Tag Archives: Alumnae

Not a Four-Letter Word

The recent controversy around the Science magazine cover objectifying and dehumanizing trans women highlights not only how trans women may be treated within the scientific community but also how women in general may be treated within the field. The short answer: not well.

In her blog, eastsidekate tells us that when she was 14, she made the decision to go into biology because she read that the percentage of women was much higher in that field than in chemistry or physics. She came out as trans while still in grad school, and found little support and understanding. A long and difficult journey led her to give up her dream of university-level teaching (the full story is well worth reading, though please be warned there is strong language). She’s honest with herself, writing, “I’m not saying that transphobia forced me out of the academia or that I deserved a specific job or any job at all, to be quite blunt.” However, it’s also important to pay attention to how she frames this: “I will say, and I’ll say it until it doesn’t need saying: I don’t regret leaving. I regret feeling the need to make that decision, but I simply don’t think academy is a safe place for people like me.”

Of course, that concept of academia not being safe for transwomen may be extended to women in general. As civil engineer Patricia Valoy points out, when women fail at STEM, it’s “because they’re socialized to believe they don’t belong there and then experience discrimination and lack of mentorship—pushing them into quitting when they do get there.” And as if that wasn’t bad enough, a recent NPR piece by Kara Manke highlighted research by biological anthropologist Kathryn Clancy showing among other things a high incidence of sexual harassment (64%, significantly higher than the 50% found across all professions) among scientists out in the field, the bulk of which is experienced by women. Dr. Clancy observed, “”As horrifying as this data is, I’m really excited to have it out there. Every person who has had this experience will be validated and know there are others out there who have their back. If this keeps just one more woman in science, it is absolutely worth it.”

Science itself, then, can be part of the solution – if we use it correctly. Simple observations can help; as eastsidekate said, “People are watching you, science. They’re not just keeping track of who’s doing the dehumanizing [stuff], but also who (and it’s a lot of you) is sitting on their hands while it goes down. Remember this the next time some administrator wonders aloud about why efforts to summon diversity out of thin air just aren’t working.” And right now, research shows, girls schools and women’s colleges are playing an important part in equipping their graduates to stand firm in the context of this systemic discouragement; Carissa Tudryn Weber ‘96, the recipient of the 2014 Distinguished Alumna Award, is a shining example.

Ultimately, though, “If science (and the academy writ large) is serious about improving the quality and diversity of research, teaching, service, and faculty (and I have no real reason to believe this is the case), folks have got to dismantle the systems that allow this [stuff] to keep happening.” (eastsidekate) As a school whose mission is not only to empower girls and women but also to help shape our culture to welcome their full participation as their authentic selves, Stoneleigh-Burnham is well positioned to be a leader in this fight to ensure that STEM, as Ms. Valoy says, “is not a four-letter word for women.”

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Filed under Gender, Uncategorized

Aware of One’s Gender

“Can I ask a question?” Julia, a returning 8th grader, asked toward the end of our first all-middle school meeting. “Sure,” I said as 33 pairs of curious eyes turned to look at her. “Well, it’s really more of a statement (laugh). I just want to say that I love this meeting tonight. It’s the best part of the whole year.” It is indeed a wonderful tradition – after an all-school dinner, everyone gathers in the Capen Room where faculty introduce themselves, Big Sisters introduce themselves and their Littles, a few announcements are made, and everyone races off to begin focusing seriously on the finally imminent first day of classes. “I don’t know if I’m ready to say it’s all downhill from here, but I do love this night,” I said softly to Andrea as kids streamed past us. She laughed and nodded. “I know,” she said.

Part of the tradition is faculty members letting students know how they would like to be addressed. About halfway around the room, one of the first-year teachers, Jake Steward (the new Chair of the English Department), said: “You may call me Steward. You don’t have to use the ‘Mr.’ I’m aware of my gender.” Everyone laughed. Eric Swartzentruber was next and, after introducing himself as the Admissions Director, added, “While I am also aware of my gender, you may call me Mr. S.” Everyone laughed again. I laughed too, but it all got me to thinking – what does it actually mean to be aware of your gender?

I suppose the first step is to figure out what you mean by “gender” in the first place. By no means does everyone share the same definition. For some people, of course, it simply means how you were identified at birth based on anatomy. End of story.

However, for others, it’s a little more complicated. I remember one person this summer, commenting on the birth of the royal baby: “Well, the royal baby has been born and, apparently having something resembling a penis, has been identified as a boy. We’ll see.” One’s genetic heritage is, of course, relatively fixed (as I understand it, the developing science of epigenetics continues to call even this into question). But you can’t always tell who is intersex at birth, and you certainly can’t always tell what that new baby’s personal sense of gender will be when they grow up. Masculine? Feminine? Somewhere on a continuum? Both equally? Some other sort of blend? Neither? Fluid? We’re getting to the point where it’s hard to keep track of all possible senses of gender a person can have. Some colleges are starting to incorporate asking students about pronoun choice during orientation and their offices now routinely ask visitors, “And what pronouns are you using today?”

Recently, I was actually asked the “what pronouns” question. And I have to say, it felt entirely respectful and dignified. No assumptions. No inferences. No judgments. Just quietly asking what worked for me, a human being. (For the record, my answer was, “‘He’ is fine, and thank you very much for asking.”)

Of course, in a girls school, it’s a little trickier to avoid making assumptions about gender altogether. It’s right there, three times, in our mission: “… We inspire girls… discover her best self… her voice will be heard.” And I do think, for most of my students, being aware of their gender is indeed becoming aware for themselves of what it means to be a girl growing into a woman. For most of them. But not necessarily for all of them. Sometimes, one’s own best self turns out to be… not female. Just the other day, Mrs. Logan-Tyson mentioned how nice it was to spend time with one of our alums at Reunion and find him to be so happy in life. And that is one of our most important core goals for all of our graduates.

So, for many of us anyway, perhaps being aware of one’s gender is a personal journey that works differently for different people. The tangle of society’s beliefs, assumptions, and stereotypes provides a context for that journey, either supportive netting or a steel trap depending on who you are and whom you are with. Fortunately, if you can remain fully open to experiencing the person with whom you find yourself, you will be giving them the space and freedom to be their own best self, simultaneously regardless and fully aware of gender.

Recently, some grandparents who were worried about whether their granddaughter might be confused about her gender given her short haircut, propensity for “only boys’ sports, such as martial arts”, and love of boys’ clothing, asked advice columnist Carolyn Hax, “Please point us in the right direction.” Ms. Hax began her response with this line: “The ‘right direction’? Love her.”

It really is that simple.

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Filed under Alumnae, Gender, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School

Not Long Enough

Spearth Day was born of a series of compromises, but has become one of the key dates in the waning weeks of our school year. Many years ago, the students asked for a special day to celebrate the mailman who played such an important role in their lives (today’s students, for whom email is old-fashioned and texting is routine, would probably find this odd). We called it “M and M Day” for “Mail Man Day,” and besides presenting him with a card and gifts when he finally showed, we played an all-school game of Capture the Flag and found other ways to celebrate. Over time, M and M Day evolved and became more organized – for one thing, the tradition of the talent show was begun. Meanwhile, earlier in the spring, Earth Day remained a day off for service – cleaning up local parks and rivers, clearing trails, and so on. The two days were eventually combined into one, and the name “Spearth Day” comes from “Spring-Earth Day.” We spend the morning doing various service projects on- and off-campus, have the Talent Show after lunch, follow that with games and booths organized by classes and clubs, dedicate the yearbook and pass out copies, and end with a barbecue. This year, for a special treat, there will be a dance performance by the Senior IB dancers.

Excitement always run high right before Spearth Day, especially when Wednesday immediately precedes it as that is our half-day of classes. The 7th graders spent Morning Meeting somewhat nervously tying up the few remaining loose ends in the preparation for their booth while the 8th graders set up a coverage schedule and worked hard to ensure they would have everything they needed. Early morning notes on the white board suggested the Community Service Club had done much the same the night before.

Sports are winding down (another reason for excitement as this is a major marker the year is actually starting to come to a close), and so Sophie and Clara, two of the 7th graders, were available and eager to accompany me to the Dakin Pioneer Valley Humane Society. They laughed and sang and talked all the way there, assuring me they had to be the loudest group I’d ever taken (they weren’t far wrong, actually!). There wasn’t much to do on site, but they were cheerful and positive even when just folding laundry, and took the time to make friends with some of the cats. The ride back was just about as high energy as the ride out.

When we returned at 5:30, the school was sheltering in the basement as a tornado warning had been issued. So when the Wednesday night group of the Middle School Rock Bands showed up 20-25 minutes late for rehearsal (dinner had opened half an hour late and hey, they had to eat!), energy was even higher than usual – if possible! – for a Spearth Day Eve.

For the Spearth Day Talent Show, the group is performing “Microphone” by Martha, a second-year 8th grader. The song has rather whimsical lyrics (sample “Microphone, / You have a big head. / You have a cord. / And it is long.”) and a melody to match. At our first rehearsal of the song, I suggested a series of chords to which everyone agreed, and Aliana (who had played drums before during this year) taught Subin (who hadn’t) an appropriately whimsical drum part (Meredith on bass, Molly sharing vocals with Martha, and Ellie on marimba round out the group; Aliana is covering the piano part). The song is a little bit short, so at our previous rehearsal, we had rearranged it so the final chorus was repeated three times – once with instruments, once a cappella, and once more with instruments.

We ran the song twice – the second time because I had forgotten to time it, just to be on the safe side as we are limited to three minutes (lots of acts in this Talent Show!) before sailing into “Somewhere Only We Know” by Keane, which we are doing next Thursday for the annual Middle School Music Performance. It is a beautiful piece with subtly shifting block chords in the piano anchored by a relatively straightforward backbeat. Subin was drumming again, Martha had shifted to the marimba, and though I normally play bass on this piece, I had to cover Molly’s piano part since her team was late back from a game. Somehow, Ellie, Aliana, and Martha had contrived to cover Meredith’s vocal since her Team Night had begun way late due to the tornado warning and so was going way late. Still, even with me faking the chord shifts that Molly alone knew by heart, and even with one less voice on the harmonies (which the girls themselves wrote), the song sounded gorgeous and as it sunk in that I had only two more nights with this group before they were done for the year, tears sprang to my eyes which I tried (successfully) to cover up because the girls were having so much fun.

In the 1991 remake of “Father of the Bride,” Steve Martin in the title role tells his daughter on the night before her wedding, “Well, that’s the thing about life, is the surprises, the little things that sneak up on you and grab hold of you.” (IMDb) I know tonight is only the first of many such moments we’ll experience over the next two and a half weeks. It’s a way to mark how much these kids come to mean to us, and to each other. Of course, even those who are graduating and moving on will live on in my memory and in my heart. And they will have good company there, kids both past and future.

And meanwhile, I will savor every moment of the rest of the year. I know how lucky I am. And I am determined not to take it for granted. As, I am quite sure, are they.

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Filed under Graduation, In the Classroom, On Education, On Parenting, Performing Arts, School Happenings, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School

What’s Simple Is True

The middle school recently celebrated Founders’ Day, a tradition initiated (logically enough) by the 10 founding students. Seven years ago this month, they asked if future middle school students could have a special day off just for the middle school, to have fun and feel special and to remember the Founders. Since then, traditions have built up and although MOCA (middle school student government) technically plans the day from scratch each year, the schedule generally comes down to breakfast and a movie, tie-dying t-shirts, a barbeque and an afternoon of fun and games. Each year puts their own stamp on those traditions, but the general outline stays pretty much the same.

Six year seniors.

This year, the students asked if they could invite the Seniors who were former middle school students to join them for Founders’ Day. We agreed to ask them to join us for lunch, and they joyfully accepted. So it was that I left the Garden Cinema early to zip back to school and ensure the barbeque was lit and food was ready to go. The six-year Seniors arrived at Bonnie’s House about the same time as I did with these huge smiles on their faces, and shortly later they were enthusiastically playing softball down on the diamond despite having neither bat nor ball.

Before too long, the first wave of middle schoolers also arrived, with Hank helping out at the grill while Andrea returned with the WAV to bring back another couple of groups of students as Ellen, Karen, and Tony helped keep track of everyone. It takes a while to feed four dozen students and their teachers, and as some students patiently waited for burgers (beef or veggie) to come off the grill, others who had already finished formed an impromptu band in Bonnie’s House, ran around on the field, posed for pictures with six-year Senior Big Sisters, and generally found ways to make their own fun.

Founders’ Day this year followed close on the heels of another day off, the all-school celebration of spring and the Earth that has come to be called Spearth Day. As that is the day when yearbooks get passed out, the realization that the end is coming all too fast settles in uncomfortably. For all we say time flies, the fact is there is a kind of timelessness to a school year and it seems, for better and for worse depending on the day (mostly for better), as though it will last forever. But of course it doesn’t, and signatures captured in yearbooks – and drawn in Sharpie on Founders’ Day t-shirts – are in a way an attempt to capture and freeze time itself.

Stoneleigh-Burnham School 7th and 8th grade students.

This year, the middle schoolers are somewhat more jittery than usual about the approaching summer vacation. All of the kids – this year’s 7th graders, the returning 8th graders, and new 8th graders have forged deep and lasting friendships, and the idea of giving up 24/7 contact can be really scary. One current 8th grader periodically looks at me with achingly haunted eyes and says she does. not. want. vacation. to. start.

I’m no different, really. As I was exercising this evening, I suddenly stopped in the middle of a jumping jack and ran upstairs to pull out a ten-year-old CD, recorded by the upper school rock band then known as PW Rock. I alternated between prepping and listening as the voices of Mary Dooley, Nancy Ko, and Katie McClary filled my living room. And then my eyes filled as they reached the chorus of Jewel Kilcher’s beautiful song, “What’s Simple Is True“:

The more I live
The more I know
What’s simple is true
I love you

Of course, these kids do love each other, and we love them as well. Rituals between now and the end of the year will help give expression to that love as well as providing plenty of opportunities to kick back and have fun. And of course, students are still actively involved in learning, with greater insight and sophistication than in the fall but no less energy and passion. Still, 4:00 p.m. on the afternoon of June 8 will inevitably come. The campus will fall silent. And as I pick up the last few programs from the 8th Grade Moving Up Ceremony, I will start the process of moving forward, reviewing the year with the team and examining what we can learn from it, planning for next year and getting summer mailings ready to go. But first, I will read every name on the program one more time. I will look over to the corner where my Humanities 7 students started every class. I will pause and blow my nose and stare out into space. Then, and only then, I will turn and walk down the stairs and out the building.

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Filed under Alumnae, Graduation, In the Classroom, On Education, School Happenings, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, The Faculty Perspective

Horses we Love

The following was originally published in the Spring 2007 Bulletin. At the time, Samantha Pleasant ’02 was  Associate Director of Admissions and a riding instructor here at SBS. Her words still reflect the feelings of so many students and alumnae that we wanted to share them here with you. We hope that you enjoy reading Sam’s account of her own relationship with horses and what she observed in our students during her time here.

I was never fortunate enough to have had my own pony as a child, although I certainly spent enough time wishing for one. But every day, rain or shine, I had a barn of 60 horses ready to love at Stoneleigh-Burnham School. Even before I was a Stoneleigh-Burnham girl, before I was a Bonnie Castle Camper…I was a girl truly in love with the sight of a horse. I spent every waking minute that I was not at school at the barn rolling wraps, grooming horses, hand-walking, doing turnouts and of course, riding. I had a favorite horse for every hour of every day: Stoneleigh-Burnham School gave me a thousand opportunities to call a horse my own.

As I grew older, I learned that horses recognized footsteps and I could count on my horse to be standing in the closest corner of her stall, ears perked and her soft whiskered muzzle pressed against the iron bars. Today it’s still the best moment of my day. Each afternoon I take the few minutes I have before I begin teaching to press my face into her chestnut side and let her wrap her neck around me as I lean into her steady shoulder. During summer evenings, I’ll walk to the barn after dinner – let the slow lazy sun sink behind the trees and enjoy the quiet. She’ll have settled for the evening, finished her hay while her eyes start to droop and she’ll wait for me. I can spend hours grooming her, loose her from her stall without seeing another person or hearing any other footsteps beside our own. She’s content to stand as long as I hold a soft brush to flick the hairs from her coat and and a carrot to thank her. Her dark chocolate eyes follow my movements, as she carefully watches me. She knows that I can be trusted, that I am here to give care, worry over cuts and nicks, and satisfy her needs. I know in that moment what connection is, I can understand the beauty of horse and rider. Secrets spoken aloud lose their power; I keep this time with her private.

Not every day is like this, sometimes time and real life can interfere with want and I find myself barely stopping by on my way to an appointment, or traveling will leave me without checking on her for days at a time. But the consistency of knowing that your horse will be waiting when you return, just as ready, just as eager, is testament to the quiet acceptance horses can grant so easily.

Horses love unconditionally and pass no judgement, and that quiet whoof of breath into your hand can make the minutes and the hours melt away. Your physical limitations disappear in a half pass or a soaring jumper course and there is nothing but appreciation for the body beneath you that has given you wings. I’ve learned compassion and patience from my horses over the years and even more from watching the strength they can inspire in our students. Girls spend their adolescent years searching for voice, purpose, connection and an individual sense of accomplishment.

Stoneleigh-Burnham is a place for girls to foster connections with these uniquely dignified animals. We are able to continue these traditions year to year because of compassionate people who understand the importance of the relationships between girls and horses. These people are our Director of Riding Mina Cooper, our alumnae and the patrons of the SBS Riding Program, and they continue to give of their time and their hearts to support a program that gives young girls purpose.

Our school is a magical place where adults can help students combine a love of learning and a passion for horses. As one student remarked on her senior page, “I wish leaving Stoneleigh was as easy as leaving the ground. Thank you…”

-Samantha Pleasant, Class of 2002

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Filed under Alumnae, Equestrian Program, School Happenings, Uncategorized, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School

Esprit de basket

I will never forget the look on Ramses Lonlack’s face when we first walked into the Mullins Center at UMass. Her jaw dropped, her eyes widened, her head tilted back, and as she gazed slowly around the arena, she said softly yet firmly, “Some day, I’m going to play in a place like this.” Along with several other fans from Stoneleigh-Burnham, we sat down near the small but enthusiastic cohort that seemed to be made up mostly of friends, roommates, and family members to cheer on the UMass women’s basketball team, Ramses’s voice rising with many others as she got caught up in her enthusiasm.

Women’s basketball fans are indeed enthusiastic about their sport, and many of us share a bond that goes far deeper than whatever team(s) we happen to support. Liz Feeley is a former women’s basketball coach in Divisions I and III, but although she undoubtedly sees more in five seconds than I see in five games, she loves to discuss the chances of UConn (a team I’ve followed since Rebecca Lobo went there out of Western Massachusetts) vs. Notre Dame (one of her former teams) with me, and a Diet Coke now rides on each match-up. Similarly, when I took Ramses and another girl from Africa to a professional Connecticut Sun game, they discovered the visiting Los Angeles Sparks had a player from Africa and began to root loudly for the opponents. Other fans turned around to gaze at them, but rather than incredulity or irritation, their faces showed a kind of bemused delight.

The following year, I learned a friend of mine (Melissa Sterry, a Sun fan and former WNBA blogger whom I had gotten to know simply by starting an email conversation in reaction to one of her blogs) kept six season tickets for the express purpose of bringing people to Sun games and getting them interested in women’s ball. She invited me to bring a cohort of students whom we took out to dinner after the game so she could talk to them a bit about basketball and about their lives. Ramses was originally supposed to go to that game too, but at the last minute had to cancel because a Division I school had offered her a tryout. She expressed profound disappointment at missing the Sun game, but knew this was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up.

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Historical Interlude

Women’s basketball began in 1892 when Sendra Berenson of Smith College adapted the rules of the year-old sport for women. Players could only bounce the ball once before passing, and the court was divided into three zones to minimize running. Three players per team were assigned to each zone – guard, center, or forward. The first known women’s basketball game opposed the classes of 1895 and 1896, with the freshmen winning 5-4.

In 1914, just two years after the college opened, West Tennessee State Normal School played their own first women’s basketball game, winning 24-0 over a local high school. The college would undergo a number of name changes through the years, settling on the University of Memphis in 1994. Despite their early advocacy of women’s sports, the college demoted all women’s athletics from varsity status in 1936. They would remain so until the passage of Title IX, and the women’s basketball team was reinstated for the 1972-1973 season.

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Ramses did end up at the University of Memphis, the school she missed the Sun game for, and made her mark quickly. She won the “Rookie of the Week” award her first week in the league, and has won numerous defensive awards. More recently, she approached a major milestone, her 1000th point. She has also grabbed more than 500 rebounds and had over 250 steals, and is only the 6th player in U. Memphis history to achieve at this level. As Ramses approached the milestone, an excited buzz rose up on the Internet in the spirit both of women’s basketball and of Stoneleigh-Burnham, and when she finally made it, friends and fans from all over joined in congratulations. We could not be happier for her or prouder of her, and wish her all the best as she continues through her senior season.

Photo credit: Joe Murphy

-Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean

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Filed under Admissions, Alumnae, College Prep, On Athletics, The Faculty Perspective