Mentoring City Girls

By Ewa Irena Pytowska '74

I walked out of Bryn Mawr a philosopher, but my work with issues of cultural and linguistic diversity transformed me into an ethnographer of sorts. I go with an observer's eye into most assignments. Raising my daughter and son in Boston gives me the precious opportunity to come to know its children and to see what shapes their existence. The lives of girls growing up in the heart of the city, in neighborhoods and housing projects I rarely saw until my daughter brought me there to meet her classmates, have become of great concern to me. Over time, I have seen intellect, passion and talent withering long before they were given a chance to blossom.

I often think about Tamika1, a fifth grader of Native American and Caribbean heritage. She spent a lot of time doing theater plays with my daughter, reaching into the dress-up basket to create dazzling costumes and stage sets. Always full of energy, she enjoyed the long walks and bike rides in the park. She loved calling me "Mummy" and playing the mother-daughter game. She even learned some Polish, my own first language, which our family speaks at home, in order "to do it right." Tamika was the most radiant, loving, funny, dramatic creature one could possibly imagine.

Driving her home was a journey into a different world. I would drop her off at a house that was so dilapidated, one wondered how children could live and grow there. One day, I asked Tamika what she and her playmates did when there were guns or shooting on her street. She answered, "We just go around the corner and play." Her mother worked two or three jobs but what she earned was absolutely inadequate to support the family. Though she enjoyed staying with us, after one or two nights, Tamika always wanted to go back home. She was missing her mother, her baby brother and the kids she played with on the street, she'd say. I learned from Tamika that many young girls growing up in the city love their families deeply. Intensely loyal to their mothers, they often behave as if it were not right for them to have a good time, when their loved ones could not. Anything they perceive as a potential estrangement in values or aspirations, is experienced as a threat to their sense of rootedness.

In second grade, Tamika did better than 95% of test-takers in math, yet by fourth grade she was having academic difficulties. When she was motivated to learn something, she learned it with great ease, but she wouldn't buckle down to textbooks, rules and punishments. My family came to know her as a precocious and talented child who, after three months of staying with us on weekends, had an impressive Polish vocabulary, an insatiable appetite for good children's books, and a serious interest in history and geography! In school, she was viewed as a problem child, undisciplined and rebellious. Her keen intelligence and vitality were hardly noticed by teachers who felt annoyed or outright disrespected by her behavior.

Over the years, many girls came to our house to play. Gathered together, they acted out colorful stories, played games and completed school projects. Along with playground scratches and torn book bags, they brought questions and ideas to talk about for hours. Many amazed me with their brilliance but, as the years passed, I saw the open and trusting faces close in on themselves. Curiosity and intellectual toughness notwithstanding, the girls were being inexorably pulled away from education by the demands of their everyday lives. Discouraged from learning by teachers who did not recognized the power of their personal recognition in nurturing the intellect or challenging the mind, the girls drifted away from school.

Today, I fear Tamika and her playmates are lost to the educational system which crushes their spirit. Growing up with my daughter, they were at their greatest in the preteen years. Coming to know Tamika and her friends helped me understand better what Carol Gilligan2 means when she insists that we listen to pre-adolescent girls' voices because we may not hear them again. If Tamika is not to lose her curiosity, intellectual assertiveness and courage, she needs people who will believe in her and support the choices she makes. Her rebellious spirit needs channeling into personally meaningful pursuits, well aligned with cultural values of her family and community.

The first thing that goes in a girl's life is her voice — the resolve of a young woman who says, “This is what I believe, this is what I want, this is where I'm heading in life.” This voice goes first because it's often branded as insubordination and, by the time they're in fourth or fifth grade, young women are expected to “behave.”

By the time they reach seventh grade, the girls who daily used to pose magnificent “theories” have a hard time choosing research topics. Their own questions are barely a memory. Even those girls who can formulate interesting problems, whether in science or social studies, rarely find teachers in their city schools who will say, “This is great, let's work on it,” and who will make the time to help.

In middle school, the drama of everyday life reflected in the movement of a girl's body, in its rhythm, in its unique way of responding to challenges when the whole body engages in making a statement, gives way to the pressures of puberty. Exuberance at that age is often equated with promiscuity, with a premature drawing of boys' attention. Teachers committed to health education and pregnancy prevention programs frown upon young women's ardent displays of assertiveness. Order and deference to authority figures are considered important and desirable, while a dramatic talent and a compelling voice are looked upon with apprehension.

Around 14 years of age and right into adulthood, academic possibilities begin to fade. The question becomes, “Why bother? Why study if all I will get is a minimum wage job? Why not have a child?” Motherhood is not an abstract issue any more. To many girls, it seems the only worthwhile thing to do in life. It is a way for a young woman to assert herself, to get attention, to express without words all the losses suffered thus far. The community cannot protect her any longer because the young woman has lost a sense of meaning, self-love and intellectual fulfillment.

This is why the most successful programs for young mothers are more than a plea for not getting pregnant. They take the “whole girl” into account — where she wants to go in life, what she wants for herself and her child, what her dreams are. It is exactly this kind of self-esteem focused, guidance oriented program that Tamika and her playmates needed when they were young. Sadly, it is not until adolescence that, as young women, they are finally offered the attention and care which they so sorely needed when they were nosy 9-year-olds.

In city schools, the sheer number of kids who need academic help and social support is overwhelming to teachers. Sometimes even the best teachers don't notice girls who, like sturdy wildflowers, are likely to appreciate a nurturing environment and intellectual challenge. In crowded city classrooms, talented girls are not likely to experience rigorous questioning, or meet teachers would know how to structure thoughtful discussions.

A few streets over from my house live girls “of many colors,” young artists and poets, budding scientists and methodical engineers. Downtown are museums, theaters, art studios. Still, the essential connections between children and opportunities are sorely missing. If they dream of science, a caring adult needs to take them to museums or university labs and show them discoveries waiting to be made. When they show talent in singing, drama or art, someone needs to introduce these young women to theater or dance classes. Someone must care enough about a child's future to drive, to search for opportunities, to fill out applications, to work through inevitable apprehensions and obstacles. Otherwise, classes, museums and dramatic productions along with scholarships to make them affordable are meaningless.

What we call lack of equal opportunity starts much earlier than we begin to treat it with talent search programs and scholarship drives. Long before they have time to think about college education, girls growing up in the city have their dreams curtailed with every scolding they receive and every project they get back with low grades and unkind comments. Talented young women are not nurtured in ways that allow them to overcome whatever barriers life has imposed on them. College recruiters look for the best educated students in the last two years of high school. By then, however, many of the imaginative, intelligent and fiercely independent young women have lost their voices and given up on their dreams.

Outreach from college admissions offices is most often geared towards young women who are potential candidates for those schools. The girls I am concerned about are much younger. There are no guarantees that they would want to consider Bryn Mawr as a possible choice. It would be an act of faith to create a program where alumnae from women's colleges mentor city girls with a view to offering them the intellectual challenge and day-to-day support necessary to believe in themselves.

Mentoring young women offers a promise of coming to know other lives and communities. I envision such a relationship as a serious commitment to knowing the girls in their surroundings, not just attempting to bring them out of their world. I have doubts about whether trekking on weekends to be with mentor families who live outside the city is the sort of thing from which girls would benefit. At a minimum, it must be a mutual exchange where these girls can be guides and narrators of city life to their mentors. Further, city teens need to know about educational resources easily accessible in their communities and mentors need to help strengthen girls' access to such resources.

My experiences with girls like Tamika convinced me that, in talking about interventions, it's this human connection that's missing, the getting of a child from here to there and the person who makes that happen. Here is a natural role for adult women who are interested in nurturing the younger generation. Available to support a girl — a young scientist, a linguist or a poet — until she graduates from high school and has firm plans for the future, a mentor becomes a person to whom a young woman comes to discuss her report card or to share an award for artistic accomplishments. A mentor is someone who can be trusted to appreciate her effort and cherish her hard work even if her grades need improvement or her skills honing.

Whatever we do for young city women has to support them where their sense of home and security is most tangible, and we must do it early on in their lives. At nine or 10 years of age, they're not ready to make decisions that would take them away from the world they have known. Even when they are older, the decision to leave home and community in exchange for educational opportunities can be a very tough one.

What would it be if a network of professional women would open their homes and lives to one city girl at a time, beginning in sixth grade and lasting until graduation from college? What would their own children learn from their city buddies? What would communities stand to gain? I struggle with these questions whenever I meet my daughter's friends, watch their hopeful faces and listen to their laughter. I am painfully aware that, with all the support my 14-year-old daughter gets at home, she continues to have a difficult time in school. Finding teachers who would recognize and respect her individuality, who would search out her talent and support her budding awareness of being a thinker, seems nearly impossible. What must it be like for her friends and other girls who don't have the support she has? To whom do they turn? Where do they go to find the strength to persevere?

I do not know how to cross the divide to women whose lives are as different from mine as mine is from Tamika's and her playmates'. Although I attended Bryn Mawr, in my heart I am still an immigrant from Poland, a city dweller. I have yet to learn how to be part of that “other world,” the vast expanse of middle class communities which surround the cities. Still, Tamika's indelible influence on my life, the fellowship she built with our family across boundaries of race and class, inspires me not to give up.

Educated in the Boston public schools since kindergarten, Tamika probably will not do well on college board examinations in comparison to her suburban peers. Neither will my daughter and her younger brother, since city schools simply do not offer opportunities other districts provide. Chances are, though, that my two children will grow up knowing about community organizing efforts, about loss of innocence at an early age, about racial and economic justice. I hope they can learn what to do about it every day of their lives. That's the greatest gift the city gives us, one Tamika brought with her laughter and friendship, one I would never trade.

Ewa Irena Pytowska '74 is a consultant on issues of cultural and linguistic diversity. She has directed a professional development center for teachers in Boston Catholic schools since 1982. She has been active in community organizing efforts in Boston since her children entered Boston public schools.

1 Tamika is a made-up name of a real playmate of my daughter. She still lives in Boston and attends Boston public schools.
2 A professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Carol Gilligan is best known as the author of In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development (Harvard University Press, 1982), although she has further developed her arguments from that book in subsequent writings.

cover icon Return to Summer 1997 highlights