Girl Power

medieval times field trip

It’s mid-third quarter of this school year and I am knee-deep teaching two novels set in England nearly six hundred years apart. The 7th grade is reading Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman, the diary of a girl in medieval times during the reign of Edward I, covering the span of one year of her life, 1290-1291. My 8th grade literature class is reading The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle which is set in 1889. Even though I’ve read both books many times, I was struck anew this year when the class discussions in both 7th and 8th grades turned to the roles and rights of women during those time periods. Inevitably the comparison was made to the roles and rights of women today, this being an election year with Hillary Clinton appearing to be the nominee for the Democratic Party. If that happens, and if she is successful, she will be the first woman president of the United States of America. In the year 2016.

catherineKaren Cushman used her research skills and knowledge of the Middle Ages to craft her first book, which was awarded the Newberry Honor in 1995. Catherine is the only daughter of a domineering country knight who has decided in September of 1290 that Catherine is of marrying age, although she is not yet fourteen, which always draws gasps from my 7th grade girls. She resists being betrothed against her wishes with all her might and successfully chases off suitor after suitor, until finally she must use the acceptance of a betrothal to someone she despises as a bargaining chip to win something she desires even more, the freedom of a bear who has been kept in captivity and abused for entertainment at a village fair.

fishing for vocab

7th grade girls “fish” for vocab from the Middle Ages

Throughout the book as she runs from being promised to a man that she does not love and does not wish to marry, she dreams of being someone or something else: a villager, a Jewish boy traveling out of England, Perkin the goat boy, her Uncle George the crusading knight, a sausage maker, a monk like her brother Edward who copies holy books in the scriptorium of the abbey. An old Jewish woman admonishes her, “Little Bird, in the world to come, you will not be asked ‘Why were you not George?’ or ‘Why were you not Perkin?’ but ‘Why were you not Catherine?’” It is sound advice, for the time period, as it is not possible for Catherine to be “Catherine” because she does not wish to be the subservient daughter of a not-so-wealthy knight who has to spend her days spinning and sewing and doctoring, and in the end be married off to a stinky, smelly old man just because her father says so.

HoundThe Hound of the Baskervilles is set during the reign of Queen Victoria, who did much to expand her realm so that “the sun never sets on the British empire”. She made an enormous impact on almost every facet of British society from parenting to entertainment, from religion to fashion, from the etiquette of eating to the etiquette of mourning. Yet, the roles and rights of women had not progressed that far from Catherine’s time. The story revolves around an ancient curse against the heirs of Baskerville Hall, who all die mysterious deaths. The origin of the curse is the story of Sir Hugo Baskerville, who kidnaps a young maiden from her father’s farm on the moor and takes her back to Baskerville Hall. She escapes and he promises that he would “that very night render his body and soul to the Powers of Evil if he might but overtake the wench” but instead he is attacked by a “giant beast of a hound” and has his throat torn out. The “coming of the hound” has plagued the family ever since, from the time of the Great Rebellion (1642-1651) until the present day setting of the novel, 1889.

manuscriptThe legend itself was documented in a manuscript dated 1742 and written by Sir Hugo Baskerville, a scion of the evil Sir Hugo. It contained the origin of the legend along with the warning to not go on the moor at night for fear of a reprisal of the attack of the hound of the Baskervilles. It was written specifically for his sons, Rodger and John, with instructions “that they say nothing to their sister Elizabeth”. Poor girl, my 8th grade students bemoaned, she was to know nothing of the family curse, she was not to be warned about going on the moor at night? I explained to them that a girl in 1742 would not have gone anywhere without a male escort, certainly not at night, and certainly not on the moor. She would not have had the freedom her brothers enjoyed, and she would not be the target of the curse as she would never be able to inherit anything of the Baskerville estate.

downtonAh, England, and their archaic rules of inheritance. Fast forward to 1912 and Season One of Downton Abbey (let us pause in a moment of silence as this majestic series comes to an end-in America, that is-next Sunday, March 6,  2016), where we learn that the future heir of Downton who is also to be the future husband of the oldest daughter, Lady Mary, dies tragically aboard the Titanic. Thus launches the conflict for the entire series: no male heir for Downton, no money for the three daughters to inherit as it is all part of an entail created when their American millionairess mother married Lord Robert Grantham and saved him from being an aristocratic pauper.

law school men to womenIn both 7th and 8th grade classes these discussions ran their normal course, talking about how girls today can grow up to be whatever they want to be, right? I noted that one girl’s dad is an architect but so is her mom. Another girl’s dad is a Ph.D. but her mom is a medical doctor. One of our career day speakers was a man who is a biomedical engineer but another speaker was a woman who is a chemical engineer. Times have changed. Women can pursue any field of study they desire. In 1980, I was a freshman at LSU Law School, and I was one of only five girls in my section of 75 students. Today the percentage of women to men enrolled in law school has increased drastically, 47.8% women to 52.2% men for the 2012-2013 Academic Year.

hillaryHowever, we have yet to elect a woman as leader of America, to serve as Commander in Chief. Will this be the year? Could Hillary Clinton in fact be the one to take a hammer to that glass ceiling of the White House? From all outward appearances, it seems that she has what it takes. She has been brutal in the debates, taking all the blows on the chin and returning fire. She has the right credentials: First Lady of both the State of Arkansas and the United States, Senator of New York, Secretary of State. She has a brilliant legal mind and is a compelling public speaker. She is not my candidate of choice, because I cannot stand by her pro-choice beliefs, I don’t think she has always been entirely truthful, and I don’t admire her “stand by my man” policies either.

girls at lunchBut, she has played the cards dealt to her each step along the way, and she has played them well; and even though she lost the Democratic nomination in 2008, she did not give up. She took full advantage of a great education and has used every single opportunity and life experience to further her own ambitions in pursuit of her goals. THAT is the lesson America’s young girls of today need to take heed of. Work hard. Study hard. Take calculated risks. Never give up. You are not Catherine or Lady Mary. You can be whatever you want to be. Girl power.

October: A Libra’s Day in the Sun

Libra Scales of JusticeI am a Libra. I’m not really into horoscopes or astrology, but a brief research of my “sign” reveals it fits me like a glove. The sun sign of Libra covers those born between September 23 and October 22, and is represented by the scales, symbolized by the Scales of Justice held by Themis, which is the Greek personification of divine law and custom. Some of the adjectives and attributes I found are ones I know describe me: artsy, talkative, diplomatic but likes to win, people-person, lazy if not engaged in something interesting, and sometimes fickle and indecisive. My family can attest to that last one…as they are able to recount many examples of this, such as the struggle to decide what color Kindle to buy (between black and white, why was that so hard?), and then, oh my, the decision for what Kindle cover to buy.  And, I do love to win, also well documented in everything from Scrabble to cards to Jeopardy questions. The lazy thing is not something I’m particularly proud of, and while I can work circles around anyone when I am actually at work, lack of motivation can get the best of me on the weekends.

my favorite color is octoberThe eternal question is of course am I all of this because I am a Libra or am I picking and choosing buzzwords from various descriptions of Libras that best describe who I say I am, of who I think I am? Long before I knew what a zodiac sign was or before I could “identify” as any of these attributes, I had my mind set on becoming a lawyer, with those scales of justice as my personal mascot. All four years of high school and all four years of college were spent thinking about this goal. My college major didn’t really matter; I was going to law school, so as long as it was something in the humanities I would be fine. I wouldn’t need to rely on that degree for employment because I would be practicing law. When I didn’t get into law school, I went to work in a law firm, working my way up from receptionist to legal secretary to paralegal. I traveled to courthouses and did title work for real estate transactions and oil and gas leases. acorn storageI organized files, maintained law libraries, interviewed prospective clients, drafted briefs and memoranda, and annotated and summarized depositions. I learned a lot about mortgages, real estate transactions, collections, bankruptcies, adoptions, divorces, personal injury, and medical malpractice. Eventually, on my third try, and with the help of a family friend, I was admitted into law school, but lasted only one semester. Back to work in law firms, back to the scales of justice, eventually becoming quite proficient at drafting and negotiating lease agreements for commercial real estate, where I spent fourteen years attempting diplomacy while always looking to win on each and every point being argued.

puccini at playWhatever the reason, October has always been my favorite month. Yesterday, while out walking the dog with my husband, I stopped to enjoy the beautiful fall colors of the landscape around our neighborhood. With the cool, crisp breeze and the clear, bright sky, I couldn’t help but think how much I love October. In true BuzzFeed fashion, I started thinking about the top reasons I love October, and being an English teacher, the image of an acrostic poem popped into my head. cropped acrosticI know I won’t be in the running for the Pulitzer in Poetry, but it does capture the essence of October for me.

After a long hard winter and a spring that seemed to sprint past us, we endured a hot summer. Then, it’s back-to-school season, and I am immediately saddled with grading summer reading assignments while trying to get to know my new 7th graders and helping my 8th graders buckle up for their very busy last year of middle school. Just when I feel as though I can catch my breath and ease into a good routine of school life, fallen leavesOctober rolls around. Even with the later sunrises and earlier sunsets, the days are just so much more pleasant. The crisp, cooler temperatures and beautiful fall colors seem to work their magic in easing away stress and tension. The promise of holidays is just around the corner but the crazy frenzy of those holidays still seems far off.

And, naturally, October 11th rolls around and because of its proximity to Columbus Day; I almost always get a three-day weekend to commemorate my birthday! If I’m lucky, decoupage leafthe temperatures will have dropped and I can pull out a favorite sweater to wear for my birthday dinner out at a favorite restaurant. Growing up in southeast Louisiana meant that I never owned an overcoat until I moved to Washington, DC, in 1988. Every year just before school started, my Aunt Helen would take me shopping in New Orleans and buy me a few back-to-school outfits. I distinctly remember those outfits, particularly a black and tan striped sweater and black “gauchos”.

pumpkin and pelicanFall weather also brings to the dinner table root vegetables and soups. I could eat soup every day. There used to be a small restaurant next door to the courthouse in Baton Rouge called Soupçon, which had a very limited menu that changed daily. Written on a sandwich board outside the restaurant were the choices of the day: soup du jour, salade du jour, and sandwich du jour. Whenever I was assigned work in that courthouse I ate there every day, where I tried whatever soup was on the menu: cream of carrot, pasta e fagioli, Italian wedding soup, and of course, Louisiana favorites like chicken and sausage gumbo or shrimp and corn soup.

colorful leavesOctober is also the month of the rosary and for Catholics this is a treasured devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Appearing multiple times before three shepherd children in Portugal, Mary asked the children to pray the rosary. The apparitions began May 13, 1917, and ended on October 13, 1917, which is the date that the Catholic Church commemorates the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary. I grew up with the rosary and watching my mother pray the rosary before Mass every single Sunday. The Hail Mary was the first prayer she taught me and it is the first and last prayer I say each day of my life. During some of my darkest moments, spending hours in hospital rooms and sleeping in chairs in ICU waiting rooms, the rosary was a constant comfort to me. The words of my cousin Anna from Scotland became somewhat of a mantra for me, “Our Lady will not let us down.” So, I prayed, and it is that prayer that sustained and comforted me during her surgeries, illnesses, recoveries, and eventually, her death. living rosaryLast week, on the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, before first period, my school said the Living Rosary, where students represent each bead of the rosary, all standing in the outline of a rosary, spread out across the auditorium. As each prayer is said the student sits and passes the microphone to the next “bead”. The rest of the school is seated by class, all following along on their individual rosaries, reciting the rosary quietly in their place. What a way to start the day! I am truly blessed to be able to experience this in my work life.

pretty colorsAnd so, my love of October continues year after year. As much as I love spring and the promise of rebirth, as much as I love summer which now to me means time off from work, October and fall will always be my favorite time of the year. As I know my words have not done it justice, I will close with the words of someone far mightier with the pen than I.

“October”

by Robert Frost

 O hushed October morning mild,

Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;

Tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild,

Should waste them all.

The crows above the forest call;

Tomorrow they may form and go.

O hushed October morning mild,

Begin the hours of this day slow.

Make the day seem to us less brief.

Hearts not averse to being beguiled,

Beguile us in the way you know.

Release one leaf at break of day;

At noon release another leaf;

One from our trees, one far away.

Retard the sun with gentle mist;

Enchant the land with amethyst.

Slow, slow!

For the grapes’ sake, if they were all,

Whose leaves already are burnt with frost,

Whose clustered fruit must else be lost—

For the grapes’ sake along the wall.