This is hard to confess, too: I am no badass.
Passing 50 (the age, not the speed limit), I am much more badass than ever before, but I am still stifled by the "good girl" label. (Read this article -- I think most of you will know just what I mean.)
I can write a pretty badass letter, but then have to edit it, good-girl style.
I know the badass thing to do when it comes to injustice and intolerance and have been known to take a stand and call people out on their bad behavior. But then I feel bad -- I am a genius at the apology/"I'm sure you had your reasons for your bad behavior" note.
But here is the most embarrassing confession of all: I was afraid to be smart.
Oh, not from the beginning. I was one of those kids with my hand up all the time, like Hermione up there. I always had an answer, and usually it was the right one. It felt so good to know stuff.
I knew how to read the newspaper before I went to kindergarten. I don't know that I was advanced or gifted -- I just know my dad wanted to be sure I could spell my last name (which was phonetically difficult at 13 letters long) before I started school. Sitting down at the kitchen table with him and sounding out words was the best part of my day, every day. I learned to love letters, words and sentences, and was soon reading everything I could, from cereal boxes to McGuffey Readers to the Little House books to the dictionary.
And so when I went to school, I continually flung my hand into the air as soon as I had an inkling of the answer to my teachers' questions.
My teachers were the first ones I wore out.
On my kindergarten report card, Mrs. H wrote, "Georgie knows a lot about a lot of things, but she needs to learn to keep her ideas to herself."
But that didn't stop me, as my dad thought it was fantastic that I knew a lot about a lot.
In first grade, my beloved Miss Wilson regularly taped my mouth closed.
But that didn't stop me. Although she used the tape to keep me quiet during class, she also directed me to the greatest books and encouraged me to read, read, read.
I loved to learn, I loved telling people how dad had taught me all these fascinating things -- how plants worked, why the Indians made arrowheads, all the capitals of all the states -- and I loved to show everyone just how smart I was.
Until the other kids started making fun of me. That stopped me.
I don't know if we called them bullies in 1968, but we would today. Back then, I thought of bullies as boys (and only boys) who would knock down other boys and stand around and belittle them; there seemed to be a lot of bullying on my school bus, which would send our bus driver, Mr. Nobbe, into a rage -- he scared the bejeebers out of me on the bus, although he was a friend of my dad's and a very nice guy away from the bus.
But my bullies were girls. Girls who seemed to get a lot of joy in calling me "teacher's pet" and "smarty pants." Each year it got a little worse, because I didn't say anything back -- I was hoping that if I didn't argue with them, maybe they would accept me into their popular clique. Yeah, that didn't happen. When I got my glasses in 3rd grade I was immediately dubbed "4 eyes," "Miss Weirdo" and they said my glasses were goofy, which I would have believed, if it weren't for the fact that my glasses made everything better, especially looking at trees, cross stitch and reading. (I think I was the only girl to have glasses until the 5th grade.) The next year, my grandma made me the cutest dress -- black and white plaid wool, short sleeves, white peter pan collar and a little red bow at the neckline. I loved that dress, and boasted to the girls in my class about how my grandmother had made it for me.
"Eww. A homemade dress," one of the girls sneered, turning up her nose.
I never wore that adorable dress again. (Years later, mom told me how badly that had hurt my grandma's feelings. Of course, I apologized.)
I think that's when I started covering up my smarts. I let other kids answer, and tried hard not to correct them when they were wrong.
And then I started thinking about boys. And everyone knows, if you want a boyfriend in the 5th grade, you can't be smarter than he is. So I started dumbing down in class.
Sitting on my hands as my arm twitched in the desire to fling itself up.
Lowering my head and pursing my lips when someone gave a wrong answer.
Hoping to be considered less brainac and more girlfriend material.
Pretending I just didn't know.
But I knew.
I never landed an elementary school boyfriend. But I kept holding back; by now, the regular barbs and snotty comments (and, in the 8th grade, comments on my body shape written all over my campaign posters for class vice president) diminished me, making me unsure of myself and unaware of my true worth.
And that, for want of a smarter word, sucks. I don't want any other girl to ever feel that way -- my own girls, the girls in our little school, the girls in my town. The girls anywhere.
I am happy to report that the bullies didn't finish me. I survived middle school, high school, college and life after developing some deep and abiding friendships with strong women (and men), and with the constant encouragement of my mom and dad. I'm still a little afraid to be smart now and then, but have learned that smarts are a gift that needs to be appreciated, developed and shared. When someone compliments my writing/music/art/craftiness, I have learned to say, "Thanks, I read/practice/pay attention a lot," instead of doing the "Ah, shucks, it's nothing" nonsense.
To me, one of the most important things in the world right now is empowering girls to throw their hands into the air and give the world answers. To not listen to the bullies and their lies. To understand their own potential. To know that they can change the world.
And the best way to empower girls is to educate them -- research shows that educated girls and women can help reduce poverty, child mortality and the risk of HIV infection. I'd say that's worth educating girls, wouldn't you?
And the best way we can educate them is to use our own smarts -- write letters, sign petitions, make a donation, see a movie.
I'm hoping to bring a screening of Girl, Rising -- a film about educating girls and changing the world -- here to my home town. Watch this trailer -- I'm fairly sure you will want to go to the movies with me:
We just can't let the bullies win. Be a badass for for your sisters.
I know my dad would approve.