Escaping the Girl Box

Climbing Out Into a Bigger World

Reading autobiography – especially of a contemporary figure – is an invitation to introspection.  As I’ve been listening to the audiobook of John Cleese reading his own So Anyway… I found myself wondering if I could remember my early teachers as clearly as he seemed to do.  After musing more, I realized that grades one through four all contained – if I had only known it at the time – major events that would shape who I am today.

Before I get into that, though, I want to thank all of you who backed DreamForge Magazine during its Kickstarter or who have signed up for a subscription.  DreamForge not only hit its goal, it hit all of its stretch goals, promising a lot of exciting reading.  Issue One makes its formal debut tomorrow – Valentine’s Day.

First grade took me to Holy Trinity Elementary school in Washington, D.C.  I was vaguely familiar with the place because my family attended church next door.  My teacher was Sister Stephanie, a sweet, gentle, but firm older woman who belonged to the Sisters of Saint Joseph.

Sister Stephanie did a lot for me.  She was the person who taught me to read, for one.  She provided a safe, organized environment for my first big venture away from home.  However, her biggest impact on my life had to do with not shoving me into a “Girl Box.”

This was about 1968.  Despite some long-haired students at nearby Georgetown University and other signs of the burgeoning counter culture, my environment was culturally conservative, although intellectually liberal.  Dresses and playsuits for little girls.  Gloves for formal occasions.  At age six, I was already what was then called a “tomboy.”  (Does that term get used anymore?)  I loved running around with the boys, chasing balls, playing tag.  I was terrible at girl games like jump rope.  (A year later, I would get my first pair of glasses, so there was probably a reason I was so inept.)

One day, for some mysterious reason, Sister Stephanie gave each child a little gift.  The boys received small cars or trucks.  The girls little baby dolls.  As she walked up and down the rows, handing out these surprises, my heart sank.  Baby dolls bored me to tears.  They didn’t do anything.  Toy cars, however, these rolled.  They seemed somehow alive, to invite adventure and excitement.

Hesitantly, I asked if I might have a car rather than a doll.  Sister Stephanie was clearly surprised but to my eternal – and I mean this – gratitude, she switched the baby doll she was about to hand me for a little truck.  It was brick red, about the size of a matchbox car, although far less elaborate.  Indeed, it was hardly more than a cast metal shape with wheels.  My vehicle was some sort of truck – but the details weren’t good enough to tell what type.

That didn’t matter.  I loved it.  I had it for years until it merged into my younger brother’s big box of such vehicles and was lost to me.  But that didn’t matter.  I’d been permitted a window outside of a world of babies and dress up as the only options for pretend.

Had Sister Stephanie been a different sort of person, I would have been gently ridiculed, told girls didn’t play with that sort of thing.  But instead of shutting the door, she opened it.  I ran through, out into a world that would never ever be able to convince me that there were “girl games” and “boy games,” no matter how hard it tried to do so in the years to come.

Thank you, Sister Stephanie…

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8 Responses to “Escaping the Girl Box”

  1. Louis Robinson Says:

    Brilliant!

    I never had anything quite that wall-shattering from my teachers, but I do remember them at least somewhat. Except for Gr 1: she’s probably been expunged because I never received a satisfactory – to me, that is, the adults all seemed OK with it – explanation of why she gave me the strap one day. Which is a pity, in retrospect, since she was also the person who figured out that I wasn’t getting anywhere because I couldn’t _see_ anywhere, and set the wheels in motion to have me seen by the best ophthalmologist in the city, and provided with glasses at the school board’s expense.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Interesting combination of traits… And interesting that you remember the injustice more than the advocacy — certainly because you understood the advocacy but didn’t understand the other. Yes?

      • Louis Robinson Says:

        It would be more accurate to say that I wasn’t aware of the advocacy. The first I knew about it [the visit to the ophthalmo didn’t mean anything – just another doctor] was being hauled downtown to be fitted with my new glasses. It was some years later that my mother mentioned that the teacher figured it out, but of course all that adult stuff was dealt with in conversations between the adults. I was like the Centurion’s squaddies: they said come and I came; they said go and I went 🙂

      • janelindskold Says:

        Adults so often forget that children don’t have the full picture.

  2. Other Jane Says:

    My sister and I were always bored with baby dolls too. We did to crafty things, but we were much more interested in playing wiffle ball, kickball, and tennis.

  3. Lilli Ann Linford-Foreman Says:

    How lovely to read a memory featuring a teaching nun in an act of kindness and generosity.

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