As a kid in school, we were often asked to pick our "hero" and give a report on him or her. In March, it was always her. I always struggled with this. Sure, there were the Susan B. Anthonys of the world, and the Queen Victorias about whom to give our reports. We could talk about Rosa Parks and Mother Theresa, and a few kids decided to talk about their mothers or a doctor who they knew. Once every year or two, some brown-noser would talk about the teacher who assigned the report in the first year. I always hoped that they got downgraded for that. I, however, always found the assignment particularly daunting. Was there even a female role model that meant anything particularly important to me? Not really.
One year I put together a report on Madonna, because she was a successful musician. Another year I reported on Ginger Rogers, because she was an inspiring dancer. Once I even presented on Princess Diana because it was a name the other kids would recognize. Yes, I could have talked about her humanitarian efforts, but instead, because I was very young, I focused on things like her upbringing and adapting to life Royal.I came to the conclusion that it wasn't nearly as much fun as it sounded like it would have been.
Yes, I always finished my presentation, complete with visual aids, but I didn't really feel very strongly about any of them. It wasn't until I was fifteen that I had a female hero who wasn't Wonder Woman, but a tangible person who inspired me to do better and changed my idea about the role of women in the world at large, who wasn't my teacher.
When I was fifteen, my choir director came to a few of us with an opportunity to audition for an operetta with the local music club. They were doing The Merry Widow and needed Grisettes. As a vocalist who imagined herself a serious musician in training, I jumped at the opportunity. It was a serious audition process, but in retrospect, I probably made a bigger thing out of it. After all, only a few high schoolers were invited to audition, and even fewer probably bothered to show up. Nonetheless, I was over the moon to get to work with a group of music professionals and talented hobbyists on the operetta, and threw myself into the rehearsals with all of the enthusiasm a fifteen year old can muster.
That's when I found, or perhaps developed is a better word, my first female role model. My first real "childhood hero." Not my school's choir director, but the woman who conducted us and bossed us around for The Merry Widow.
She was young. Younger than my parents. She was short. She was energetic. She was pretty enough, but not gorgeous, and although she had ample femininity, she didn't wield it like a weapon. She was just herself, seemingly comfortable in her skin, and she wore the mantle of authority both gracefully and securely.
Within the cast of the operetta were myriad performers from varied backgrounds: music professionals, male and female, layers, doctors, educators and a lot of people who were accustomed to being in charge. If anything, it was a cast of chiefs, and not so many indians. Performers also tend to be very independent. After all, it is their art, and while they're willing to take direction, if you've spent any time in a green room, you know how hard it can be to fit all of the ego into the room.
But here was this small woman correcting people older than she was, more wealthy than she was, and whose recent performing credentials may have carried more weight than her own, and most importantly men. Why should that be important? Why does it matter that she was directing men? Don't all conductors direct men? Of course many of them do, but many of them are also men, and as a musician, I've seen the way that males in a group tend to cede deference to conductors, male and female, and although we'd like to pretend there isn't a difference there is.
Although it may be subtle, most of the time the male conductor receives greater respect, less back-talk, more immediate compliance, and all around increased professionalism. This is, of course, the fault of those directed, but nonetheless, I've seen it too many times to ignore it. But this was different. When she called a rehearsal to order, everyone, male or female gave her their (nearly) undivided attention. Let's face it, adults aren't the best at focusing. But everyone, even the men who are used to telling other people what to do and to being the king of their own little mountain, treated her, invariably, with a level of respect and professional courtesy that I had never seen before.
I had grown up with more female principals than male ones, more female teachers than male teachers, and yet this was an entirely new experience. There she was, a woman, a small unassuming woman who wasn't using any feminine wiles to regain the balance so direly lacking back then, and she was unquestionably the authority in the room.
It changed my life. For the first time I believed in the possible eventual scenario where I could grow up and have just as much professional credibility as any one else through mastery of my field, regardless of the organs with which I was born. This was new. This was a hero who wasn't a nurse or a nun, or famous because of how and who she married, or for being an anomaly like Amelia Earhart who stood out specifically because she was a woman in a man's field, or a Queen Elizabeth who was who she was because of how she was born. This was a hero because she commanded respect simply because she had earned it and seemed to expect no less.
Finally, a real world hero. Of course, she terrified me. At the close of that project, she asked me to sing a different work with another group she was conducting. Of course! Then she invited me to join a choir which did a couple performances a year. Of course! It was possibly the most important part of keeping me involved in music, because for the first time I found there were many outlets which didn't involve school or music lessons. There was a whole new world of groups with whom to sing and places to perform.
Later I moved away for college. Sadly, at the collegiate level, I did not see as much respect given to the other women under whom I sang as my childhood hero had demanded, and I began to wonder if perhaps my perception was colored too strongly by my extreme youth. I was, therefore, pleasantly surprised when, as an adult, returning to the area in which I had grown up, I had, again, the opportunity to sing for my childhood hero again. Of course, my later observations and impressions were a little different. She's still short, pretty, and less young than a lot of her professional peers, but she's not perfect. I never really thought she was, but as an adult, everyone loses a touch of their shiny- though really, being a flawed human makes it all a little more meaningful, doesn't it?
It was interesting. She still intimidates me a little. As a man in my choir recently said, she "has this way of telling the basses that they made an error that makes you feel like it was your fault, even though you sing a different part, and then you're more determined not to be the one making the mistake." But, every time we rehearse or perform, I'm again impressed and once more inspired for the better by the fact that my youthful perceptions were pretty spot on. There she is, remarkably consistently well respected.
With the respect of one's peers, also comes a certain amount of derision. I've, on occasion, heard a derogatory comment from someone who didn't appreciate being corrected. What's interesting to me, now that my anger at hearing anyone speak against my childhood hero has somewhat dissipated, is that the most rude thing I've ever heard, in the last eighteen years, about this woman, basically equated to another man saying "how dare she command us as though she were a man." There's always a throwback in every group, no? I won't bother to repeat his actual crass statement, he doesn't deserve direct quotation. In retrospect, I should have responded by saying "she's the one with the presence, command, and experience."
However, I didn't. So I'm saying it now. She is the one with the presence, command, and experience- and she isn't the only one. Knowing her has led me to expect, seek out, and find the other women like her. The ones who command their field irrespective of sex or gender. They're out there, and you know what? We need more of them. More real world heroines for the young women to set their expectations of treatment on. More mothers who learn to stop saying "just a housewife," and start saying "I'm a mother."
So it's not March, and I haven't been asked to present on my hero, but this week, when trying to wrap my head around the concept of heroes, I realized that I had one, and maybe, just maybe, sharing the story of how I found a hero as a young lady might help someone else who doesn't realize that sometimes the best heroes are the relatable people with whom we interact every day.
If you have a human hero, please feel free to share below. I'd like to read about more of them.