My 7-year-old gets a lot of compliments on a T-shirt she has, a dark gray number announcing the word "feminist" in all-caps, the internal "mini" in hot pink. "Love your shirt!" she hears. "Yeah!" "Right on!" and "We need more of those!"
I totally agree. Let's hand out Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's We Should All Be Feminists with new car seats and call BS on the societal warp in which gender equality is somehow polarizing. There are youth baseball coaches to shame for shaming players for "running like a girl." And, if pamphleting's not our thing, Pinterest has a ton of "mini feminist" décor ideas.
But what if we do all this and our daughters' biggest takeaways are souvenir fashion statements? Surely the goal is not, "My mom went to Themyscira and all she brought me was this crappy T-shirt."
Below the banners and beneath the cuteness, there's something quieter and more urgent: the voice inside the kid inside the T-shirt.
When Sylvia, my daughter, is tearful and angry after being interrupted at dinner, it's worthy of attention. Sometimes, she actually isn't being interrupted; or she's responding to a time when she was, two nights ago. Sometimes, she seems absurdly dramatic. Sometimes, she's right on. Confining "reasonable" responses to a rational, linear timeline is not helpful here, even though it might* keep the evening routine on the prescribed track. (*No guarantees.) From her perspective, reasonable went out the window when we spoke over her voice.
Another moment, I sweep past her. "Mommy! Mommy!" she calls. We're in a rush, already late, juggling some combination of untied shoes, unbrushed teeth, last-minute outfit changes, delayed meal prep, a deadline, an appointment.
"What?" I snap, admonishing myself that I lost track of time/didn't monitor the kids closely enough/didn't untie their double knots the night before/forgot to empty the trash and/or thaw the chicken and frustrated that Sylvia and her brother are not helping.
"Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!" She's emphatic. About something. Maybe her socks?
"I'm listening," I say. I'm loading my bag. I'm running through my schedule.
Her words are one word: "Mommymommymommy!"
"Sylvia!" I say. "You're just saying 'mommy' over and over again! I'm listening! What do you want to say?"
"Mommy!" She stamps her foot, hands in fists.
What's most important right now is that I stop whatever I'm doing, right now, and take time to listen to her. Now. Argh! Parenting and mini-feminism are such time-sucks! Doesn't she know that parent-feminists are, like, super-busy all the time?!
But I know, of course, that making good on her T-shirt's promise begins with the hard work of slowing down and shutting up so that she has time and space in which to speak and be heard.
Last winter I taught Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, a play that tackles duplicity and the corruption of power, moral and secular justice, sexual harassment, double standards, and the bang-up cover-ups that privilege can command. It's like a 16th-century #MeToo moment, almost.
Oddly, it ends with the silence of its heretofore eloquent, outspoken heroine, to whom the Duke proposes marriage twice in Act V. Isabella, novice-nun-cum-compassion-advocate/near-rape-victim, doesn't respond. Nothing, both times. The Duke assumes. The audience assumes. The Duke invites everyone over. The end.
I ask students how they'd stage this. "What do you think Isabella would say? Is it important? What if the players held out just a bit longer to make time for her reply?"
What if? What if we actively listen just a bit longer? What if we don't discount her voice—or her silence—right off the bat?
This isn't just a feminist issue or an English teacher issue. It's a human issue: How can we value each other when we don't listen to each other? What is a story with only one side?
Like all teachers after the Parkland shooting, I received extra guidance about supporting students through traumatic events and civil disobedience. Always, the first step is this: Listen. Listen to their concerns, listen to their fears, listen to what they say and to the things that go unsaid.
In the rush of homework, grades, testing, clubs, sports, music, theater, camps, friends, meals, snacks, screen time, no-screen time, hygiene, and growing out of clothes with alarming speed, what kids need most is to feel and be heard. This is particularly true for girls, who often, still, are valued far less for their voices than their looks or the voices of boys with whom they associate, certain T-shirt slogans aside.
Perhaps more than saying, "Speak up!" our kids need us to listen—such a small, quiet, time-stopping act. We must first commit to listening before we can hear what someone says.
As hard as it can be to summon, this small act is key to how kids develop solid senses of self-efficacy and self-worth. Just as probably, the act of listening—of giving others the floor—is a keystone in arcs of social justice.
Perhaps the word-inside-the-word conceit is not all T-shirt flare after all. Its slick cleverness may hold serious structural value: "Mini" inside "feminist;" "Art" inside "earth;" the fact that "assume" really does make an "ass" out of "u" and "me."
Maybe the "ear" in "heart" is the central part of loving someone, whether it's my daughter or a friend, a woman or a man, people with whom I identify and people I may never know.
Among a newborn's fascinating tiny-nesses, ears stand out. I stared at my babies' ears for hours, watching light at their edges, whispering into them, fingertip-following their whorls. I've moved on to dirt and ear-wax investigations, but my children still ask for ear massages.
The other night, after Sylvia's interruption outrage, I cuddled her to sleep with an ear rub. I thought about messages she hears and wondered which she'll internalize and which won't stick. Her breathing grew heavy as my fingers traced the little labyrinths of her ears. I thought, this quiet core—this word at the center of heart—is really the mini in feminist.