Saturday, November 12, 2016

Hillary, Hermione, and Us

When I was in fourth grade, I loved playing Around the World. This was the game we played, usually on Fridays, in which one student stood behind another's desk, the two students shouted out the answer to a math problem--delivered by the terrific Mrs. Groff--and the victor moved to the next student's desk, trying to make it all the way around the room's large rectangle of desks--"around the world." I was very good at this game, and often enjoyed the spoils of victory, which I'm pretty sure were Gummi Bears. But there was another student, an African-American girl named Michelle, who was even better. She was blazingly fast and, as much as I liked winning, I loved watching her play. She inspired us.

In sixth grade, I tied for second place in the 50-yard dash. My equal was my friend Sajy, and the boy who came in first was a year older than us. The true champ, however, revealed on Field Day, was a long-legged girl named Robin--and she smoked all of us. Watching her run, we were astounded: Who could do a 6.7? She could!

I went to a public school, and as often as not the best and brightest were girls. As I grew older and moved through school, however, I began noticing that some of the girls in my cohort began to disappear. No longer were they in the "gifted and talented" group, the "top section," the Advanced Placement classes. It wasn't until years later that I would learn of research showing how girls are at great risk of "dumbing down," starting somewhere in the fifth grade--about the time kids start showing an interest in fledgling romances and "boy-girl" parties.

These memories come back to me now because one of our best and brightest has lost the US Presidential election. Hillary Clinton has come up short, and I grieve.

I grieve for the country, I grieve for Hillary, and I grieve for my wife. I grieve for the little girl she was, once upon a time.

My wife, Jenifer, recently shared her experience in a Facebook post. She was responding to the sentiment, now widely expressed, that grieving is "soft," and that we are called upon to "get to work," or, by some, to get over it. Jenifer writes:

"You know the character Hermione Granger? You know, she's the smartest and most talented witch. She's always the most prepared. She's really passionate about learning. And she's really, for the most part, passed over. I grew up a Hermione Granger. Often, even when I was objectively or subjectively the best possible person for an award, a job, a promotion--I was looked over, passed over, or often even told to do the work of the other person. I have, throughout my life, been seen and treated as a half-person based on my sex (cisgender female). . . .

"For me, at a deep, largely unconscious and emotional level, Clinton became the avatar and champion of me. She is a living embodiment of every time I've been overlooked, every time I've been pushed down or pushed aside or treated poorly. Because like me, she just gets back up and gets to work. . . .

"And yes, I'm grieving. Not because Clinton lost an election. But because her losing the election was related to every time I have lost, and in particular, lost to someone who was truly *unworthy* of winning."

When I met Jenifer, it didn't take me to long to figure out that she was a Hermione Granger (even if I wouldn't discover that character for a few years). She was my equal. And yet, unlike me, she had experienced a school system, a community, a society that again and again denied her the recognition, status, achievement that were her due--because she was female.

Grieving is a natural, healthy response to profound loss. And Jenifer, and I, and all of us, have a experienced a profound loss.

To be clear, we are not grieving a political event. We are grieving the loss of what this election signifies, something far more significant: the loss of an idea about ourselves, our nation, that we are decent, moral people. The fact that people we love and respect have chosen complicity with hate speech and the language of fascism.

We are grieving the loss of identity.

Women are hardly the only ones hurt. The patriarchy--which sounds so old-fashioned now--also wounds men, gravely. The old mode forbids them from grieving. From expressing vulnerability. So many men today don't know how. As the poet Robert Bly puts it, they don't know how to shudder. We have a nation of strong women. We need men who can shudder.

There's a lot of talk these days about how the "angry white men" of America haven't been acknowledged by Washington. And it's true. These angry white men haven't been seen. But the crime is not solely the politicians'. These are men who haven't undergone the ritual of initiation. They have never, as youths, been seen by elder men, never been blessed for the golden promise of their power, and so do not understand vulnerability or the subtle demands of intimacy.

A man unseen walks in shadow and sees all others in shadow, and seeks to bring them into the orbit of his darkness.

When I see my son, Hawk, age 8, I marvel as his self-possession, confidence, emotional intelligence. They inspire awe in me. He knows who he is and understands that he is allowed, simply, to be there. He knows that his peers--from New Zealand, Fiji, Greece, Georgia, the UK--deserve the same. And he is beginning to discover his privilege.

Whatever gifts my son has received from me, whatever are of his own makeup and destiny, I know that many come from Jenifer, who feels similarly "entitled". Entitled to be there, to occupy physical space, to participate in equal footing in public discourse, to belong--in short, to matter.

I have friends who are not so lucky. Friends, who, because of the color of their skin, are more likely to be "extrajudicially executed" by public servants. Friends who, because of their gender or sexuality, are more likely to take their own lives, because they are not permitted to be there.

I grieve for them, too.

The day after the election, I stole away from the office for a moment. There was no place to go that was private, it was pouring outside, so I went up a back stairwell, between office floors, until I could go no further. Beyond the locked door was the roof of the building. I went as far as I could go, and I wept.

Whatever Hillary's shortcomings (that is say, her humanity), she has had to walk the impossible path expected of women, which is to be immaculate. But we have no need of perfect women. We need women who hold themselves, and are held by others, to be whole people. Women of ambition, intelligence, and doggedness honored for what they contribute to the world. Is it too much to hope that, adult by adult, teacher by teacher, mentor by mentor, friend by friend, we can nurture these gifts in our youth, girls and boys alike? That we ourselves might be the avatars and champions of those who need us most?

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