Helping Girls Become Fearless: Encouraging Courage and Grit

Why does "extra-help" feel like punishment for smart girls?

Posted Aug 03, 2020

As a girl, I worried about everything all the time.

I wish I could tell you a different story. I wish I could tell you that I stood up for myself and championed others even as a kid, but instead I spent an endless amount of time cringing and feeling anxious, hoping to avoid challenges.

My only wish was to disappear, especially in math class.

My grades in English and social studies were always good, but I kept almost failing math and science. It wasn’t for lack of trying. I was kept after school for what was called “extra help” in those subjects but it didn’t feel like help; it felt like punishment.

A big part of my self-definition came from pleasing my teachers and I felt as if I was deliberately letting them down when I simply couldn’t master long division in fourth-grade.

The fact that I consistently transpose numbers wasn’t something that either my teachers or I noticed. I simply failed and thought of myself as incompetent when it came to math, and anything related to numerals of any kind.

Indeed, nobody would notice the odd, unconscious habit until a financial advisor made light of the issue some 30 years later when I had mixed up the numbers on my tax forms.

The shock of relief I felt when my accountant told me what I’d been doing was life-changing.

I was ridiculously happy to discover that I’ve had, since childhood, what is essentially a kind of dyslexia-with-numbers whereby I automatically reverse the first two digits of any numerical combination. Learning this made sense of many of my life’s foibles (I never got people’s phone numbers right on the first try; mail was often returned to me because I’d addressed it incorrectly; nobody ever asked me to figure out how to split the bill) and allowed me to defend, in my heart, the girl who was kept after school. She was doing her best.

Other things in childhood felt like punishment as well, even if they didn’t carry that official designation. Coming from a working-class family, I wore shabby and unfashionable clothes and was ashamed of the clipped bangs and bowl cut provided by an aunt who’d worked in a beauty parlor before she got married.

The courageous and dynamic women who caught my attention helped me begin to imagine what life might be like.

And here I show my age: I was born in 1957 and music shaped my idea of what a woman's life looked like.

I wanted to be as brave as the singers I admired. I wanted to be Janis Joplin, but she was too sad to emulate; I wanted to be Joni Mitchell but she was too pretty to imitate; I wanted to be Grace Slick, Patti Smith, and Debbie Harry but they were all too cool for anybody to even think of being like them.

I was in high school when I started to find my own courage and overcome my sense of trepidation about life, but that sense of confidence and fearlessness came at a cost.

I grew up fast and not on purpose. My mother became ill and I had to look after her. She died during my junior year. My father was a devoted parent, but he worked long days and couldn’t look after the day-to-day life of a teenager.

There was nothing to do but look after myself. I learned to stop waiting for someone else to provide comfort, or solace, or apologies. I stopped depending on anyone—parent, family member, teacher, boyfriend, or friend—to define who I was or who I might become.

As I accepted the need to think about my future and map my own destiny, I also started thinking about ways that women—not only me but all women—had for too long permitted others to define our lives.

Ranging all the way from allowing the government to rule on our health care and reproductive freedom to the simple way we’d learned not to rely on our own judgment in small matters, we’d been told that others knew better, that the world had always worked a certain way and some things couldn’t change, and that we’d learn to relax as we slid into conventional femininity.

Women are told, repeatedly and with authority, that we don’t know what’s best for us. The lingering effects of those early and destructive childhood lessons are that girls distrust our own instincts, insights, and wishes.

For the last hundred years, every generation of women has made the road easier for the girls behind to follow. The women who paved the way for us did it through their own fearlessness, making sure that women got the vote, could use birth control, could legally terminate an unwanted pregnancy, could choose children or choose childlessness, could choose being single or life with a partner, and we've shown courage in maintaining and widening those choices for the young women facing their futures now.

Yet we’re not done: rights need to be defended even after they are won.  

No girl should curtail her ambitions, skills, or energy. Or be defined by an outsider’s version of herself—because somebody thinks she’s not up to the challenge. 

Here’s to a fearless future.