Gloria, Arianna, Kakenya and Me

02/17/2016 01:29 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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The National Coalition of Girls' School 2016 Global Forum on Girls' Education, Creating a World of Possibilities, took me to NYC last week. It was a conference full of hope and possibility; in some ways, the world has never felt smaller to me, headmistress of a girls' school in Ohio, connected to 900 other educators passionate about girls and education. As always, I think about what I can carry back to the girls in my school. How can inspirational keynote addresses affect the work we do at Laurel School?

Gloria Steinem opened the conference. Much of what she said pertained to the work she has done all her life on behalf of girls and women. At 81, she is articulate, elegant, the opposite of strident. I've admired Gloria since I was old enough to know who she was--journalist, activist. The girls' school from which I graduated in 1978 gave us copies of Ms. Magazine. We were proud, eager to be feminists. In the late 70s, convinced we were going to change the world, we understood that feminism was about equity. For my students, Gloria is a name, a relic. For me, she was and continues to be a beacon. Forty years later, Gloria is a touchstone, a living symbol of struggle and optimism. She's not giving up. I can't either.

Gloria (I use her first name on purpose because she insisted during the Q and A that she be addressed as Gloria) invited us to pretend we were sitting in a circle. The arrangement of an auditorium in which audience members see each other's backs and face the speaker is based on hierarchy rather than inclusion. She reminded us that the founding paradigm for Native Americans was a circle. There is no word for gender in Iroquois. As human beings, we are linked, not ranked. Linked not ranked. In our country, it seems all too easy to forget that white people are not superior to black people; that wealthy people are not superior to poor people. Man's inhumanity to man is built on the premise of rank, not on the concept of connection.

Gloria spoke epiphanies as if she were talking about the weather. Movements are not silo-ed--feminism, civil rights, environmentalism, she explained. They are all interwoven and are all linked, based on respect and equality. Whenever there is racism, females are more restricted. Restriction is the opposite of freedom. This resonates with me as the leader of a school that both seeks to empower young women and that prizes interdisciplinary thinking as essential in our curricular philosophy. It's our job to help girls understand the ways in which concepts are connected. Few ideas exist in isolation. But listening to Gloria, I find myself curious about our girls' understanding of the ways in which concepts are linked. Women continue to be paid less than men in the United States. Does that make girls angry? Do they wonder why that reality persists? Or do they not yet know enough about how economics and cultural norms can be braided?

When asked what advice she would offer young women, Gloria was unequivocal: Vote. It was children who got their parents to stop smoking, she reminded us. Young people serve as an important conscience for society. She suggested: "If you have more power than others, then you need to learn to listen. If you have less power, then you need to learn to talk. This may be hard; you may be used to hiding." This wisdom feels important. My mind travels back to my own school. I muse about the need to draw attention to patterns and be intentional about changing them. At Laurel, we want girls to claim their voices and change the world. Do we listen enough? Are there ways in which we can better encourage agency? risk-taking? Are they so focused on their futures that they neglect the present? Do we do all we can do to let laughter bubble up? Laughter, I heard Gloria explain in a talk she gave more than a year ago in Cleveland, cannot we compelled. It's authentic, unforced. She tells the crowd, "If you are part of a group that doesn't let you laugh, leave." I am lucky to lead a school where laughter is plentiful, shared. Listening for laughter is a good reminder for every teacher; even when girls are working hard, it's important to hold space for laughter.

At NCGS, Gloria challenged us to use technology on behalf of literacy, to unite rather than divide, but she reminded us, too, that empathy doesn't happen over a screen. Both Gloria and Arianna asked us to balance social media with all five senses. In closing her talk, Gloria counseled us to listen to each other, to behave as if everything we do matters. We must instill what we hope for in all we do. Little things turn out to be big. All great teachers know this, but I am glad to be reminded of impact, both that we predict and that which is unforeseen.

The next day, Arianna Huffington came out swinging about self-care and the importance of sleep. She urged us to keep our bedside tables sacred--a single flower, a candle, a real alarm clock, a real book. She excoriated us for taking better care of our iPhones than of ourselves, and I grimaced, knowing she is right, knowing that I was, in that very moment, concerned that my phone had little charge left. Where could I plug it in? When? When do we re-charge ourselves, she asked us. When will we change the starting time of school? At Laurel, we hope to begin a half hour later one day a week next year for our older girls, but that feels insufficient. We have so much work to do in terms of reorganizing school to encompass wellbeing for girls, but I am proud of what we have accomplished in getting girls to stop using their beds as command stations, in underlining the importance and value of sleep--even though they don't yet get enough of it.

Finally, educator and social activist Kakenya Ntaiya closed the conference with the story of her own remarkable quest for an education in Kenya, a quest that required tenacity and courage and a gutsy capacity for risk-taking that left me feeling awed and insignificant. Unstoppable, she came to college in the United States, earned her doctorate and has established a girls' school in Kenya, a job for which I have no qualifications, but in that moment, I wanted to race to a country where education for girls is not yet a given and get to work. Impractical to be sure, but that I, at 55, am still an idealist is a good thing; we need our capacity to dream, to possess the desire to effect change, to advocate for girls all over the world. And for the girls to know her story, to watch her TED talk and learn of her resilience, her activism and her advocacy for the girls of her country. If you can see it, you can be it, we tell them. I want them to see Kakenya.

When asked to whom she is passing the torch, Gloria Steinem answered she is not passing it. She is holding onto it to light more torches. That is the real work of education. To light the torches of those we teach, to inspire hope and optimism and possibility. And those are the words I take back to my girls. Listen. Hope. Persist. Care for yourself. Behave as if everything we do matters--because it does--for the girls in my own school. For all girls.