Looking in the Mirror at the Missing Girls of Chibok

Still thinking about Chibok, still thinking about those girls.  Today, I tried again to articulate my thoughts.

This isn’t an article about what we can do — or what someone should do — to bring those girls back home.  This is an article about education, about the fear of educated women, about the risks all of us take every time we dare to learn something new, to use education to change our situations.  The girls of Chibok were kidnapped because they went to school.

When I first became an adult literacy teacher, I had a student who was a confident, funny, intelligent member of the class.  She was an absolute beginning reader and was making gradual progress.

One night I met her partner and saw my student become small and withdrawn in his presence.  Her greeting and hesitant smile were nothing like the bright, wide smile we saw in class each night.

Instead of a greeting, he tossed her The New York Times, asked her to read to him.  When she told him she couldn’t, he asked why she bothered with school if she couldn’t read, told her she was lucky she had him to take care of her, that she’d be helpless otherwise.

I’ve thought about her so many times since that night, and thought of her as my initial horror and sadness over the abductions in Nigeria churned into anger.  What was that man so afraid of?  How could it have been so terrifying to him that his girlfriend was learning to read?  I know an answer to this question.  He imagined that an education would help her see just how much she didn’t need him.  But while he had every right to be afraid, he had no right to use his fear as a weapon to smash her curiosity, her cleverness, her smile.

In the years after that class, I saw many women for whom attending school was a dangerous decision.  A student in one program withdrew from classes when her boyfriend reported her for child neglect because she left her daughters with their grandmother to attend classes three nights a week.  A GED student missed every test she was scheduled for because as each test date approached, her husband would beat her so severely she couldn’t leave the house.  Another student’s partner destroyed her birth control each time she enrolled in school so that she would get pregnant and need to leave school before taking the test.

We aren’t the missing girls of Chibok.  We aren’t.  We have experienced trauma and abuse, but we aren’t those girls … except that we are, too.  I think about past students as my heart aches for those girls and their families because people around me keep saying they can’t imagine a culture in which girls would be punished, would be terrorized for wanting an education.

No?  Look outside.  Look in the mirror.  We are that culture.  And we, as women learners, teachers, researchers, advocates, and allies are fighting back against that culture.

And so are the girls in Chibok, and Warabe, and other Nigerian villages under the shadow of Boko Haram.  They are going to school.  Now.  Still.  They are asserting their right to learn, their right to determine who they’ll be in the world.


I use the “BringBackOurGirls” hashtag.  It’s one painfully small way to remind people that those girls are still missing, that many may already have been sold into slavery.  I can’t go to Nigeria and rescue them, but I can work here at home to change attitudes and dismantle systems that harm women.  I can continue to support WE LEARN and education for women as vehicles for equity and change, for putting power in women’s hands.


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Slice of Life Tuesdays are hosted by Two Writing Teachers.

A Willow Tree Grows in Brooklyn

I saw them again! The lovely mother and daughter from my Cat in the Hat post the other day! We were on the bus again, heading downtown. This time, the mom was doing the reading.  Her daughter was curled up against her, listening intently.  Mom was reading The Wind in the Willows. Put a smile on my face that she had chosen a classic.

The bigger smile on my face came from watching and listening to the way the mom read the story — thinking out loud after she read certain lines so that her daughter could see the way she thought about what she was reading, pausing and asking her daughter to predict what might happen next, etc.  I love how invested the mom clearly is in her daughter’s literacy, how patiently she waited for her daughter’s answers and talked through them with her, how cute they looked snuggled up together on the bus seat, deep in their story, deep in that book.

They made my morning.  And I wonder what I’ll get to hear them read next time!


Check out all of the slices on Two Writing Teachers!

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“How I wish we had something to do.”

My bus was super crowded this morning, and I was squeezed in the center aisle, standing all the way downtown. So much for reading on my way to work. I didn’t even have room to maneuver my bag and get my headphones out so I could listen too some music.

Good thing. Left my ears open for some conversation:

“I have always been someone who knows what they want,” asserted forcefully by a beautiful girl who was maybe 17.  “I always say what I want.  I’m not confused.  I’m complex.”

“Listen,” from a stern-voiced woman to her 9- or 10-year-old son, “you want me to change colors right now?* No? Then sit still and keep quiet.”

“Driver, you were supposed to tell me when we got to Flatbush.

“I will.”

“You were supposed to tell me.  I asked when I got on.”

“I will tell you.”

“Driver –“

“We haven’t gotten there yet.”

“Thank you, driver.  I still need you to tell me when we get to Flatbush.”

And then the best of all:

Seated near me was a little girl who was focused quite intently on a book. She was tracing across the page with her index finger, going over each page at least twice before moving to the next. I couldn’t see what she was reading because it was down in her lap. She was maybe six years old, so I was pretty sure  she wasn’t working through War and Peace, but I was curious.

Then her mom leaned over and asked her to read aloud. “I like hearing how nicely you read,” she said.  (And yes, how much do I love her for saying that?)

The little girl smiled and squinched up her face, concentrating.  She turned the pages back to the beginning and started reading.  I couldn’t hear her at first, but after a few lines, she felt more comfortable.  She lifted her chin and read out, not loud but strong.  And then I heard it, knew what she was reading.

“How I wish we had something to do.”

I’d know that line anywhere: The Cat in the Hat!

“Too wet to go out, and too cold to play ball,
So we sat in the house. We did nothing at all.”

I edged a little closer so I could listen in.  The little girl was wearing a Jayne hat** with an adorable, extra large and puffy pom-pom.  Her skin was such a beautiful deep, dark brown.  Her voice was quiet, happy.  Her face was serious as she focused on the words.  She sat up straight, but her mom leaned in a little closer, almost snuggling against her shoulder.

I will admit, I’m only a lukewarm fan of the Cat.  I find him a bit creepy.  More than a bit.  (He shouldn’t be trusted, not one little bit.)  And he triggers that thing I tried to describe yesterday.  The Cat is all about things that are just not right.  Too much Cat and I think my head might explode!

“No, no!  Make that cat go away!
Tell that cat in the hat you do not want to play!
He should not be here! He should not be about!
He should not be here when your mother is out!”

Hmph.  Tell me that’s not right.  Don’t get me started on Thing 1 and Thing 2.

But my mistrust of the cat notwithstanding, I was utterly charmed by my bus ride reader.  And equally by her mother’s clear pleasure in listening to her baby display her new skill.  An excellent way to get my morning off and running.


Eavesdrop on the rest of today’s slices at Two Writing Teachers!

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(“I saw her — your mother — your mother is here!”)

*  I’ve never heard getting angry described in this way.  I kind of like it.  And I have to admit that, when I heard her say it, I really wanted to see her change colors.  That would have kept things lively on our commute!

**  Oh, that.  You know, a Jayne hat.  That was a Firefly reference.  The hat, as knit for and worn by Jayne: jayne_hat_4

In the Wake

Tonight I read as part of the Big Words, Etc. series. It was my first time participating. The night’s theme was “expectations.” Here’s what I read:
In her Ramadan journal, my friend Serena blogged about the silence of my sadness in the wake of the acquittal of George Zimmerman. I am both: sad and silent. I haven’t cried, haven’t rallied, haven’t ranted. Haven’t done any of the things I usually do in these moments.
And that’s part of my silence, isn’t it? That I can say, “any of the things I usually do,” that I have ached through enough of these moments that I actually have an expected pattern of response.


I can come here and do things I can maybe be expected to do — wear a hoodie, wear a picture of this fallen boy on my shirt. I can come here and say the thing I can maybe be expected to say — “I am Trayvon Martin.” — or I can say what is actually true: I am not Trayvon Martin. I am more likely to be Eleanor Bumpers, or Yvonne Smallwood, or Marissa Alexander. I’m more likely to be one of the almost 65,000 African American women none of us have ever heard of who currently make up 40% of the FBI’s National Center for Missing Persons list.
After the acquittal of Sean Bell’s murderers, I went online, [came to this blog] to pick and poke at my sorrow and anger. It helped and didn’t help. I needed the time and space to vent, to grieve, but shouting into the void is never more than a temporary salve. I wanted something to do — wanted to see that something I could do — would mean I wouldn’t have to go to another march for another unarmed black man. And here we are. Again.

I can maybe be expected to say I’m angry, hurt, disgusted terrified, disheartened, sickened, devastated, lost … And those things are all true, but what is more true is that I’m tired. To the marrow of my bones. Tired of this reality, tired of being expected to make change when I didn’t make the problem in the first damn place. Tired. Beat, as James Baldwin wrote, to my socks.


I started writing four different pieces to get ready for tonight. One of them was, I hope, funny. One of them was a piece of the memoir I’m working on. One was a revision of a story I wrote last fall. One was about my hair and all the things I think and feel when people ask to touch it.
But then that verdict came down and all my words were gone.


I spent this past weekend in Rhode Island with women who love me, who asked nothing of me, who hugged me, who made me laugh, who brought me back to myself … at least a little. But, as of 1:00 this morning, I still had nothing written, still had no idea how to pull any coherent thought from the swirling mass of defeated, painful anger that’s been choking me the last ten days.
Of course, the only thing to do about a writing block is to write. So I am standing here with these disjointed and rambling thoughts that cling only to the through lines of my pain and my increasing inability to comprehend how it is that I live here, in this place where every day I am reminded in large and small ways how little my life means to the wider society, how vehemently I am unwanted.


Does that sound harsh? If so, I wonder what other message you think I should take from incident after incident after incident. From acquittal after acquittal after acquittal. In my head, there’s a voice saying that for every 5,000 Medgars, there’s only one Byron De La Beckwith … and it took three decades to bring him to justice. And that voice is followed by Zack de la Rocha’s reminding me: “Three million gone … ‘Cause you know they’re counting backward to zero.”


It’s not just this case, of course. But it is just this case, too. This was the case that had to go the right way, that no jury could possibly see this case in a way different than the way I saw it. This was so clear, so obvious, so irrefutable. Until it wasn’t, and except that I’m not actually that naive … except that I obviously am.
It’s not just this case. Of course. Because it isn’t just the senseless killings. It’s the slow drumbeat of dread, distrust, and distaste, of dehumanization, disenfranchisement, and dismissal, that make it possible for there to be so many senseless killings answered by so little outrage. It’s living for seven years in the same apartment in Cobble Hill and having my neighbors walk a little faster and clutch their bags a little tighter as I followed them up the stairs to the front door of our building. It’s every cab that has never stopped for me. It’s the landlord who didn’t want to show me his apartment when he realized that the woman who’d “sounded white” on the phone was really me. It’s listening to the surgeon at Methodist Hospital in Park Slope talk down to my Harvard-educated aunt as he explained why sterilizing me was the best care option even though he had no idea what had brought me into his ER. It’s a million intentional denials and erasures, a million casual and unconscious cuts.
At almost 51, I was alive but much too young for many Civil Rights milestones. The marches, the police dogs, the freedom rides, the fire hoses, the lynchings, the assassinations. All were real in my childhood. My parents were quiet activists. The news came into our house over dinner every night. Not the worst bits, not the ugliest, the kids-are-too-young-to-hear-this bits. But enough awareness seeped in that I wouldn’t join the Girl Scouts because I refused to be called a Brownie.


Nothing that is happening now is new or news to me. But my inability to breathe, to think, to access my response in a productive way — my impotence — frustrates me.


Maybe I’m not ready, yet, to break my silence completely. Maybe I’m still too angry, still too sad. Maybe I’m just afraid to open the well of pain that I’m always and always plastering over, afraid of the thick sludge that will boil up and out. But then I hear de la Rocha’s voice on another lyric, “Anger is a gift.” And I believe that, want to harness it, still want something to do — still want to believe that something I can do — could mean there won’t be another march for another unarmed black man. And getting to that place seems to require the fully unpacked expression of my anger. And what happens when that door is opened?

April, Come She Will (30 Stories — 11)

Melanie enrolled her daughter in drawing and dance classes as soon as they’d settled into the new apartment.

“Culture,” she said to her new neighbor.  “The kid has to grow up without a father, that’s one strike against her going in.  At least I can get her some culture.”

The woman nodded, but Melanie thought she detected a hint of pity, of alarm.

“I mean, I took piano lessons and dressage when I was her age.  It’s the least I can do, say.”  She didn’t wait for the woman’s nod, just turned and went inside.

Piano and dressage.  It was true for what it was worth, but that wasn’t much.  She’d never been interested in learning an instrument, and the riding lessons had quickly turned into easy cover for making out with João, a Portuguese stable hand she fell hard for the moment she saw him after her first class.

But her daughter, April, was different.  She would see to it that April took advantage of the right opportunities, that she never thought letting a 37-year old man play with her in an empty horse stall was a good idea.  April would never drop out of school to follow a man, certainly not one old enough to be her father who — when she reached the Algarve and found him — turned out to have a wife and a house full of children.

She didn’t think she had to worry so hard, in truth.  April was already so different.  Beautiful, for one thing, where Melanie was only pretty.  It pained her to admit, but there was no denying it.  Those looks would give April choices Melanie never had.

“And it’s my job to see that she goes down smart,” Melanie said to herself, watching out the window for April’s return from her first dance class.  “What else is a mother for?”


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