I don’t know if it’s the Folk Art School or the change in
the weather or the extended daylight hours, but something has me really
inspired lately.  Not only have I
been writing every single day, I’ve also been dabbling in painting, drawing and
embroidery again.  I actually
completed a picture on canvas the other day, and I patched a favorite pair of
old jeans and added a few hippie daisies with some needle and embroidery floss
just for fun.  It’s not exactly
high art, but I’ve really enjoyed it.

Harper Lee’s been enjoying it too.  She loves to paint and make pottery sculpture.  In fact, our kids’ pottery class just
ended its first session.  I’d like
to continue it, but in the interest of keeping our schedules from going
completely out of control, we’ve opted to only play soccer and take music
lessons.  Along with children’s
choir, I think it’s plenty.
Besides that, our free afternoons and evenings allow for long walks
after supper and for art of any kind, and we get to choose whatever we feel
like doing.  Right now, she’s
learning to sew, and she’s just finished her first big painting on canvas.  We’re thinking about starting our own
business, a sort of rock-n-roll/ folk art style art gallery featuring our brilliant
creations.  We’re just daydreaming,
of course, but it’s fun to think about, and it really gets her fired up.

I want to keep her fired up about her talents and interests
as long as I can.  I was chatting
with her guidance counselor at the elementary school the other day about the
problems facing girls.  I told her
that I worried about Harper Lee becoming one of those “mean girls” in middle
school.  I have always had a fear
of that.  Harper Lee has a lot of
talents and she’s well-liked; I want to raise her to use those gifts as a way
of lifting other people up, not tearing them down.  When I read about tortured teenagers who have committed
suicide because of the torment they’ve endured at school, it rips my heart
out.  Kids don’t realize the depth
of the hurt they can inflict with cruel words, and I want to make sure Harper
never falls into the trap of hurting one in order to fit in with others.  Ginger, the guidance counselor, said
that I had nothing to worry about regarding Harper’s kindness, that she is a
very loving and compassionate person.
I knew that already, but it sure was nice to hear.

However, the thing that I have to worry about now, according
to Ginger, is keeping Harper Lee as comfortable in her own skin as
possible.  She said that my bigger
worry should be “mean girls” who try to tear Harper Lee down because of her
gifts.  This does not apply only to
my child.  Ginger said that girls
who are athletic or smart or artistic or beautiful or well liked or a
combination of all those things are often targets of groups of girls who want
to tear them down.  She said she
has seen it a hundred times—girls who have everything going for them but who
are completely in the dumpster emotionally because the “other girls” hate them
and torment them.  She said they
often try to hide their gifts and talents or become something they are not in
order to lessen the pressure from this group of bullies.  This was something I had never even
considered, but when I think about the societal influences we are exposed to
everyday, I can’t say I’m all that surprised. 

We don’t revere strong women.  We say we do, and there’s all this hype about raising strong
girls who are proud of who they are, but then we spend millions of dollars on
tabloids telling the latest escapades of Paris Hilton, who by the way, is in
every fashion magazine and hairstyle magazine I’ve picked up recently.  Who the hell is Paris Hilton
anyway?  She’s just some skanky
heiress who has done nothing of any value in her whole spoiled rotten, vapid
life.  This is who we should
emulate?  And what about shows like
“The Bachelor”?  Are you
kidding?  It’s a show that millions
of young women must watch regularly because it’s in its sixth or seventh
season, and it’s about women competing with one another for one man.  These women are essentially selling
themselves on TV.  Is it just me or
are we watching prostitution all glammed up for our evening entertainment?  We might as well take a lawn chair down
to the alley behind the car wash and take bets on which hooker will get into
the nicest car because the message is about the same.  Meanwhile, I bet you could count on one hand the number of
elementary school girls who know who Amelia Earhart is, who could pick Eleanor
Roosevelt out of a line-up or who are even aware that our governor is a
woman.  They’re too busy worrying
about highlighting their hair and buying clothes that I’m not old enough to
wear to be worried about truly strong women. 

I’m not sure we really have come a long way, baby.  But it’s not for lack of
opportunity.  If women aren’t as
far along the road to personal freedom as they’d like to be, they have only
themselves to blame.  We get to
choose who we want to be, but we repeatedly choose the images that are
presented to us, images that aren’t real or even all that impressive.  We swallow this idea of the
high-powered, multi-tasking, always impeccably dressed woman who has it all
hook, line and sinker, and yet articles and books on how to find happiness and
self-fulfillment are at an all-time high.
Every magazine I read includes tips on how to decrease stress and
increase personal happiness.  Aside
from weight loss, it is the main focus of every woman’s magazine in
America.  If we truly have it all,
why are we so damned depressed?

It’s because somewhere along the line, we have become
uncomfortable in our own skin.  We
have attempted to cram ourselves into tight little uniforms of what we should
be and have tossed our true selves to the wayside.  As humans, we are meant to compete.  Competition means survival, and I love
a healthy dose of competition myself, but we’ve been competing for the wrong
things.  We compete for the nicest
house, the most brilliant, well-rounded children, the most successful husband,
the best body, the most expensive clothes, and the most volunteer hours, but
how many of those things are the mark of true happiness?  Our elementary school is hosting its
yearly kindergarten screening this week, and my son and several of his
preschool friends have already participated.  A dear friend of mine told me last week that they have been
taking practice kindergarten screening tests.  I was stunned.
“They have practice tests?” I asked though I can’t say I was truly
surprised.  All I had told Isaac
was that we would go to the school and play a few games with the teachers.  I didn’t see any reason to make it a
big deal and create potential stress because frankly, it’s not a big deal.  It’s kindergarten screening.  I won’t lie and say that I didn’t want
Isaac to perform well, but honestly, what’s the worst thing that might
happen?  They might tell us to wait
a year?  In the big scheme of life,
will pre-kindergarten scores follow someone to the grave and determine the
course of his or her life? 

We all want to be successful, and there’s nothing wrong with
that.  Ambition is what drives us
forward, but we have to look at what it is we’re driving toward and why.  Should we all have the same goals, the
same measures of success?  I’m not
sure if that even makes sense, yet we do it all the time.  If we are all unique with our own
special gifts and talents, shouldn’t our goals be as varied as we are?  I have to admit I was sweating a little
yesterday before the screening began.
I want Isaac to do well, to be the best preschooler those people have
ever seen, to wow them with his four year old brilliance, but let’s face it,
that’s my own baggage.  All that
really matters is that he’s happy and that we encourage him to be the best he
can be, whatever that may mean.
The screening went well, and according to the numbers, he’s ready for
school next year, but all he really cared about yesterday was the box of Lego’s
that was set up in the waiting area.
He made a plane and left excited and happy about school.  Because he is very young, we still
haven’t made the decision about whether to enroll him or keep him home another
year, and there’s plenty of pressure on both sides of the argument.  On the one hand, everyone says I’m
crazy to keep him out when he’s reading and doing simple math and when he wants
to go to school.  They say he’ll be
bored with another year of preschool, and his confidence will plummet when his
friends move on without him.  On
the other, some say I’m crazy to push him into school when I don’t have to,
that boys do better with extra time, that another year will make him better
academically and athletically, and that he’ll be the best in his class if he
stays in preschool another year.
The question I have to ask myself is whose definition of success do I
follow, and what reasons do I have for my choice?  Is it competition?
Is it to keep my kid in the game and make sure he has the highest number
on the board or is it Isaac’s happiness?
Of course, his happiness is my main priority, but will he be happier
with a challenge or will he be happier being bored but number one? It’s
actually a harder decision than it sounds like.   

That’s why we all have such difficulty making it.  What will make us happier—following our
own path up the mountain or just getting to the top the fastest way
possible?  For some people, I think
getting to the top in record time is what makes them happy; it drives and
fulfills them, and that’s a good thing.
The problem is when we think there is only one path that matters, and it
is the most important thing, the only thing.   Some people
don’t want to take the steep, paved road to the summit.  Some want to meander along the wooded
trail.  The trick is figuring out
which way you want to go and sticking to it, and that requires self-examination
and the confidence to follow whatever it is you find there.  In other words, it means being
comfortable in your own skin.
After all these years and all the talk of women’s liberation, we are
still letting outside sources determine our paths for us.  We have not taken control of our lives;
if we had, why would we feel so stressed, so overwhelmed, and so unhappy?  We are letting the “mean girls” tear us
down by telling us that what makes us special is not acceptable.  We should strive to be more like everyone
else they tell us; otherwise, we might not fit in, and that means our families
might not fit in and our children will be weirdoes.  Did we learn nothing from the tortures of middle
school?  The “mean girls” had it
all wrong.  Twenty or thirty years
later, those people mean nothing to you.
You haven’t laid eyes on them in ages, and if you did, you probably
wouldn’t be all that impressed.
The same is true of your current “mean girls,” whoever or whatever they
might be.  When you look back,
twenty years from now, what will you remember?  I don’t want to see myself struggling to fit someone else’s
mold and regret the time I wasted following someone else’s idea of what should
be.  I want to look back with joy
and know that, whatever the outcome, I made the most of who I am. 

It’s not always easy, but it becomes less difficult when I
think about the fact that how I live teaches Harper Lee much more than what I
say.  We can talk about strong
women everyday, but if we don’t act like strong women, it means nothing.  Just remember that the definition of
strong is broad and encompasses many things.  The least credible source regarding what that might be is on
the cover of any given magazine.
Trust yourself to determine what strength looks like.  It will take you a long way.