Teachable Moments

Last weekend I won a Wonder Woman poster at a local fundraiser. My son suggested I put it up in his dad’s office – hehe.

But this would only up Juan’s cool factor. Female superheroes are in, and growing in popularity. Two female characters with key roles in recent movies, Wonder Woman (played by Gai Gadot) in Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice and the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) from the Marvel Comics film series, are so in demand that upcoming movies starring their characters are in production now.

I haven’t seen it but the character Supergirl stars in her own TV series too. Fangirls can now get comic books, Barbie-like action figures and even a Lego kit of these characters. 

I’m happy little girls are saving the world in their play. In retrospect, my comic book role models were tame, Veronica and Betty. I think they mostly rode around in Archie’s red convertible. 

You know I saw Batman vs Superman and I loved Wonder Woman too. In an interview with the LA Times, Gadot shared the inside scoop behind a telling Wonder Woman moment in the film. (Spoiler alert: Skip to the next section if needed as I’m going to reveal some plot).

Just before a fight with supervillain Doomsday, Wonder Woman smirks, a confident quick smile that Gadot improvised. When the director questioned her, did you just smile?, she explained,

"[Yes]. Well if [Doomsday's] gonna mess with her, then she's gonna mess with him. And she knows she's gonna win….At the end of the day Wonder Woman is a peace seeker. But when fight arrives, she can fight. She's a warrior and she enjoys the adrenaline of the fight."

This is not a Veronica/Betty role model.

External Events Were Changing
I used to assume that being a fighter, a proponent for my own identity and future, was an outcome of the women’s movement and my formative years of young adulthood. It’s true that efforts to correct the imbalance of women’s opportunities were frequently in the headlines. For instance, Title IX, passed into legislation in 1972, opened up more high school and collegiate athletic competition for girls and women. Another example: In 1974 a new law enabled women to get their own credit cards (but not own their own houses).

As New York Times reporter Gail Collins chronicles in her book, When Everything Changed, this legislation had been preceded by decades of work for women’s progress of course. While previously there had been a number of amazing individual women that had managed to enter male-dominated occupations, in the 1970s, women started to achieve critical mass. By the end of the ‘70s, 1 in every 4 med school students were female and 1 in 3 in law school.  Also in the 1970s women started to apply to join trade unions where the pay was much higher than nonunion jobs.

As a young adult, the trickle of news stories began to color my perception of both the opportunities and potential headwind in my future. Mary Tyler Moore, Clair Huxtable, Madonna and more – all were public personas that demonstrated breaking through opportunity barriers with humor, grace, intelligence and brashness. It would take a long time for me to figure out what I stood for and what I stood against. But, whether fictional or not, these women – and others -- set new precedents of womanhood to measure myself against.

These examples were from the outside world. Yet, so often when we’re presented with a different picture of reality, we personalize it – Is this my experience? Is this my truth? – in order to test the idea. Private, personal experiences create our initial sense of reality. They set a compass that helps us navigate questions. For me, should I be a warrior or peace-seeker? If I was to struggle, what exactly was I struggling against? To begin to answer questions like these it helps to have a true north. The first people to point out a true north, not surprisingly, were my parents.

Let me give you three examples of their direction. The first one is an action-packed sequence that starred…my mom.

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  Lots of teachable moments from the kindergarten teacher and college professor dynamic duo

Lots of teachable moments from the kindergarten teacher and college professor dynamic duo

Samurai Mom
Now my mom is a notably gracious, kind person. As a parent she had an authority that rarely needed a raised voice. She was inventive, cheerful and worked as a kindergarten teacher. She kept a steady hand on two rambunctious classrooms during the day and a cool head over a rowdy family of six at night. Yet, there is an image of my mom that disputes this serene picture. Each year around Mother’s Day I tend to recall a scene from my childhood.

We four kids are lounging around watching TV one lazy Saturday afternoon. It’s mid-spring when the trees have leafed out in fresh green, songbirds exuberantly sing, and nestlings are starting to hatch. In fact, my parents had spotted a nest from their second floor bedroom window, and just that morning we’d each quietly taken a delighted turn to peer at new baby birds – eyes bright, beaks open -- from the bedroom.  

Scooby Doo had just returned from a commercial break when Mom abruptly sprints into the room. Chairs topple over; she skids on the rug! Brandishing a broom like the sword of a samurai warrior, Mom sails the long handle over our heads, my kid brother Dan just barely ducking in time. “Out of the way!” Mom cries out, whips open our sliding backdoor and bounds outside. 

Dumbfounded, scrambling, we leap up too and dash to the door. There is mom, using the broom like a club, wildly beating at a black snake that had curled itself around a tree trunk. The snake had thought it was headed for a supper of baby birds. Now the snake hung precariously -- half along the trunk, the other half in a dangly swing -- the broom whacking away at its body until it wisely drops, quickly slithering away. Mom stands panting, eyes blazing.

I am wide-eyed. Here is an entirely new view of my mother. I stare at her:  Mom, broom warrior, protector of nestlings!

I am impressed.

Perhaps I could be a warrior too?

Now fast forward to my teenage years for the second example. One year I spent some of my summer earnings to subscribe to the teen magazine, Seventeen, harbinger of cool for 15-year-olds. I looked forward to each issue, pouring over the fashion ideas on how to be attractive to boys and advice columns on being a good girlfriend. Late one afternoon I remember walking by my dad’s desk and, glancing down, spotted a brand new issue of my magazine... in the trash can. Outraged, I scooped up the magazine and stormed out to confront him, “Dad! What is my magazine doing in your trash?!” He paused, and then looked me in the eye. “That magazine is all about finding a boyfriend,” he said, “Aren’t you interested in more than that?”

 Was that a trick question?

A handful of years later the flip side of this coin got tossed. Another memory, this time after I’d started college, when I’d decided to volunteer at a local women’s crisis shelter. Naive and inexperienced with the sad picture of domestic violence, I was shaken by the encounters with tired, bruised women and children, arriving at the center at all hours of the night. Awkward, fumbling over what to say or how to respond to the women, some younger than me, I reacted by gradually becoming angry, increasingly growing upset with the invisible men that had caused the families harm.

One evening during a family dinner, seething, I unleashed my anger, berating men that were violent and then railing against men in general. Easily 20 minutes of nonstop vitriol. Finally, when I started to slow down, and when he could get a word in, Dad protested, “Well, I hope you don’t hate all men. I mean, not all men are bad.” Then, quietly, “I don’t think I’m bad.”

Such a small comment. I doubt I was calm enough to let him know it registered. But there it was:  a nudge to arrest the thoughts of anger and emotion long enough to see that I’d leapt to a generalization about all members of a group. Injustice could not be answered by injustice.

Teachable Moments
Spontaneity and unrehearsed words made small adjustments to my compass. In unpremeditated “teachable moments” my parents nudged my worldview to consider ideas beyond convention:  seeing that moms can be warriors, challenging ideas from the media, and arresting dark thoughts of anger and emotion before they go too far.  This spirit of challenging assumptions is a gift.

And so the spirit of this blog is similar. In everything we do we believe in pushing through boundaries and the edges of limitation. We believe the way to push through boundaries is to share ideas and stories. Perhaps you have a teachable moment that’s served as a marker for you? Please feel free to share it via Comments or in an email if you’d like.

I’ve continued to align and realign my compass over the years. One way to keep the alignment true has been through helping my kids navigate their own paths and to try to be an honest example. As my parents did for me, I want them to know that I believe in and love them. That there are times to be a warrior and times to be a peace-seeker. That their opportunities are boundless and unlimited.

Every now and then you learn whether your example is making a difference. Let me share one instance in this last story.

Two generations of Wonder Women

Two generations of Wonder Women

About twenty years ago now, late one evening came a moment of truth. Our daughter Cristina was in grade school and I was tucking her in. I sat on the edge of her bed and we talked quietly. She shared an attic bedroom with her brother who had already fallen asleep across the room. Outside in a nearby pond frogs croaked a steady comforting rhythm and we could see the moon, half shrouded by a meandering cloud, through the slanted dormer window above her bed. 

“Mommy,” Cristina said dreamily, “I know what I want to be when I grow up…”
I leaned forward, “Yes, honey?”

“… a secretary.”
I froze. My thoughts abruptly spun. “What?!! Oh no! I’ve failed! What about my promises? She could be whatever she wanted! President. Astronaut. General…”
“I just love to talk on the phone,” she sighed. 

OK. OK. I can live with that. Communication is good.  

Wonder Woman Cristina. She is a peace-seeker warrior. And another role model for me.

Thank you for reading!