Monday was one of those magical days that happen at schools, especially Holton. On one single day, I had the opportunity to hear two extraordinary women share their experiences and wisdom with Holton students. The first was Dr. Salima Ikram, an Egyptologist at the American University in Cairo and a 1982 graduate of Holton-Arms. The second was Susan Stamberg, the award-winning and pioneering NPR journalist. Susan Stamberg didn’t go to Holton, but we love her anyway.
Sixth grade history teacher Anita Carr invited Dr. Ikram to talk to the sixth and the seventh graders (who took ancient history last year, in sixth grade, if they were at Holton). Dr. Ikram—whose presentation one sixth grader called “captivating”—earned her bachelor’s degree in Egyptology and Archeology at Bryn Mawr College and her doctorate in Egyptology at Cambridge. She specializes in mummified animals, which was very interesting to the girls who had learned basic information about mummies and mummification. It turns out the Egyptians mummified all manner of animals from pet dogs and cats to monkeys, ibises, and crocodiles. As the sixth and seventh graders knew, the animals represented different gods. My favorite example of a mummified creature was an 18-foot crocodile that Dr. Ikram unearthed. She was working on it, pulling straw out of its mouth—feeling “like a crocodile dentist”—when she grasped something she thought was a stick. Instead, it proved to be a baby crocodile, also mummified and carefully placed in the mouth of the adult, just as a mother crocodile might protect her baby by holding it in her mouth.
The girls appreciated learning about the mummification process in greater depth. More interesting to me (and some of the girls) was the history of mummies. Long a tourist attraction, Dr. Ikram showed photographs of Victorian tourists having their pictures taken with mummies. She described how Europeans would bring them home as souvenirs, only to discover that they began to smell terrible in the damp climate. They provided popular entertainment as people staged public unwrappings of mummies. In largely treeless Egypt, people burned them for fuel. During the Civil War when the North had little access to cotton, a Maine paper factory imported mummies and used their linen bandages to manufacture paper that butchers used to wrap meat! Perhaps most alarming was the 18th century practice of grinding up mummies and dosing out the powder as medicine. Emperor Francis I took a spoonful every day in hopes of prolonging his life and kept an emergency pouch with him at all times! Lest one think that cavalier treatment of mummies was a practice of the past, she described one day asking for light in a dark tomb, only to be handed a burning torch that turned out to be a mummy’s arm—just like Indiana Jones!
As one seventh grader observed, “you may read about someone who found a tomb but very rarely will you meet a person, let alone a Holton-Arms graduate, that is an Egyptologist and found a tomb of her own.” Discovering Egyptian tombs and Roman fortresses, climbing cliff sides to take rubbings of ancient drawings of pet giraffes, and fending off snakes and scorpions, Dr. Ikram is indeed Holton’s own Indiana Jones.
Though Dr. Ikram may have piqued some girls’ interest in becoming an archeologist, the majority aren’t contemplating a career in Egyptology. However, they did appreciate her passion. One skeptical sixth grader expressed appreciation for Dr. Ikram’s approach which “made learning a history something fun, new, and interesting; rather than old and boring.” She shared “amazing stories” and lots of “fascinating” photographs of her at digs. As one sixth grader remarked, “Seeing her face light up teaching us about Egypt really showed how much passion she had for her work.” Whether digging around for ancient remains represents their futures or not, hearing about someone’s career always has value, as one seventh grader said, “Although it may not have inspired me, personally, to become an Egyptologist, it did make me realize that I CAN do or be anything that I want to be and that there are a lot of jobs out there for me to choose from.”
Several hours later, Upper School girls who work on Scroll (our literary magazine), Scribbler (the newspaper), and Scribe (the yearbook) attended the annual Publications Dessert. Staff positions for the following year are announced at this event that also always features a journalist as a guest speaker. This year that guest speaker was none other than NPR’s Susan Stamberg. Stamberg has won every award broadcast journalism offers and was the first woman to anchor an evening news program when she became one of the first hosts of “All Things Considered” in 1972. Like many of you, I imagine, I didn’t need to know about her awards and accomplishments; having listened to her distinctive voice for years, I felt as though she was a long-time friend whom I was finally going to meet in person.
Though she is over 70, Stamberg is as energetic as a 30 year old. She was engaging, amusing, and, as several girls remarked, “down-to-earth, ”offering stories, advice and exhortations to the girls. Her road to a world-class journalism career offered a number of lessons for the girls, beginning with the value of single-sex education. A graduate of Barnard College, where she majored in English and sociology, Stamberg passionately extolled the virtues of a women’s college: “a cocoon where everything was concentrated on us”; where high standards and a focus on women helped her develop self-confidence (sounds familiar, doesn’t it?). One of only five members of her class graduating without an engagement ring, she went off to graduate school in hopes of going into publishing. She got married, moved to Washington, and got a job typing for “The New Republic.” In the meantime, an acquaintance told her about a job as a producer for a news program on WAMU. Being a producer involves deciding on the stories, arranging the people to interview, and structuring the program. Even though she had no experience, she was sure she could do the job, in part because in the process of typing all those articles for “The New Republic,” she’d learned a great deal about goings on in Washington. And here was another lesson: you learn from every job you have. The man at WAMU wasn’t as convinced as she was that she could do the job, but she called him every day for months. Eventually, he gave in and hired her. Lesson three: the value of persistence.
Stamberg received her first opportunity to go on the air when the “weather girl” called in sick and she, the producer, was unable to find a substitute. She herself was the only option, and since reporting on the weather required nothing more complicated than calling the weather phone (remember that?), she thought she could do it. However, she was so nervous that she didn’t write down the weather report; on the air in a darkened booth with no opportunity even to look out the window, she had to make it up. In February, she reported the temperature at 60 degrees. Then she had to repeat the report, but she couldn’t remember what she’d said, so she had to make it up again; this time, the temperature was 20 degrees. Much to her amazement no one called in to complain, but she learned a lesson: never go on the air unprepared; never lie to your listeners. (I have to say, devoted public radio listener that I am, I’ve always considered their weather coverage lacking; maybe she’s not the only one improvising the weather!)
Stamberg moved from WAMU to NPR just as the national network was getting off the ground. She started out as a tape editor, but soon moved back on the air—she had ended up hosting an evening news show at WAMU—when she filled in for someone on vacation. Before long, she replaced him permanently, and the rest is history. She still believes in true journalism—“shoe leather on the street”—not just gathering information from the internet. One junior remembered her observation that “NPR reports the news as it's happening, while the websites and newspapers which we heavily rely on merely report what has already occurred.” Stamberg quoted Thomas Jefferson who allegedly remarked that if he had a choice between a newspaper and government, he would choose a newspaper. Stressing the importance of the press to keep government honest, “especially today,” she urged the girls to consider careers in journalism. Even with all the challenges today, she argued that we will always need smart, well-educated people who want to be reporters. Regardless, though, she urged the girls “to find something you love and then figure out how to get paid for it,” advice at least one junior “took to heart.”
Stamberg may not have graduated from Holton, but as another junior said, “I thought she as a person seemed exactly like a Holton alum: she made a path for herself and stuck to that path until she got what she wanted.”
When confident, successful women—whose passion infects their audiences—visit our girls, they open up vistas, vistas where our girls can imagine their own futures.
One day, two extraordinary women. How lucky we are!
Friday April, 27, 2012 at 04:40PM