My good friend Janine Thoma and I trade book suggestions, and she highly recommended a biography called Gertrude Bell, Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations, by Georgina Howell. I had never heard of Bell, but her story should be required reading for every middle school girl. She did much more than her male counterpart, Lawrence of Arabia in mapping the arab deserts and in creating the state of Iraq back in the early 1900’s, yet Lawrence’s name is familiar to most people, while hers is not.
Bell’s is a story of someone who would not allow anyone to define who she was or what she could do. Back in a time when women were still wearing restrictive clothing and riding side-saddle, she became mountain climber, and conquered some of the most difficult mountains in Europe. Later, she fell in love with the deserts of Arabia, and explored the dangerous terrain on back of a camel, fending off warring Bedouin chiefs, and avoiding both the British and Turkish authorities, who forbade her to travel there. She was considered the leading authority on the situation in the Middle East and was an advisor to the British government at the outbreak of WWI.
Harvard psychologist Carol Gilligan researched the differences in how boys and girls learn, and published several books as early as the 1980’s advocating single sex education. Her rationale was that around middle school, girls go “underground” because they don’t want to appear too smart, and even the cleverest girls will feign ignorance in order to disappear.
Not that I was the cleverest girl, but I remember thinking that I would be more popular as an 8th grader if I acted like a dummy. My classmates started calling me Feeby, short for “feeble-minded” but I was the life of the party and the boys thought I was funny.
Now this might sound ridiculous, but I received further proof that girls were hanging out in the back seat when I was teaching 9th grade in Charlotte. I was a feminist and would have said that I gave my female students every advantage. A new teacher came to my school from Japan, however, and the principal asked me if she could observe my class. I had some very sharp girls in that class, and some squirrelly boys. I knew the girls were with me very step of the class, but the boys were not that engaged. To my surprise, at the end of the hour, the visitor asked me why I was ignoring the girls! I realized, thanks to her, that in order to keep the boys interested, I was asking their opinions far more often than I did the girls’. As a result, the girls were not included in the conversation, and the whole class suffered. I was horrified, and immediately turned my attention to the girls and came up with new strategies to keep everyone engaged, not just the boys.
I see Gertrude Bell as a metaphor for the need to live our lives fully, not allowing circumstances to discourage us. On the back of one of the new mugs in the shop, Andrea Freeman writes a line from Mary Oliver: “Listen- Are you breathing just a little and calling it life?”
Let Gertrude Bell inspire you to go out of your comfort zone today. Practice spreading your wings and fly.