The great freedom: To be who you are

The great freedom: To be who you are

‘No one told me I couldn’t join the baseball team on the corner, even though the team was mostly boys’

BRATTLEBORO — Recently, the Brattleboro Area Farmers' Market had a children's day. Children set up tables and sold cookies, illustrated cards, stories they had written, painted rocks. Many of them were girls.

Wanting to encourage the writer among them, I bought “The Goofy Dog,” a story written and illustrated by an enterprising girl. As I looked around, girls were everywhere: selling, buying, running, laughing.

I thought of the harrowing story I had heard the previous day on public radio.

A young woman from Afghanistan told of her early life and of how, at 13, she and her 15-year-old brother were smuggled into India and abandoned there, where they didn't know the language or any individual. Her parents had paid smugglers to get them eventually to America. They could not afford to go themselves.

She could not go out to play. She could not go anywhere unless accompanied by an adult male. If she had stayed there, when she grew up she would not be allowed to drive a car or travel on her own.

She and her brother did eventually get to America, thanks to the kindness of strangers. She couldn't say enough about her happiness in being in the United States.

* * *

I grew up in a suburb of Newark, N.J., surrounded by uncles, aunts, and cousins who all - every single one - went to work in a factory. I grew up wandering the streets on skates and on foot.

No one told me I couldn't join the baseball team on the corner lot, even though the team was mostly boys.

No one told me I couldn't get on my bike and ride any street that took my fancy.

I can remember standing on the edge of the Jersey meadows, staring in the distance at the Shangri-La called New York City.

There was a playground. There were woods. I could enter and leave at will. And, most important, there was a Main Street within walking distance where there was a public library. As a proud 7-year-old, I even had my own card.

No one ever told me I couldn't learn, or couldn't imagine myself as Alec Ramsey taming the Black Stallion, painting a fence like Tom Sawyer, riding a raft like Huckleberry Finn. I had no trouble changing boys into girls or me into a boy while still being a girl.

I played outside. I went to school. I had male friends, girl friends. At 16, I had my first job. At 17, I graduated from high school. At 19, I was enrolled in a teacher's college.

I'm 78 now. Looking back, I'm amazed at how much I took for granted.

* * *

Today, I listen to public radio and learn of countries that deny such a childhood to girls. Even the simple act of sitting at a computer and writing this essay could be discouraged.

This freedom I had to be me didn't just happen. Whom do I thank? The original settlers of this country?

The authors of the books I read?

The librarian and those who raised the funds to keep the doors open?

My parents?

How do I say thank you to an entire country?

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