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Congratulations, it’s a girl!

The coed school will nurture her science-loving daughter's talents; will it also introduce gender assumptions to her detriment?

As the Jerusalem weather vacillated timidly between several possible forecasts, I dropped my daughter off for a three-day stay at a prospective school. This “stay” is some amalgam of audition, learning, experience, socialization, and hopefully some fun for students who have applied to go to this selective school for the gifted. My daughter is excited and nervous as I drive her. Will she be too shy to talk? Will the trial classes be difficult or fun? And do the properties of car metal or the color of the paint have more of an impact on how hot a car gets? Perhaps you think that the third question is a non-sequitur, but then you haven’t lived with my kid for the past 14 years.

We arrive, and my daughter hauls out a suitcase that is about 30 percent larger than the other kids’. If you brought two of everything, you might need the extra luggage space, as well. I haven’t figured out why she needs even one flashlight, but if the first one fails, she does have a second. You never know when it will snow in Jerusalem in April, or if there will be a sudden heat wave, or a power outage. The good news is that if you forgot tissues or a Band-Aid, she always has plenty. Antibacterial ointment, too. And two Rubik’s cubes: one to mess up and solve, and the other taken apart into pieces to reassemble, then try to figure out which piece is placed incorrectly and precludes a solution. I’m not sure why and neither is she. She shrugs when I ask her: It’s fun, she says.

My daughter is wearing a bright flowery dress with sneakers, her blond hair flying behind her as she skips up to registration. She never walks; each step literally incorporates a bounce, as if she has just come off a trampoline. She looks at the board for her group number, then finds the corresponding registration table. She has applied for the science track.

The students at the science table ask her for her name. The boy at the desk smiles broadly.

Look — it’s a girl!

My daughter smiles back. Yes, she says, I’m a girl.

It’s a quick exchange, but I frown at this initial notice that she gets about girls and science. Expressions of joyous surprise are a backhanded compliment, even when meant to be supportive. “She’s so articulate,” “He dances so well for a white guy,” “He’s religious but he’s reasonable.” And “she’s a girl studying science.” I didn’t want her to know about this, but of course she probably already does. As I’m leaving, she notices there are a lot of boys in her group, the flip side of there being fewer girls. It doesn’t matter, I say. Boys are people, too, and some of them will be nice and cool and interesting. She hugs me, and bounces away into the crowd.

I think of her current school, an excellent center of learning that is exclusively for girls. Perhaps she is better off staying there, even though it operates as a mass production center with little flexibility or creativity. My high school was unisex, and it never dawned on me that girls did or did not tend to learn certain subjects. Some girls liked math, some liked art, some writing. Gender had nothing to do with it. It was not intended to be a liberating or feminist experience, as it was an ultra-Orthodox school that eschewed higher education of any kind and persistently promoted a stay-a-home-housewife model as a one-size-fits-all solution. And it did fit most, but for some of us, it allowed us to explore our talents and interests free of gender-restricting assumptions. Like my daughter’s current school, my school funneled us down a long, narrow, windowless corridor. You wanted to do it a different way? Tough. Take your learning disabilities, emotional problems, creative ideas, different approaches, and pack them away in your suitcase, best in the oversized one my daughter took with her.

What to do? Opportunity with flexibility, or rigidity with no gender disparity awareness? Like my daughter’s physics question about the influence of metal and paint color on a car’s heat absorption, there are the multiple variables of home, school, and society. They all have influence. I just want her to be a happy, healthy, kind, strong person who doesn’t have to be informed that she is, in fact, a girl. And an amazing, awesome bouncy one at that.

About the Author
Chana Gable Selmon is an emergency medicine physician practicing in both New Jersey and Jerusalem, sometimes in the space of the same week. She likes to tell stories.
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