A woman who was a mentor to me, my son and scores of others passed away last week at the age of 105. Every child growing up, I think, should have a person like this in his or her life. For many years, she was our church pianist and director of the youth choir. She strove always for excellence, and she demanded that the rest of us do everything “by the book.” As children, most of us looked upon her as a Holy Terror. As adults, we look upon her as a shining example of a superior human being that made the world a better place just by her presence in it.
My friend’s passing reminded me of all the women who played a role in helping me to make it into adulthood. Growing up female was always a special experience for me. I never remember being envious of boys. Certainly, I suppose, my oldest brother enjoyed certain privileges, such as accompanying my grandfather on his carpentry jobs, which we girls did not share. Even as a little boy, he had his own wheelbarrow and his own special tools. But none of us was interested in carpentry. My oldest sister enjoyed cooking, and she spent time with a next-door neighbor learning to improve her skills. Another sister was a budding artist who spent much of her leisure with her sketchbook. As a future writer, I had my own little space in the attic where I kept my tools and worked on my stories.
When I think about it, older women spent an incredible amount of time with me as a child. First, there was my Sunday School teacher who gave me private lessons. She also attempted to teach me to play the piano, but her husband played jazz piano, which I found infinitely more exciting than the hymns she wanted me to practice. Unfortunately, her husband played by ear and couldn’t teach me, so, in spite of her efforts, I lost my chance to be a musician. This woman was still there for me when I grew up and moved back to the city and took a job. I lived with her until I moved into my own apartment.
Then there was my dance teacher, who also taught us how to walk and sit. There was my home economics teacher, who chaperoned our girl’s club in her spare time. She taught us how to set the table for formal dinner parties, the proper placement and use of table ware and special ways to fold napkins. She taught us how to plan activities, send out invitations and the importance of RSVPs and thank-you notes.
These were the days when individual women and women’s clubs were deeply involved in the education of young girls and assisted parents in making sure women had the necessary skills to earn a living. I was lucky enough to earn a place with a businesswoman who operated an employment agency. She chose two candidates a year to train in clerical skills after which she would help them secure a job. In addition to the training, she paid us a small stipend. My sister had been chosen a few years earlier, and I was thrilled that I, too, had the opportunity.
When I read news stories about the growing number of incidents involving young women in committing acts of violence against other young women, it reinforces my belief that the education of girls in this society is sorely neglected. What should be a glorious period in their lives apparently is being squandered on high-speed escalation into early adulthood. In reality, as well as on television, we see parades of empty-faced young females whose interests seem totally focused on their bodies. Many mothers, who really should know they are selling their daughters short, seem to be their greatest prompters.
This is an issue of which many parents of my acquaintance are in denial. According to them, these girls are “just going through a stage.” Unfortunately, for many of the girls, this “stage” will inflict the kind of damage on their psyches from which they might never recover.
Somehow during the teenage years so many girls seem to drift into adult behavior. Perhaps its getting the car at 16 and then getting the job. That could be the problem. But for some, by the time they enroll for college, they are already jaded and old hands at the ways of the world.
Most of us hear it several times a week: It’s not the children that are at fault when acts of school violence and other tragedies involving the young occur; it’s the parent’s fault. But it’s also easy to see how pressured parents are these days when faced with so many financial and other kinds of problems. However, somewhere along the way, somebody is going to have to take a stand. In bygone days, adults seemed to always understand the buck stopped with them.
I’ll always be grateful to my mentors for helping me learn the right and wrong of things. And because of them, even today, I live with the expectation that the next person I meet will be someone who can teach me something I don’t know.
Most of the time, I succeed.
You can join the conversation with Rose M. Nolen by calling at 882-5734 or e-mailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org.