What Inspired Me and Still Does Every Day

Back in the fall of this school year as I gathered what I needed to continue to work at home, I decided to remove all that adorned my office walls and bookshelves. I knew I wanted them close. This might have very well been my own way of trying to normalize a bit more what continued to feel so abnormal. Perhaps it was the comfort surrounding myself with the known. Perhaps I knew that I would need to find inspiration as we all made our way through this current school year.
 
Over the years, I had chosen each piece quite carefully. My office was modest space-wise, so there were only so many places for display. Each piece in my office has a story.
 
Wahida Begum: The woman who I decided to have as the namesake of my office, as well as the inspiration of an art piece, was the principal of a girls’ school in Pakistan. In the Swat Valley, more than 100 girls’ schools had been firebombed by the Taliban at the time of an NPR story about Begum I heard in 2008. Many families kept their daughters home to protect them, but Wahida Begum set up a table in the school’s courtyard every day just in case her students returned. Her school once had 480 girls who attended, but at the time of the report, only 20 girls were coming each day. I followed up with the reporter a year later, asking if he knew of what had happened in the interim. He sadly wrote he had no further information. Ms. Begum has inspired me every day since I first heard her story. She risked her life waiting for her students to return to school, knowing that educating girls was central to changing society and culture, benefitting families, and that educating girls was the same as fighting for justice. I would only hope I could be as brave. (As it turns out, Malala’s father was an administrator in the same school district at this time as well.)
 
Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez: Having art in my office representing them both was deeply meaningful to me for a few reasons. My mother, whose family had traveled from Siberia and from Russia to escape war, worked the plantations first in Hawai’i, then the fields in California. My mom picked crops throughout her childhood, living in tents, working up and down the state with her family. She shared stories of hiding from the truant officers (since her family needed both her and her siblings to work), going hungry at times, and then finally landing in San Francisco as a 14 year old. She went to Mission High School for 3 months before dropping out to once again work (this time as a piece worker at Levi Straus) to help her family. My mother, never having the opportunity of education, saw firsthand its impact or what impact its absence had. She was adamant my sister and I should excel at school and graduate college. Knowing the conditions of those who worked the fields drew me to the movement for farm workers’ rights. This was my first experience getting involved in the fight for social justice as a teen. A few years later when I worked on Bobby Kennedy’s campaign, of course, the fight for farm workers’ rights continued. Meeting Dolores Huerta when we worked on a JMSG project and having one of our students interview her is a cherished memory, to say the least.
 
El Campanil or the Clock Tower: I have a postcard from the 1930’s depicting El Campanil, the clock tower on Mills campus. The story behind this tower still inspires me. Designed by Julia Morgan, it withstood the 1906 earthquake. When William Randolph Hearst, who was not in the Bay Area at the time, heard of the destruction caused by the earthquake, he wanted to know which architects had designed structures that were not destroyed. Enter Julia Morgan, who had designed her buildings and the clock tower in steel reinforced concrete. Since Hearst was planning a “small ranch” in central California, he wanted to assure it would not fall should there be an earthquake, so he hired Julia Morgan to design Hearst’s Castle. And that she did, completing a decades long project, with the greatest of patience on her part. Capability, strength, creativity, confidence – all at a time when women were not considered to possess three of those qualities! Simply put, Julia Morgan was extraordinary. 
 
President Obama: GGLS often focused on equal pay for equal rights for women and on the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. President Obama was the first president to create a structure to help establish a federal response to those issues that directly impacted the lives of women and girls. The president spoke about the importance of equal pay for equal work, so GGLS jumped on the chance to send a letter to him, thanking him. They invited the JMSG community of girls and faculty/staff to sign. And they received a response from the President! The letter, along with a signed photograph of the President also hung in my office. This will remain with the School.
 
Julia Morgan’s Angel: I had a copy of sketch of a cherub angel, done by Julia Morgan, hanging close by my desk, “watching over my shoulder”.  Whatever one’s belief system is, I figured I could not go wrong with this! She had designed it for Hearst’s Castle.
 
A Saying from Zimbabwe: “If you can walk, you can dance. If you can talk, you can sing.” I bought this when I first came to JMSG. It seemed to be the perfect inspired saying for this time during middle school, when emotions run high and low, sometimes within a few minutes. This quote was an anchor for me as well, prompting me to remember the strength we all have, even if many times we need to dig deep into our boots to remind ourselves it’s still there, especially when we are not feeling it. It motivates us to take those positive risks, building our confidence along the way and reminds us not to shortchange ourselves. That goal just beyond the positive risk-taking may not be that far from us after all.
 
Einstein – His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson: I kept this book that a colleague had shared with me since I was reading it when I had the remarkable gift of spending the afternoon with Eugene Cummins, the nuclear physicist who was mentored by Albert Einstein, very much a father figure to Eugene as well. The coincidence made both the book and the afternoon even better. It was a story I shared a bit about a few weeks ago, but it was such an extraordinary opportunity to spend a leisurely afternoon, along with Peter Engel, an architect JMSG has worked with on multiple projects. I had just read a part of the book when Isaacson noted that Einstein was an accomplished violinist. Since Eugene had initially met Einstein due to Eugene’s mother, who was a music teacher who had worked with Einstein to better his musicianship, I mentioned what I had just read. It went like this: “I just read in Isaacson’s biography that Einstein was a talented violinist.” Eugene: “That’s because Isaacson never heard him play.” I burst out laughing and am smiling just in remembering. As in recalling several other opportunities I had at Julia Morgan, I am still in awe that these came my way.
 
Photo of My Grandmother: As noted in another newsletter, my grandmother showed extraordinary bravery in coming to this country, with her children in tow. As I wrote above, she worked on the plantations in Hawai’i when she left her home in Siberia due to war, and then worked the fields in California for years with my grandfather and their children. If I ever thought a day was challenging, all I needed to do was look at her and think about what she had done. My day – piece of cake.
 
Photo of a brick from Stagville: This brick with a hand impression of an enslaved person, and then a descendent superimposing their hand on the imprint: I find this photo by Brenda Scott breathtaking. When visiting friends in North Carolina some years back, a branch of the Smithsonian had an exhibit on Stagville, which has an extensive genealogy program, focusing on tracing the families and descendants of enslaved people from the Bennehan-Cameron plantations. The exhibit focused on descendants who had been invited to research their family’s history, record their oral history, with Stagville also helping descendants with materials for family reunions and digitizing family photographs. The photo in my office, now at home, will continue to have a prominent place.
 
Rosa Parks: Jess gave me a framed postcard with a photo of Mrs. Parks, along with one of Mrs. Parks’ most famous quotes, “Each person must live their life as a model for others.” This inspiration stands not only as a reminder of what is possible, but also what we want for all of our children. It would be such a different world if we all did as Rosa Parks counseled.
 
Butterflies: I had a basket on the floor in one of the corners with delicate multi-colored, 3-dimensional paper butterflies, with some butterflies then taped to my wall, with the effect of them flying in the corner of my room. I need whimsy in my life. And, whimsy also helps to keep front and center that even though adolescents can have several daily moments of being sophisticated and adult-like, they are still children. The metamorphosis that takes place during middle school is astounding and undeniable, yet they are children indeed, and also ready to take their own flight into independence as they find themselves on the brink of young adulthood.
 
The Leap: If you attended the All School Meeting a few weeks ago, you heard me talk about this poster. It was one of a young woman leaping over a cavern. She looked confident, knowing she would land safely. This poster, which students and faculty liked, said so much. Taking positive risks without knowing the exact outcome takes tremendous courage. It’s what we hope for each of our children and what we attempt to teach the students at JMSG: to take positive risks, building confidence along the way, knowing that if you fail, you can learn from it and try again. What would we do if we knew we could not fail, as the saying goes – or if we constantly reminded ourselves that even with failing, we had learned?
 
Honors and a Transit Ticket: I’ve written and spoke about many of the honors and opportunities I had. I kept some remembrances on my desk as reminders to me of the possible: the White House United State of Women nametag, a photo of when the Liberian Minister of Education visited JMSG and met with a small group of faculty and students, a program from the Junior Commission of Women where I was asked to address the fight for women’s equal rights. I also had a Seattle transit ticket to remind me that, even when something seems impossible, well, it just may be the opposite. Marcia and I visited a terrific girls’ middle school, Seattle Girls’ School, in 2013. We only planned to stay the day and fly back that night. The head of school at SGS had picked us up in the morning from the airport and had emailed earlier that he would drive us to the airport for our flight back. We had had a great day, exchanging practices with the head and various members of their community, observing classes, with ultimately, noticing the time for our flight home was quickly approaching. The head then shared that he could not take us to the airport, but would drop us off at the transit station. We had very little time to get to the airport and it was rush hour. As Marcia and I took the train, with standing room only, and several stops along the way, we watched the clock incessantly. We went from thinking, “well, there’s a chance we’ll make it” to “there is no way we will”. We got to the airport when the plane was boarding. And an even longer story short, which includes Marcia forgetting she had a water bottle in her purse, and the two of us running full speed to the furthest gate from security, let it be said we made it as they were closing the doors: we plopped into our seats and could not stop laughing. I kept that transit ticket to remind me that even when I think something is not possible, that sometimes, it is and the experience along the way, makes it all the better.
 
Never too Old to Tame the Beast: I happened to take this photo decades ago. It’s of an older woman, sitting peacefully on an enormous piece of drift wood that looked like the Loch Ness monster to me. We can meet the challenges that come our way; we can do it fiercely and we can do it with grace. I also believe we can do it with a graceful fierceness and I believe as well that we are never too old to do both.
 
Go in gratitude: The quote I chose to be over the door to my office inside is “When in doubt, go in gratitude.” I wanted never to forget the blessings I have, no matter how challenging the day might be.
 
My last “looking back, looking forward” newsletter will be coming in a few weeks on June 4. Until then, let’s all go in gratitude.
 
Warmly,
Sandra
 
Back