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One night I met her partner and saw my student become small and withdrawn in his presence.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.


SOL image 2014

Slice of Life Tuesdays are hosted by Two Writing Teachers.

Using and Abusing

I don’t know what to do with men on the street.  I am mostly quite good at not seeing them, even as I watch them for threat or danger.  Sometimes one will push or slide past my shield, and I have no choice but to interact with him in some way.  I have yet to develop the ‘face of beligerence’ that Fox and my mother can level with such skill, but I can manage an outraged-but-dismissive glance down my nose.

I wore one of my favorite summer dresses on Friday.  It was hot, I was listening to Juanes, singing along in my head.  As I passed, a man seated in front of a shop stood and leaned into my path, put his beery breath in my face and started singing Besame Mucho.

I love Besame Mucho.  It’s languid and melancholy.  It reminds me of Oscar Hijuelos and João Gilberto and a beautiful elderly Chinese man on the Lexington F-train platform playing it like a soulful moan on his gaohu.

I love Besame Mucho, but I don’t really want a stranger — particularly not a half-naked, half-drunk, fully-sweaty one — blocking my path and throwing it in my face.

With headphones on, I can pretend I don’t hear, which lets me pretend I don’t notice.  I can keep on down the street to the party beat of La Noche.  But why do I have to be bothered by this in any way anyway?

I could go on and on, work up to a real rant.  But that’s the wrong direction.  I’m more upset with myself right now.  I don’t want random masturbators trying to make time with me on the street, but I use them.  Ok, not the disgusting men, but men in general.  I am quite consciously aware of how some men will respond to my voice, my smile, and to some things about me that are … uh … shall we say very up front.  I know and I take advantage of what I know when I need to.  Not five minutes after the half-naked singing man, I used my Sweet Girl voice to get some heavy-lifting help from a stranger in a store. 

Didn’t they used to call it “feminine wiles,” this manipulative behavior?  Fox isn’t a fan.  She thinks it’s demeaning, insulting, that women resort to such tactics, that I resort to such tactics.  I hear her.  And sometimes even I find myself rolling my eyes and getting annoyed and disgusted when I see women doing it … but I do it, still.  Not all the time, but sometimes.  Yes.

Part of me feels a little sheepish about this, but part of me thinks, “Why not?”  If men are so foolish as to let themselves be taken in because of my voice, my smile, my breasts (yeah, let’s just put it out there … we all know what I’m talking about), whose fault is that?  And where’s the harm, really?  They get to feel all “manly,” whatever that means for them, and I get to walk away without breaking a sweat … or a nail.

Except there is harm, isn’t there?  Every time I smile pretty or use my girly voice or pretend not to notice some man directing his conversation at my chest instead of my face I’m making it harder for the next woman who walks up and has a question, for the next woman who becomes his supervisor or assistant and has to deal with the belief I’ve helped cement that women are helpless and needy or that we exist for his pleasure.


Fox will be happy to see that the light bulb’s finally gone on over my head, but I’m annoyed.  Do I have to be conscientious all the time?  Sometimes I really just want some guy to hold the door open or offer me his seat or put my suitcase on the overhead rack.  Is that so wrong?

SOL: This Is It

Oh come on, you know you want to be singing the song.

I went and stood in line this morning, trying hard to keep the big ol’ face-splitting smile on low.  How lovely was it to be voting in a predominantly black neighborhood today?

  • To see all those shades of the Diasporan rainbow coming out to cast their ballots.
  • To walk up to the school with a little group of elderly ladies who were glowing with the pleasure of getting to vote today.
  • To see everyone in such a great mood, chatting and laughing and, in one funny case, dancing in their joy of this day.
  • To see people taking their children into the booths.
  • To see one girl give her mother a big, exuberant hug when they came through the curtain.
  • To hear a little girl announce as she and her mom walked away from the booth, “I pulled it all by myself!”
  • To see so many very young, very new voters standing tall in line.
  • To see so many elderly African Americans making their way into the booths with canes, with walkers, with caregivers’ supporting arms.  “I wouldn’t have missed this for anything,” one woman told me.
  • My favorite was seeing a black man, maybe in his early 50s, step into the booth.  We heard that big lever slide over, heard the clicks of the small levers, and then we heard him shout “WooHoo!” as he pulled the big lever back and stepped out of the booth with a smile.

This has been a beautiful, emotional, ecstatic day.  I teared up many times, but my joy held the crying at bay.

Dig this:


I haven’t cried yet, but I can feel it coming.  When this thing is called …

Rod Stewart’s big in China. Who knew?

I have three Chinese students — Laila, Tom and Jessie. They are primarily in my class because they want to improve their English. Tom really doesn’t need his GED. He’s already got a year of university under his belt. Laila’s got a similar situation, but I’m not entirely clear about her. Jessie started his freshman year but then left to come to New York. They all need to build their vocabularies, to strengthen their pronunciation and to broaden their knowledge and understanding of American culture, but they don’t need GEDs. I don’t have any problem with having them in class, of course, because they are lovely and funny and smart, and they all get along with Josefina, which pleases me because other students kind of keep their distance from her.

The American culture thing shows up in the oddest ways. We were doing some math word problems the first week of class and one problem mentioned G.I. Joe. Jessie called me over. “What is this?” I told him it was toy, a doll who’s a soldier. He stared at the words on the page a moment longer. “People know this?” he asked. “It’s a pretty popular toy,” I said. And he shook his head and went back to work. I imaged that last head shake came from both bewilderment and frustration at the realization that, even if he could read the words, there was going to be a lot of stuff he just wouldn’t understand.

Tonight Tom brought some CDs to class to play during the break. When break started, I headed for the office (just on the other side of our thin classroom wall) to start collating and stapling handouts for our homework … and then I heard it: “I must’ve been through about a million girls/I’d love them and I’d leave them alone.” Yes, it’s the Elvin Bishop classic, Fooled Around and Fell in Love … as presented by none other than Rod Stewart.

Rod Stewart? Yes. And then there was Crazy Love, Love Hurts and even Bread’s Everything I Own. All sung by Rod Stewart. Really.

Maybe I shouldn’t be quite so shocked, but come on. Rod. Stewart.

I poked my head into the room. Laila, Jessie and Tom were rapt, quietly singing along. Jamila caught my eye and smiled. Desirée gave a tolerant shrug.

Tom reached for the volume knob. “Too loud?”

I assured him that it wasn’t loud at all, said I was just surprised by the selection.

“But I love this singer,” Tom said. Laila and Jessie nodded in support. “In China, he is so famous. His songs are all special, all with ideas about love.”

Ok, then. I’ll just shut my mouth … but it’s Rod If-You-Think-I’m-Sexy Stewart we’re talking about here. I am as caught off guard by this as by the news that Iraqis love Lionel Richie.

Yes. Of course. You’re right. Who doesn’t love Rod Stewart? But I’m talking old-school Rod, raunchy, Tonight’s-the-Night Rod. Not this crooning, I-put-out-an-album-of-standards Rod. Yes, yes. Of course I’m a snob. You didn’t know?

Tom, Jessie and Laila go back to their music. I go back to my office … singing Everything I Own under my breath … ’cause you know, who doesn’t love Bread?

I found the Everly Brothers version, but you know you were waiting for Nazareth:

And for you karaoke lovers …

Tom’s right, of course: full of ideas about love.