This summer, I watched from a distance as a group of Hewitt middle school girls played outside together. And while their movements and interactions seemed generally strong and confident, I spotted the first inklings of that “thing” that happens to girls as they enter adolescence—that moment when, as one of Hewitt’s visiting girls’ research scholars Rachel Simmons writes, girls’ “bodies and voices contract in an effort to take up less space, in order to be liked and seen as worthy and attractive by others.”1 There was a new carefulness to their play (a hesitant side-glance, shoulders rolled forward, voices hushed), and this made me reflect on the critical necessity of Hewitt’s commitment to putting the latest research on girls into practice in order to create a buffer against larger societal forces that curtail girls’ voices, bodies, and confidence. And suddenly, the song, “Girl on Fire,” by New York City’s own Grammy Award-winning Alicia Keys, began to play on a speaker nearby.
And just like that, the girls’ bodies, voices, and demeanor were transformed. They widened their stances. They put their fists on their hips. They danced and struck power poses with arms raised in a victorious V. They seemed to expand as their bodies took up more space. They flung their heads back and, with chests heaving and faces tilted up to the sky, belted out the song’s loud and powerful chorus: “This Girl is on Fire!” I watched in awe. And I was not alone. A couple of adolescent boys nearby stopped kicking around a soccer ball and stood motionless—half-curious, half-bemused—at the sudden eruption of these once docile girls whom they had not noticed just moments before. These girls were fierce. These girls were powerful. These girls were on fire.
After playing the song again, louder this time—“This Girl is on Fire!”—one of the girls jogged over to me to ask if we could make “Girl on Fire” Hewitt’s theme song. After affirming that I thought it an excellent choice for our school, I explained that in order to use the song in any official capacity, we would need Ms. Keys’ express written permission. Undeterred, the girl nodded: “Right. So we will write to her to tell her about Hewitt.” There was something about the girl’s indomitable spirit that jogged my memory; this was not the first time I had seen a Hewitt girl empowered by Alicia Keys’ song. Weeks earlier, I had seen a video of another Hewitt girl—this time, an incoming Hewitt kindergartener—singing the song on a New York City stage, with a confidence and power that amazed me and everyone else who watched the five-year-old’s performance. And I decided that, coincidence though it might be, the connection between this song and our school was worth exploring.
To start, we should clarify what, exactly, it means to be a “girl on fire.” According to The Collins Dictionary, a person who is “on fire” is “enthusiastic, excited, or passionate about something”; “in a state of ignition”; “full of ardor”; or “playing or performing at the height of one’s abilities.” To be “on fire” is to be achieving something extraordinary and important and to feel unstoppable in the process. And though it would be unwise to strive to be in a “state of ignition” all the time—for that type of constant fire leads to burnout—at Hewitt, we are on a shared journey to give every girl opportunities to develop genuine excitement about something that will inspire her to perform at the very height of her abilities, to fan each girl’s inner sparks of possibility into full-blown flames of achievement.
Perhaps more to the point, what can we as educators and parents learn from the song’s powerful effect on these girls as we build, nurture, and sustain environments in which girls can feel confident, intrinsically motivated, and unstoppable? As soon as we begin to probe how Alicia Keys’ song empowered these girls to be heard, to take up physical space, and to harness their power, we start to gain important insights into what girls need to thrive and lead on their own terms. There are, to my mind, two distinct ways in which Hewitt stokes the inner fire of each and every girl: our program and our people.
Hewitt’s program is carefully designed to ignite girls’ curiosity in some of the most thorny and intractable economic, environmental, social, cultural, educational, and political issues of our day. At Hewitt, we believe that school should be a place where girls and young women develop genuine concerns in the world by being exposed to challenging problems they care about, want to know about, and long to solve. If students spend most of their time in school passively following adults’ instructions, and then we turn around and encourage students to follow their passions, we should not be surprised when they do not take our advice or even know where to start. At Hewitt, we believe that school should be a place where young people learn to make active choices about what matters to them, to know why it matters to them, and to co-create learning experiences that allow them to pursue their individual interests. And as we continue planning for our upcoming centennial, we cannot wait to tap into the inner fire of Hewitt girls to inform the shape and direction of Hewitt’s program.
The second way we do what we do is through our people. At Hewitt, we place the utmost importance on recruiting, investing in, and nurturing a community of educators who understand the importance of tuning in to what each girl needs to thrive, who are committed to being present, and who know that their most important job is to show up for the girl in front of them. In this respect, Hewitt’s educators practice what purpose scholar and Stanford University Professor William Damon urges adults to do: namely, to present young people “with a full palette of possibilities that align with the ‘sparks’ that young people express” and to take very seriously the need to be “good listeners when young people discuss their interests.”2 Every day at Hewitt, I bear witness to our dedicated and passionate educators sitting or walking side by side, immersed in conversation with students who are “fired up” about topics as wide ranging as the Second Amendment, their favorite marine animal, or the elimination of single-use plastics. At Hewitt, we take girls seriously in ways that are not yet reflected in our society. And in these everyday exchanges, Hewitt educators are hard at work, setting a brush fire here, a brush fire there—fanning tiny inner sparks of curiosity into full-blown flames of achievement.
The Persian poet and theologian Rumi said, “Set your life on fire. Seek those who fan your flames.” Not only do we at Hewitt seek to fan the flame of every girl, we know that this fire will be different for every girl. This, in fact, is the special alchemy that takes place when Hewitt’s program and people coalesce. We know that when we pay close attention—when we are present for each and every girl—we are able to locate and fan the flame inside of her that will sustain her through good times and bad. And if a song can make girls feel powerful and unstoppable for a few minutes, then just think about the compounding effect over time of attending a school that is expressly designed to make girls feel this way every day. The compounding effect is this: a Hewitt girl learns over time to internalize the message that she doesn’t need a song, or even a school, to make her powerful. She learns that she has all the power she needs inside of her, and she will carry it with her for the rest of her life.
1. Rachel Simmons, The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls with Courage and Confidence
2. William Damon, The Path to Purpose: How Young People Find Their Calling in Life