Girls to a Woman

You couldn’t pay me to go back to eighth grade. That was the year the most popular boy in the class came up to me and said, “Hey Reeder, do you want to go to the movies Saturday night?” Of course I said yes, and he shouted, “Have fun!” as he ran off laughing with his other popular friends.

So it was pretty ironic to find myself walking into a room full of 300 eighth-grade girls last week at the Women’s Resource Center’s “Girls to Women, Women to Girls” conference at the fairgrounds. It’s a daylong affair designed to inspire young women to start thinking about career options. A big part of that is introducing them to women in various fields who, like myself, were seated at tables around the room ready to answer questions.

Some women had large displays and computers and samples and stuff to do. I showed up with a few hundred Telegraphs and plunked myself behind the placard that read “journalist.” (This also was ironic, since last August I gave up my freelance journalism dream to supplement my income by wrangling ads for this esteemed publication. But I digress.)

Suddenly, students converged on the booths. Five of them – two with glitter on their eyelids – stared blankly at me as I asked, “Anybody want to be a writer? Anybody have any questions? Anybody ever read the Telegraph?” In the face of their silence, I experienced a severe case of verbal diarrhea. “It’s the greatest job in the world. You won’t get rich, but... ,” and they were gone.

The next group proved livelier. They also didn’t have any questions or particular interest in journalism, so I changed my approach and asked, “Are there any stories you’d like to see in the newspaper?” They suggested I write an expose on their school’s discriminatory physical education program. They said the boys take P.E. every day, but girls only get to take it once or twice a week, and then they only play sports like kickball. They wanted the chance to start a girls’ football team.

The more they spoke, the more they seemed to warm to the idea of using journalism to expose injustice and to the concept of interviewing what I’d called “interesting” people. “Who’s the most famous person you’ve interviewed?” one of them asked. Let’s see...the mayor... Mark Larson...“Wavy Gravy!” I said proudly, which led to the next question. “He’s a ’60s clown... he gave me his nose,” I heard myself say. Then I heard them make a break for it while declaring to other students, “Go visit her. She interviews famous clowns.”

Then I sat for a while and watched the constant throng of students hovering around the hairstylist in front of me. They tried different hairsprays and listened with rapt attention as a friend and organizer came over to me to bemoan the lack of interest in some of the less-flashy professions. She said she felt sorry for the librarian, who was sitting alone in the back of the room. “Next year, I’m telling her to wear leather,” she said.

But eventually two students, clearly best friends, approached me and said journalism was their second choice as a profession. “What’s your first?” I asked, and their eyes lit up as they chimed, “Opening a candy store!” (I’m telling you, the competition was tough.)

Later, another girl said she wanted to be an actress. Her friend wanted to be “an interior designer and then a doctor.” Eventually, I started to just try to make conversation about anything since most students seemed pretty uninterested in journalism. “What do you think of the conference?” They liked the question session with the high school girls, hated the guided meditation. (“There were no pillows, and we weren’t allowed to sleep.”) One girl was really angry that the boys in her school got to go on a field trip to a lake, while she was stuck at the conference. Several said going around to the booths was the best part, but they must have seen the desperation in my eyes.

At one point, I could tell a group of girls was losing interest as I blathered on about the importance of internships in college, no matter what career they chose. So I shifted gears to ask them about stories they’d like to see in print. More blank stares, so I suggested, “The girls at St. Columba are pissed off about ... whoops, angry about 85 ” which actually got them to laugh and show a flicker of interest in me. I was so relieved that I briefly considered inserting minor swears into all of my conversations, but after they left, a girl bounded over to me and said, “I hear there’s a journalist over here. I want to be a journalist. Is that you?”

Talk about music to my ears. Her friend quickly joined her, and they asked me a lot of really great questions. “What’s the hardest thing to write about?” (Death.) “Have you ever written something that you regretted later?” (Thankfully, no.) Then, “What do you like to write about?” I said women’s issues and politics interest me, but I love learning about all kinds of people, events and issues in the community, and that I occasionally even review plays.

I asked the budding journalist what she wanted to write about and she said, “Have you seen the movie ‘How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days?’ She’s a journalist who writes about hair and fashion and how to lose a boyfriend in 10 days; I’d like to write for a big magazine about stuff like that.” I winced as I realized that Kate Hudson had already done infinitely more to attract young women to journalism than I ever would by sitting at a career fair for an hour and a half.

As the career fair ended and the students headed off to the closing ceremony, I came up for air and said goodbye to some other professionals who looked similarly dazed. “Boy, am I glad I’m not in eighth grade,” I said to another woman, who agreed.

“I know; it’s so hard,” she said. “But these girls seem to be doing alright.”

They are, and it’s strangely comforting to realize that the life of an eighth-grade girl hasn’t changed that much in the nearly (gulp) 20 years since I was struggling to be all right. School is still a drag, peers are confusing, and the prospect of high school is simultaneously exciting and scary. And a roomful of professional women at career booths is not nearly as interesting as worrying about dating.

So with that in mind, I plan to show up to the conference next year with glitter on my eyelids and a monitor to show “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.”

-Jen Reeder




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