On Fearless Girl and Being Unafraid to Ask Questions

I wrote this in March 2017. There was a lot of pushback against this public art piece in the days and weeks after this statue appeared. Detractors were upset that it was paid for by a large financial firm whose own board did not reflect the message of “girl power.” Others loved it regardless of who had paid for it. But nothing is simple, and it only heightens the impact of what my students experienced. Please read on:

Staring down the bull (photo: Ashley Semrick)

I first read about her on Tuesday, March 7th. The diminutive, sneaker-clad, child statue who had quietly stepped into the path of the bull in Lower Manhattan. Right away, I knew had to take my class to see her. Like most of my colleagues at our small, progressive Manhattan independent school, I had chosen to not to participate in the general strike the following day, but to spend it with my fourth grade class. It was not an easy decision. I was instead planning to devote the day to exploring the lives of change-making women, past and present. This trip fit right in.

Before I was a classroom teacher, I was a museum educator. I taught children of all ages to ask questions about art and artifacts to facilitate connections. Inherent curiosity, when honored, is the most authentic of places to begin learning. As a teacher, one of my most important tasks is to listen to questions. The questions define which direction to lead the students. At my current school, I see firsthand everyday what it looks like when teachers devote their practice to listening to conversations, wonderings, and questions that children have. We provoke young minds with carefully chosen content and materials, and then we guide them through a process of inquiry that will eventually lead them to a greater understanding of not just the content, but of themselves as learners.

On Wednesday morning, International Women’s Day, my class gathered and headed out for our “mystery field trip.” I front-loaded the event by letting them know we were going to see the Wall Street Bull, which many of them had seen in passing. I told them that under cover of night, another artist had added something to the sculpture and we were going to check it out. As we rounded the corner near Bowling Green and the bull came into view, we were surprised to see a crowd gathered on the narrow median between Broadway and Whitehall Street. As we made our way closer, we caught a glimpse of the new addition. Someone in my class shouted, “Look! It’s a girl! There’s a girl there now!” Someone had placed a pink pussy hat upon the bronze, pony-tailed head of the life-sized bronze statue. She looked just like my daughter; just like my students. We made our way over to the statue and watched as people around us stepped forward to pose with the compelling new work whose face, tilted upward, seemed to demand “bring it on.” Not one person took their spot next to the Fearless Girl without mirroring her shape and strength. When, I wondered, was the last time I had seen such a reaction to a piece of art?

I had intended to lead an inquiry session with my students then and there, but the crowd was growing — media, tourists, and New Yorkers — all excited to welcome Manhattan’s newest downtown resident. We made some quick observations as a group and shot a few photos. I pointed out that we were standing on the spot where Revolutionaries from an earlier era had committed another historic act of defiance: they had torn down the statue of King George III in Bowling Green Park upon declaring themselves independent from the British Crown. Today, we are in a new era and living through a new kind of revolution, hundreds of years later.

Upon returning to school, my students reflected on the experience. The Fearless Girl was made of bronze, just like the bull, they said. I asked why they thought the artist would chose the same material. “To show that she has the same power as the bull,” one student wrote. I shared with them that the creator of the statue, Kristen Visbal, felt the piece was a way to send a message about women and power. The students made the observation that Fearless Girl was striking because it gave voice to the underrepresented — in this case, women and children. They named themes of inequity, determination, strength. They analyzed her posture and compared it that of a superhero — feet apart, fists on hips, hair and skirt blowing as she stood against the wind. They believed the bull was actually afraid of her. After all, one student pointed out, it looks as though he is veering left to avoid confrontation with this fierce and Fearless Girl.

Student response to fearless girl (photo: Ashley Semrick)

My students are savvy, and they know when they’ve been seen as people, and this work of art meant that someone had seen them and found them worthy of representation. Taking time to appreciate and discuss the merits of artwork that validated them as young, strong voices was tremendously empowering for them.

And, as though our exciting trip, conversation, reflection had not been enough, we awoke Thursday morning to find that a photograph of our class standing strong with the Fearless Girl had been shared far and wide across the world. The students were all over Twitter, Instagram, even CNN and the New York Times. It turns out the rest of the country was just as captivated by her as we had been.

Sudden fame, via Getty Images and the NY Times

They were certainly proud of their sudden fame, but the “why” behind taking them to see this new piece was certainly was not to get media attention. In my class, we talk a lot about untold stories and unheard voices. We look for those voices all the time, especially when it comes to literature, art, history, and social studies. I encourage them to ask hard questions like “Who is telling this story? Who has the power? Who didn’t get a say?” Digging into the ideas behind art like Fearless Girl is deeply connected to this process.

Mind you, these are nine-and-ten-year-olds. They remind me every day just how deeply children think. They remind me to look closely while I encourage them to do the same. We don’t always find the answers, and that is okay. We keep looking, and we ask new questions. Keep asking questions, and encourage children to do the same.

Looking at art and the context in which is was created is important. Trusting kids to gain insight and perspective is critical and necessary, and it allows for creative, intellectual exploration. It breeds compassion, understanding, and productive dialogue. If we are going to fight back against the kinds of things happening in our country right now — the dismantling of education programs, the abolition of support for the arts and humanities at the national level — we are sending the message that the ideas of children and artists no longer matter. We have to speak up using our practice, our voices, and our expertise. We have to train and trust the voices of our children to connect with the curricula of the humanities, because they are ones who are next in line. We also have to write and share the stories of our classrooms.

We must be brave enough to step away from the rigid systems of tests, data, and rote responses. Tests aren’t human. Art is human. Find the art. Ask questions. And listen to the questions of children, so we know where to go next.

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