Presidency from that of other Democratic candidates Obama replied,

“When I take that oath of office, there will be kids all over this country who don’t really think that all paths are open to them, who will believe they can be anything they want to be,” Barack replied.  “And I think the world will look at America a little differently.”

Certainly, Obama’s Nobel Prize, controversial or not, has proven the latter part of his statement to be true.   I don’t think we’ve even begun to register in this country the profound shift in international attitudes and climates that will result from this Presidency.

But I was especially gratified to read the first part, because before I read this statement I wrote in an essay:

During the Primaries, I knew that whether we elected Clinton or Obama, either would signal a new order, one which concretized academic theorizing about diversity and identity politics.  In one historic ballot, many more children would be able to look at the person inhabiting the highest office in our country and say the President Looks Like Me.  And for them it really would mean that anything was possible.

So, when my daughter professed her single-minded Clinton love, I understood exactly what having a woman President would mean to the rest of her childhood (and probably the rest of her life).  If Clinton were to become President, not only could Ella play softball, or football, or run a Fortune 500 company or innovate a new technology, but Being President would become a Viable Career Option.  A Clinton Presidency would be, for my daughter, a revolutionary fact.  Perhaps not quite so revolutionary as getting the vote, but certainly it would signal a seachange in the national female psyche.  It would be a vision, a game changer, something akin to Phillipe Petit’s dance in the air.

And in the wake of the Clinton run and Obama’s victory, it has proven true that my privileged, middle-class white children do see politics differently and more importantly than they did before.  Mostly, since the election, we’ve had a long, quiet spell & a busy summer (no posts here you may have noticed).

But last week, Finley announced, “When I grow up I want to work for the President. I want to work for Obama.” Ella pointed out,  of course, that this would not be possible, but that he could work for a different President, a career which he roundly embraced.  Ella, too, announced that she shares this ambition, and this weekend, they set up a White House in the back yard, and played President. This didn’t involve much of all except imagining that they inhabited that space.

And that imagination, for both my boy and my girl, can be the beginning. It’s the beginning of being involved, of believing that democracy matters, of understanding a wide range of public service.

But most of all, it’s the beginning of possibility.

The Man Who Walked Between The Towers

I’ve been quiet here partly because we’ve been gone for much of the summer, but also because we’ve been slowly figuring out what community service and civic life mean for our young kids now that the immediate energy and opportunity of the election has passed. These are sobering times, and getting involved certainly requires more effort. But the process of educating young children is always embedded in the family, and for the very youngest, I’ve been reminded that it can be embedded in play.

Last year we discovered the excellent picture book, The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordicai Gerstein.  It’s a biography of Phillipe Petit, which captures all the drama and poetry of his career and its culminating walk between the towers of the World Trade Center.  My children were both captivated by it, especially Finn, who spent one morning reconstructing a cardboard model  of the site.

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We also made the decision to show them both Man on Wire, which Ella astutely realized “was just like detective movie” in the first minutes.  And indeed, it is, and they were both mesmerized by the film and its images. (There is definitely one questionable, celebratory naked scene at the end, but it passed right by them while we held our breath.)   But  because of its context and visual imagery, the film is also for the astute adult observer, not simply an homage to the poetry and majesty of Petit’s accomplishment, but a requiem for the Towers and those who perished there.   My children didn’t realize this exactly, of course, but they did have a sense, watching it,  that something had once been that no longer was.

The book, written post September 11,  states simply that the Towers no longer exist.  When we read it to Finn, we explained exactly why.  The story offered me another opportunity to discuss the tragedy, and terrorism, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with Ella.   Everyone in my family lost a friend or a colleague or a childhood acquaintance in the Towers, so the tragedy is immediate and personal for us.

And so, when we visited the east coast this summer, we drove by the Pit, as some New Yorkers call the site of Ground Zero, on our way to Brooklyn, and they both got to see the tremendous scale of the event.  We didn’t stop, but it was sad and satisfying that they got to see something of the reality of it, and that they could begin to understand some of its hard significance.  It’s a lot for a small child, I know.  It’s a lot for me, and for all of us. But it is as much a part of their world as endangered panda bears and polluted lakes, and this book, and that movie, and the actual site are ways that begin to make it real and meaningful.  They are ways slowly to begin the hard and difficult discussion about what happened and why and where we are now and what might come next.