Thursday, May 4, 2017

"Nevertheless, she persisted."

During one of the five games at a Math Pentathlon tournament, I waited for Little Miss to get back to the bleachers to tell me about her last round. As one after another of her team mates joined us with their news, I saw no sign of her. Concerned, I went looking for my daughter.

I was relieved when I found that she was still at her game, but what I saw surprised me. She was the last person there, with her opponent, as the game leaders and other adults descended upon her table, one by one. I wasn’t allowed in the hall, so I could only watch from behind the glass doors, but I was informed later that she had challenged her opponent’s move and escalated it all the way to the director.

In Math Pentathlon, you’re not just allowed to challenge your opponent if you don’t agree with their move, you’re encouraged to as part of your strategy. If you’re not satisfied with the game monitor’s decision, you are entitled to ask for the game leader’s opinion. And if that still doesn’t convince you, you can ask for a second opinion, which will come from the director.

I love that the tournament was not just designed to help kids enjoy math, it was also meant to teach them essential skills like winning/losing graciously and, my favorite, standing up for themselves. It was important to me that they learned that adults can be wrong too, and kids should be empowered to speak against what they feel isn’t right, not stifled from expressing their dissent just because an adult says so.

And that’s exactly what my Little Miss did. I saw the growing number of  adults gather around her as they discussed, and the little commotion it caused as our own school’s coaches were called to the area. I watched as she explained herself to every person who questioned her, and I saw her hands moving animatedly as they usually do when she describes things in details.

I marveled at her confidence.

It reminded me of the time when Senator Elizabeth Warren was silenced by Senate Republicans, preventing her from speaking out against attorney general nominee, Jeff Sessions. In defense of invoking the archaic rule that basically kicked her out of the chambers, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, “She was warned, she was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

Essentially, it backfired on them when “Nevertheless, she persisted” became a battle cry for women still struggling to be heard, and a rallying cry for supporters and participants of the Women’s March. It became my own mantra.

When I saw my daughter stand her ground that morning, it was a revelation. Above academic excellence, above accolades, above athletic prowess, I want my girls to be kind, and I also want them empowered to stand up for themselves.

“Nevertheless, she persisted.”

In the end, her challenge was incorrect - but it was because she was taught a wrong move by our coaches. Through her adamant insistence, her coaches were also called in and the misunderstanding came into light. They were then taught the correct rules, so something good did come out of it. Little Miss eventually won the game - and went on to earn a Bronze Medal that day - but that was far from why I was proud.

I was in awe of her because at 8, she could do what I never could have done myself at 18.

Those of us who grew up in Malaysia will remember how we were only taught to obey the teachers and never question them because they were always right. Always. In classes, they talked and we listened. We were never allowed to interrupt, let alone disagree. I don’t recall discussions or interactions that led us to our own conclusions. Knowledge was always spoonfed.

So imagine what a challenge it was for me when I stepped into a four-year college in America to complete my undergraduate degree. I was surprised when students spoke - were encouraged to speak - in class, and completely floored when they argued with the teachers. It was so far beyond my comfort zone that any time it was my turn to talk, my palms would sweat and my pulse would race. I was afraid of giving the wrong answers, even when we were merely asked to share our own opinions. And I wasn’t sure I’d have anything to say that was worth anyone’s time so I didn’t say anything. As trained in my early years, I was only there to absorb.

But then I took a class in post-colonial literature with Dr. Nada Elia, an unforgettable and inspiring English professor from Lebanon who exuded so much passion for the subject, that in giving voice to the second-class citizens we studied, she gave me my own voice. She exposed me to the marginalized, and at the same time, inspired me to step out of the side lines. It was from her that I learned my voice mattered too.

I was 19 then, and it wasn’t until grad school two years later that I was finally comfortable enough to interject in a classroom with my own thoughts. For those who know me now, they wouldn’t recognize that quiet shadow of a student I used to be in my first few semesters here in the States.

Over the years, I’d learned the value of speaking up, and as a mother of girls at a time when women continue to struggle to be heard, to be treated equally, I feel it’s my duty to help my girls harness the power of their own voice.

However, as much as I’d like to take credit for Little Miss’ ability to assert herself at the tournament, if you think about it, I really didn’t have to do much - children were born to speak their minds. #FromTheMouthofBabes and #ThingsThatKidsSay aren’t just cutesy hashtags that highlight the gaffes that children make in social situations. It’s proof that, without the filter that we place upon them, their inherent ability to verbalize authentically is rather strong. It’s society that makes the rules that determine if they should.

The hard part for me, as a parent, is to help them navigate between what’s acceptable and what’s not. My job isn’t to teach them to speak up -  they already know how. I just need to nurture their innate desire to be heard and create an environment that makes them feel safe to express themselves.

Even when I have discovered my own voice, it’s still a struggle for me to fight what I have internalized from years of being told to conform to expectations - to only accept and never to question. Especially so because I was a girl.

I know it’s different in America. Our children have it a little easier here because free speech is sewn into the fabric of our society.

Back in Malaysia, we weren’t just told to be silent in classrooms. We were never allowed to speak out against the current political leader. We were told to accept the status quo, and if we did need to rail against the current administration, we did so in hush tones behind closed doors.

It’s one of the reasons I moved to America. Even at my young age, I knew it didn’t feel right to silenced. But in my naivete, I thought coming to a country that values equality and free speech would fix everything. Except I was wrong.

Even now, in 2017, I continue to experience sexism and misogyny. I see that women are still expected to act communally and are better respected when saying “we” rather than saying “I” when advocating for ourselves. I have witnessed and lived the double standards that plague women.

But what’s different now is that, far from the girl that I was, I no longer stand on the side lines. I make sure I am heard when I call out the inequalities when I see it. It doesn’t seem that I could affect change with my one voice, but nothing will change at all if no one speaks.

“Nevertheless, she persisted.”

We should all be persisters.

While I certainly hope it would be better for my girls, I am also a realist and a pragmatist, which is why, as tempting as it is to default to a “do as I say” parenting, I spend the time to share anecdotes, provide historical context, and relate to them in a way that empowers them to make their own choices, rather than following a path prescribed to them.

It wasn’t easy for me to unlearn nearly 20 years of being told to just quietly accept the status quo, but I am grateful for the teachers who saw in me what I couldn’t see in myself and helped me find my own voice.

Now, as a parent, I can’t imagine not doing the same for my girls.