This fall, I volunteered with an organization whose goal is to empower and unite girls. I entered the term so pumped. I had visions of amazing discussions, close bonds of friendship, and giggling. I also felt like the years I have spent working with children (specifically girls) was ample training for a few hours every Monday.
Of course, I was wrong. It’s been a minute since I was in middle school, so I wasn’t ready for the girls I encountered. The first meeting, my partner and I couldn’t get their attention long enough to even play name games. Fifteen minutes from the end, one girl raised her hand and asked: “So what is this program, exactly?” I realized then that I had way more on my plate than I planned. The weeks that followed, I cried after almost every group and my heart rate was through the roof upon entering the school. Try everything became my motto. More games? More free time? More consequences? More debates? My partner and I were desperate to connect with the girls in a real way.
I wish I could say that we turned out like a pamphlet story: Girls are rough, leaders show them kindness, girls eventually soften, everyone is giving each other verbal affirmations and hugs at the end. However, the story did not pan out that way. But that’s alright! I got to look closely at how hard it is to be a twelve-year-old girl at a low-income school. At some point, I let go of the curriculum because I saw that these girls had so many big points of tension in their life that they had no capacity for truly caring about community action. Could I blame them? No.
I think this lesson is in there somewhere: give something of yourself to people that you know are not going to give back. It may be a little unhealthy emotionally, yes. But if you’re aware of that possibility, it is an amazing way to practice selflessness. The seeds will be planted by your words and actions. I still think about strong women in my life that gave me the gift of just being on my team, no questions asked. They are the heroes that inspired me to volunteer in the first place.
You know what is interesting? After three months of spending time telling girls to get off their phones, keep the conversation relevant, and journal about their ideas instead of writing the names of their boyfriends, I am signed up for another term. You know what is encouraging? A girl who came in during week eight and cried to my partner and I that she didn’t have any friends has signed up again too. I can only hope it’s because she knows she’s got an ally.
I wanted to end this on a lighter note, so here are some of the questions I was asked this term: “What contour kit do you use, Mary Emily?”* “Why aren’t there Meninists too?” “Are you a feminist?” “Will this affect my grade?”*** “Do we have to?” “I’m having a lot of feelings today, can I go out in the hall?”****
*I was not wearing makeup that day.
**We were asked this maybe three times a meeting. They seemed to think feminists were people that yell at you if you want to get married or have children.
***This was an after-school program that was not graded. They seemed to not believe me.
****I let her.