Wearing all the clothes she owned, she clambered up the mountain, eventually shedding each layer, piece-by-piece, as the day grew warmer. A memorable scene in a book I read at least five times during my childhood: Heidi by Johanna Spyri. I loved the story of the little Swiss orphan girl sent to live with her reclusive grandfather in the Alps; her time with the wheelchair-bound Clara and the soft, white rolls she saved for Peter’s grandmother seemed almost real to me.
A veritable flock of girls – real and literary – surrounded me as I grew up in the 1950’s, including Polly Pepper, the oldest daughter in The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew. My recollections of this impoverished family remain limited – I read the book just once. I recall Polly helping with the sewing her mother took in to make ends meet by removing basting threads to be saved for the next garment. Equally memorable: my mother read this very same book scores of times during her childhood. It was one of a handful of volumes in her Great Depression home, books she read repeatedly – until the St. Paris library opened during her teen years.
The March sisters from Little Women became my second set of siblings. When I received Louisa May Alcott’s coming-of-age novel for Christmas in the third grade, I immediately pictured myself as oldest daughter Meg, my nearest sister as the rambunctious Jo, and my younger sisters as Beth and Amy. Again and again I read about the inspirational books the girls received on Christmas morning, Jo’s haircut, the schoolmaster punishing Amy by rapping her hand with a ruler, the death of dear Beth. I even considered renaming my mother Marmee.
Not all the girls in my life lived in the books I read, however; with the advent of the M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E Club in 1955, Doreen, Darlene, Karen, and Annette entered our lives. During Mouseketeer roll call each day I stood up and shouted Annette’s name, my sisters following suit with the other three aforementioned names. Even after the “mouse years” I followed the breakout success of Annette Funicello; one of my prized possessions was the only fan magazine I was ever allowed to have: the issue of American Girl Magazine featuring Annette’s burgeoning career.
I was also enamored with the high school girls at Concord when it was still a school for grades 1-12. They did cheers with megaphones, clacked away at the typewriters in that little room just off the big study hall, practiced their shorthand in stenographer notebooks on the bus as we rode to school. I wanted to be just like all of them.
I also admired girls I read about in the news. When Helen Keller learned Braille, I wanted to learn it, too – so that I could keep reading after my mother turned off the lights at bedtime. And I checked out a biography of Queen Elizabeth II from the library countless times; it chronicled the early life of the present-day British monarch: her birth, her role as princess after her uncle’s abdication, her marriage to Prince Philip, her coronation at the age of 26. I even dreamed of marrying her son Charles – after all, we were born in the same year!
There were, too, a couple of girls I now wish I had known more about as I was growing up. We were all familiar with Ohio-born Annie Oakley and her storied life as “Little Sure Shot.” Back then, I was unaware of her support of the quest for equal pay for equal work by women and her determination to teach thousands of women how to shoot to defend themselves. When her offer to form a female sharp shooter squad for the Spanish-American War was refused, she spent time visiting military camps and raising money for the Red Cross.
I had never gotten very far in Anne Frank’s diary until a few years ago when I read it in German with one of my advanced students. Of course, I wholeheartedly admire the German-born Jewish girl who hid from the Nazis with her family in Amsterdam. She was such a teenager – jealous of her sister, unappreciative of her mother, in love with Peter. She was, however, also unusually perceptive and so wise beyond her years: “Whoever is happy will make others happy too,” and “I don’t think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains.” Oh, she would have been a person to emulate during my formative years.
Anne Frank reminds me of two young women currently worth emulating. Malala Yousafzai, the 22-year-old Pakistani girl shot at 13 for defending the right of girls to receive an education, received the Nobel Peace Prize five years ago because she believes: “One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world.”
Even more recently, Greta Thunberg became Time’s Person of the Year at the age of 17. The Swedish environmental activist speaks for many young people across the globe: “We children are doing this to wake the adults up…for you to put differences aside and start acting as you would in a crisis.”
Over the years my sisters and many friends played important roles in my life. But I also grew up with these other remarkable girls who profoundly influenced me. It is my hope that all little girls everywhere may enjoy similar special experiences.
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.