This past Sunday I celebrated my 33rd birthday. Actually, I celebrated all weekend, spending time with family and friends and eating entirely too much cake.
The highlight of the weekend, however, was a big blue poster I found tacked to my classroom door Friday morning.
I teach at a performing arts school in Alabama. In addition to my English courses, I teach an elective titled Women & Media that I describe as "women's studies meets Journalism 101." Last week several of my female students worked together to create for me a fabulously feminist birthday card complete with a drawing of Beyonce, a portrait of Frida Kahlo and sketches of Hester Prynne and Kate Chopin tossing patriarchy in a trash can! And the messages they wrote to me brought tears to my eyes. Many of them said I was their favorite teacher or the best English teacher they've ever had. One student said that when she feels hopeless or incapable of doing something difficult she thinks of what I would say to her. Two of the girls called me a queen! But little do they know, they are all royalty in my eyes. They have no idea how much they inspire me.
One young woman (the mastermind behind the birthday poster) wrote: "You have helped me grow into myself." But this is exactly what all these girls have done for me. They've helped me become the woman I was meant to be.
In a TEDxWomen interview that I show in my Women & Media class, feminist icon Gloria Steinem defines aging as "becoming more of my authentic self." But she goes on to point out the irony of aging for women. When we are girls we are fearless and fierce, climbing trees and plotting plans to rule the world. Then, Steinem says, we are stamped with gender roles and become confined by society's stereotypes of what a girl should and should not be.
But then we age. And as we age we become more and more liberated from the notion that it is necessary to conform. We become that fierce, fearless girl again. "You're the same feisty person, but now you have your own apartment," Steinem says with a laugh.
My students, particularly my female students, remind me of my teenage self. And though young Javacia was full of the insecurities that most teen girls battle, she was also full of dreams and dogged determination. She believed every "No" could be turned into a "Yes."
And though I didn't have my own apartment, I was fortunate enough to have a room of my own and this room was my queendom. My room was my sacred space in which to create. My room was where I wrote songs, speeches, short stories and poems. I wrote in my journal every day. Blogging didn't exist so there were no thoughts of pageviews or landing freelance gigs. Back then I was a true artist, writing simply because I loved to do so. I wrote simply because I couldn't help myself.
I am becoming that girl again, which is making me a better woman.
And I want to be a better woman not for myself, but for all those girls I have the privilege and honor to teach.
I just hope they know how much they're teaching me, too.
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