On Tuesday I had the chance to hang out in T.'s classroom for an end-of-year ice cream party. It still hasn't hit me that she'll be done with kindergarten today, and that the kindergarten year, so precious in many ways, is quickly becoming a thing rooted in the past.
After the party, the kids, hyped up on ice cream and toppings, played around in the classroom. Plenty of girls gravitated to the computer section, but about 5 or 6 girls made a beeline for the "house" section--a little kitchen with a wooden stove, refrigerator, and cabinets, a dress-up corner, and a cradle for baby dolls. I remember the first time I stepped into the classroom, during an Open House back in August. Two little boys from T.'s future class were playing the house section with her that day; now, they probably wouldn't be caught dead messing around with a wooden stove or the dress-up bin.
T., though, was playing chef with the plastic food but by and by I noticed a group of four girls deeply involved in a dress-up game. Someone had dug out a white tulle skirt and by looping it around one girl's head, it passed nicely for a bride's veil.
"You're getting married!" One girl shouted excitedly.
"I'll be your husband!" Another said.
"Quick, it's time for the wedding dance!" A girl in blue leggings jumped up and down in ecstasy at the thought of the wedding.
"We're playing wedding," one of the girls said to me when she saw me watching. "When I grow up, I'm going to get MARRIED!"
"I'm going to be a veterinarian first," the blue leggings girl said. "Then I'll get married."
"You should get married first," the veiled girl said, offering no reason why things had to happen in that order. I could only imagine, though.
I wanted to say so much, I really did, but I didn't.
Several months ago, when I was browsing through my favorite thrift store, I found a picture book about a Siamese cat name Minou. I don’t know about you, but when I shop for picture books for my kids (well, for T.—L. is too old for them now), I’m drawn first and foremost by the pictures in the book. There are many wonderful children’s books in our lives that don’t contain compelling art work inside, of course, but I love a picture book with magical, charming, captivating pictures, and I loved them as a child, too. So when I picked the book up from underneath a pile of self-help guides and used not-so-enticing cookbooks, I knew I had to take it home for T.
It was only later, at a traffic light on my way to pick up the kids that I realized the book had A Message. In fact, it was published by an advocacy press--through the Girls Club of America. I’m wary of these types of books because I don’t like messages overtly packaged in a child’s storybook. Many good children’s books have some type of message embedded within, whether the message is about the benefits of sharing, or trust, or honesty, or fairness to all, or love of earth’s creatures, but I don’t like the message to be pre-packaged for me, and done up all neat and tidily with a bow. I feel strongly about this because of a message-in-a-book related trauma I experienced years ago when I started reading a yard sale Christmas book to T. one night and discovered, half-way through, that the book was designed to expose Santa as a myth created and perpetuated by paganistic-lying insensitive albeit well-meaning parents. Luckily I could think on my feet, and I possess some story-telling capabilities of my own, so I was able to pretend to read the rest of the book out loud to T. while weaving my own story to replace the abrupt turn the original narrative took.
But it was a close call. Really close.
Still, I gave Minou the benefit of the doubt, and T. and I curled up together on the couch later that afternoon to read it. As it turned out, the message was fine by me: if you are a young girl, you should learn that taking care of yourself is a skill that will serve you well in the future. In a world where so many books written for girls center around more passive feminine pursuits, Minou is about a once-pampered French cat who must fend for herself when her mistress dies and who learns some valuable lessons about self-sufficiency, self-esteem, and independence. After many brushes with danger, she strikes up a friendship with a mentor-cat, a strong female named Celeste, who teaches her how to move about bustling Paris safely. In the end, Minou takes up work as a mouser at the Notre Dame cathedral where she catches mice in exchange for food and water. But she refuses to give up her freedom. When the priests invite her into their quarters to stay she turns away. "I do not want anyone to own me," she says proudly to herself, tail held high.
T. and I talked about the book, and about how Minou the cat changes from the timid, pampered creature she is in the beginning, to the bold, confident, and equally beautiful creature she becomes by the end, when she can come and go as she pleases from Notre Dame, and work when she wants to and on her own terms. It helped that the book came with a list of discussion questions, too, encouraging conversations designed to get young girls thinking about what they will do when they grow up; how they will take care of themselves, and what skills they might need to do so. And while the importance of teaching independence and self-sufficiency is not news to most parents of girls these days (the book was published in the 1980s) the classroom incident the other day did make me think about how much disparity still exists, and about how clearly there are plenty of young girls growing up thinking that it's the norm to want to be taken care of.
There are many things I want for my daughter in this life, but I have always hoped and dreamed that she will grow up brimming with self-esteem, knowing how to take care of herself--wanting to take care of herself--and valuing the financial and emotional independence that can help her make the world her own.