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Smart Girls

I recently completed a three-week writing workshop for college bound students at the Fresh Air Fund. Since 1877, The Fresh Air Fund, a not-for-profit agency, has provided free summer experiences in the country to more than 1.8 million New York City children from low-income communities. That’s their mission statement. But they are much, much more. Not exactly in loco parentis, but in parentis amplified, an extended family and a second home.

All told there were six smart and beautiful young women (no boys for some reason) who expressed interest—Lissette, Tia, Kashanda, Jalilah, Tia, and Diana. I want to name them here because their intelligence, poise, and determination are noteworthy, and I want to encourage them as much as possible. Obligation and weekend jobs—we met on Saturday afternoons in the Fund’s offices—interrupted attendance to some extent, but with email, text and FB friendship, we somehow made up the difference. I thought of them throughout our time together with great pleasure and admiration because these smart girls—and I will say it over and over again—don’t come from the same privilege as my NYU graduate students. Yet, they are privileged in other ways, first and foremost their connection to the Fresh Air Fund itself.

“Why are fanatics so terrified of a girls’ education,” asks Nicholas Kristof in his article in this week’s New York Times Sunday Review. And his answer: “Because there is no force more powerful to transform a society.”

Kristof is discussing the kidnapping of the smart girls in Nigeria, but the issues he raises are pertinent to every girl’s education, even in the United States. Girls often still have more domestic responsibilities than boys, and may not be expected to continue their education. It’s the glass ceiling at the microcosmic family level. The Fresh Air Fund college-bound mentoring program re-establishes the balance between family expectation, potential, and realistic aspiration.

I returned home from a Mother’s Day weekend with my smart daughter to find a package waiting for me. The smart girls had written me eloquent thank you notes and sent me a Fresh Air Fund mug. The mug is great, of course--useful and elegant-- but the well written messages were sensational. Any teacher knows how it feels to be thanked for inspiring her students and teaching them well. But our students also become our teachers. My heart is full of gratitude for what these smart girls have taught me, and in such a short time.  Read More 
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