Recently I received an email from a parent of a current fourth grade student. The subject line read, “The impact of an Ellis education” and the message she shared ended with these words, “We are very proud, and wanted you to know that the education and leadership skills that Gracie receives at Ellis reach far beyond the classroom, even at a fourth-grade level. Thank you for helping us raise a strong, fearless, and empowered girl.”
Jacki, Gracie’s mom, had every reason to be proud. She had just returned from the Whitehall Borough Council meeting where she had watched her 9-year-old daughter stand up in front of the mayor and council members and confidently deliver a presentation. In her email, Jacki shared some of the details, but Gracie gave me the full story when I saw her at school. “It all started at the pool this summer,” she told me. It was at the Whitehall community pool that Gracie saw kids “smoking” candy cigarettes they had purchased at the snack bar. She was immediately worried that kids would think it was okay to smoke. “Cigarettes are not candy and kids shouldn’t pretend to smoke,” Gracie said. “Kids should know that smoking can lead to death.”
Gracie was so concerned, that she wrote a letter to her congressional representative, Conor Lamb, asking him to ban candy cigarettes. Gracie was pleased to receive a letter back from Lamb, but was disappointed to learn that he couldn’t help her. Gracie followed up on Lamb’s suggestion that she write to her mayor, but the mayor replied that he couldn’t help her either. He explained that she would need to speak to the Borough Council members. So Gracie prepared a proposal to ban candy cigarettes and arrived at the meeting ready to state her case. After listening to a librarian give a report, Gracie spoke. Her mom described the moment in her email writing, “Tonight she presented her concerns to twelve council members like a poised and intelligent young lady—no nerves, no “um"s, no hesitation.”
I wish I could have been there to see the girl I taught in kindergarten—the girl who is happiest when she is hanging upside down from the monkey bars—school the adults on the negative influence of candy cigarettes. Listening to Gracie tell the story was almost as good as being there when she described the moment the council members voted unanimously in favor of the ban. “Then they went around and every person said ‘I agree,’ ‘I agree,’ ‘I agree.’ I felt really happy and surprised because I didn’t think they would all agree with me so quickly,” Gracie recalled with a big smile on her face.
While Gracie’s parents deserve the credit for raising a daughter who stands up for what she believes in, the steps Gracie took mirror experiences she has had at Ellis through the years. In the classroom, girls confront problems, envision a plan, work through the process, persevere as they encounter obstacles, and come to a resolution. They believe in their own power to affect change because they’ve done it before in the company of their teachers and classmates. A bigger audience, say the mayor and council members, isn’t too intimidating for an Ellis girl. When we have these kinds of experiences in the classroom, we usually reflect on what we have learned. I asked Gracie what she is taking away from this experience and she had a simple message, “If you see something wrong, you should change it.”