This blog is part of a weekly series, “Service Learning in East Africa” that Cindy Beams is writing for 10×10 about her adventures bringing American high school students to East Africa for service-learning projects. Cindy’s journeys in the developing world began in1969 when she was a volunteer teacher in Chile. Forty years later she and her husband have created cultural exchange projects for students and faculty at The Groton School. Her blog for 10×10 describes how at 60-plus, after a varied career in education, she has landed in East Africa as a journalist, photographer and philanthropist dedicated to improving girls’ access to education in Tanzania, Kenya and Rwanda.
Last week, Cindy talked about what got her to Africa; wanting to do something so that her own children and her husband’s high school students had a better understanding of the world beyond their Facebook pages.
No doubt, the eager, well-educated kids from The Groton School I knew, just like my own children, could rattle off statistics about the contemporary world with eloquent confidence. Maybe some of them knew about the huge challenges that girls in the developing world face:
“In Cambodia are you aware that 4 out of 5 girls drop out of school when they are 13?”
“Do you know that only 11% of girls in India attend college?”
But had these kids, for whom I felt great affection, ever really had the time or the inclination to think about what those numbers - assembled in response to a school assignment - might mean in the life of an actual person? What did these numbers mean about someone exactly their age who, by accident of birth, had drawn a very different card in life?
To be fair, it’s hard to imagine a life other than your own when you’re throttling full speed ahead to gain admission to a competitive college. It’s an exhausting and bewildering process that seems to grow in complexity every single day. The college admission process was a fitting metaphor for the way my life, now on the other side of middle age, was beginning to feel. If I wasn’t an unhappy camper, I was undoubtedly a restless one.
All I was clear about was this: If you like people and you like learning new things, then you need to get your hands dirty in places the disembodied numbers, those troubling statistics, come from. Learning via a Twitter feed, Facebook post, or YouTube video was not going to cut it for me. And I thought these kids needed to see it live, too.
When I turned 60, I decided the moment had come to sign, seal and deliver any remaining mainstream, “good girl” impulses to a file prominently labeled OBSOLETE. To me, a “good girl” lives life according to a ‘play-it-safe’ script, always making ‘expected’ choices. If I were a maker of lists, I could, with varying degrees of success, check all the boxes I thought represented the key features of an honest to goodness grown-up. Wonderful kids (whose minimal interest in the Vietnam War no longer compromises our relationship). Solid marriage. Interesting work. Multiple interests. Devoted friends. Enough money. Good health. Lots of energy. I’ll even admit to identifying with the “mature” women in the Eileen Fisher ads, and thought it was only a matter of time before my husband and I were recruited to be the next face of the “Viagra couple.”
I knew I had the chutzpah to trade in my “good girl” persona. But here’s the question: when you surrender your “good girl” of yesteryear, who’s going to come out on the other side?
Next week in Cindy’s series: Training Rwandan teachers, wearing purple, and deciding to go further afield…