Monday, October 6, 2014

Ride Sally, Ride

Subtitle: Why my daughter is already a better feminist than I will ever be and also not a feminist at all.

She fiddled with her hair and getting her outfit just right. She painted her nails to match her clothes instead of brushing her teeth like I asked her to. I silently raised my eyes to the sky and wondered: "WHY?! Where have I gone wrong?!" I keep it to myself.

The campus throbs with that Katy Perry song that I secretly love. She grabs my arm. "Don't. Dance." and she checks her bag to make sure she's got a notebook and a pen. We grab our free sandwiches and I make her eat before she dives into the throng of young girls. I'm all about the free sandwiches and wonder if I can go through the line again to grab some to take back to our boys at home. "Don't be tacky," she tells me just before she spots some friends and jumps up and runs across the quad. There is hugging and squealing and jumping up and down. I swallow my free sandwich and watch this little creature who does things like hug and squeal and jump up and down when she sees someone she just saw yesterday.
She hugs and squeals and jumps up and down.

Sally Ride took her historic journey into space in 1978. She was still launching with the Shuttle when I was my daughter's age. It was a big deal. A woman in space! Can you even imagine? Is there nothing we can't do? I also didn't hang with the girls who jumped and squealed and hugged and painted their nails to match their outfits.

The festival is staffed by predominately young women, the attendees are mostly girls, ages ten to fifteen. Over dinner a few nights earlier, my jBird asked: "You know that astronaut woman? Have you heard of Sally Ride?" Yes, darling, I've heard of Sally Ride. "Well, there's a science festival and I get to go to college for the day. Science. For the whole day." Casually, like this always happens. For her, though, this always does. If there's an opportunity, she ferrets it out, thrusts permission forms in my face and we all rearrange our schedules to make it happen.

She lets me trail her by about five steps while she dives into the crowd, eager to get her hands on the displays and experiments. Robotics, chemistry, physics, computer engineering, environmental science. "Grab me some free pens," I tell her, "Mama needs pens. And journals, too. Google has journals at their table." She takes her own opportunity to raise her eyes to the sky. "Get your own pens, Mom. I want to try the prosthetic arm." I wander from table to table, cramming free schwag into my messenger bag while she asks questions and tries all the different experiments. I am completely overwhelmed by all the women. I want to dance and roar. I want to grab my little girl and explain to her how completely freaking awesome this is, all this estrogen and science in one place. Instead I stuff a few more pens in my bag.

I have a secret. I am completely bored by most science. I feel the current of excitement that emanates from all these women and girls who jump and squeal about physics and I wonder if I have just been hoodwinked by the patriarchy into eschewing the "hard sciences". If I was ten now instead of in the age of Loni Anderson, would I build a simple helicopter and squeal? Or would I still be hoarding pens and journals and wondering if I could sneak off and write in them? I don't care, because I can stand uncomfortably and watch my daughter dismantle a tablet and look at how it works while a beautiful and young engineer explains all the parts to her.

It's time for me to leave. She has to go to class. "I've got this, Mom. You can go home." She checks her watch, a gift from her very best friend, Brooke. Brooke is 24 years old and just started medical school this fall. My jBird pumps her every week for the details of what she learned at med school. She wants all the goods. She's attending med school by proxy. Brooke gave my daughter a watch just like hers for her birthday back in the spring. jBird uses it to set her alarm in the morning, to time her runs and her swims, she never takes it off. She checks it now and tells me when to come back and where to meet her.

I watch her disappear into the classroom of this huge university with a few friends and a horde of friendly strangers and it's a small relief combined with those uncomfortable snapshots of the future that seem to come more regularly these days. She's chattering and excited, she's barely eaten a thing and I fear she's going to crash. I make myself walk away and drive home. I might even cry a little at this little girl who has no idea how freaking awesome this whole thing is. Well, she does, but not for the same reasons I think so.

We come back later to pick her up and laze around on the quad waiting for class to let out. I pilfer a few more journals and pens for good measure. The Hooligan is a little bit jealous and wants to go next year. He takes his own free journal and diagrams a feudal society he imagines.

The quad starts to fill up as class lets out. I'm scanning the crowd for my little girl and I finally spot her. She runs up and her face shines: "I held a human heart and a liver and a brain! Right in my hands! I got my picture taken with Wendy Lawrence, Mama! Wendy Lawrence! She's been in space and I got to meet her! We built a robot, too!" She can't get the telling out fast enough. She's on fire. She's so full of facts and stories and she shows me all the notes she took. "I can't wait to go to college! I've been so jealous of Brooke because she got to dissect a cadaver, but now I got to hold all those organs!"

I cry. I am old enough to recognize this is a step into the future that our mothers dreamed about. My little girl has no idea. It has not once occurred to her all day that there was a time when being a girl would preclude her from the kind of day she had today. She isn't the strange and "tomboyish" girl among the boys, barely tolerated for her uppity interest in all the things that make the world tick. She is completely at home and alive: surrounded by friends, by legends, by great minds, inventors, innovators and the leading edge of civilization. She does not realize her very existence roars.

I load up on free sandwiches and bric-a-brac, and she hugs Wendy Lawrence and tells her she's always wanted to be an astronaut. She carefully matches her nail polish to her outfit while I try to remember if my jeans are clean enough to wear again. She squeals and jumps and hugs while I adjust my glasses and shrink from the crowd. She hugs my arm and tells me she's had the best day ever and her lanyard is teal.

I squeeze her back and say all the silent thank yous that we live in a world that finally might be able to contain us both.