Monday, April 2, 2012

141: The Self-Empowered Woman: Jeannette Walls

Dear Followers,

I really love researching and writing about amazing women, but when I get to actually meet one I feel like I have the best job on earth. Last month, I had the honor of meeting Jeannette Walls (the beautiful woman on the right), the astonishingly gifted author whose book The Glass Castle has been on The New York Times best sellers list for FIVE YEARS!

Like so many other Self-Empowered Women, Walls had an unreliable (if charming) father (1: No Paternal Safety Net). He was an alcoholic, a schemer, and a brilliant but undependable man who continually made promises that were never filled and took chances that adversely affected the people who loved him. In spite of countless upheavals and often dire living conditions, Walls was lucky enough to at least have an environment that was mentally stimulating. There might not have been enough food for dinner or a way to take a bath, but there was an abundance of good literature, art appreciation, and intellectual conversation (even if there was no heat or emotional consistency at home).

Fortunately, by the time she was a teenager, Walls had found her true calling (2: An Early Sense of Direction). Working at the Welch High School newspaper (in West Virginia) gave her both a way to avoid hostile students, and the reality that - unlike the other kids - she had no lunch to eat, as well as the opportunity to discover the joys of journalism. Walls actually had two people who took a strong interest in her talent and helped her believe in herself (4: Supportive Someone). Jeanette Bivens - who had also been her father's high school English teacher - encouraged her work on The Maroon Wave school newspaper, and Mike Armstrong, who was her boss at The Phoenix newspaper in New York.

Walls experienced almost endless bullying when she was a child. Her family's frequent moves and unsightly living conditions gave other students the ammunition they needed to attack her both physically and verbally. All too often she was taunted and called "garbage" (5: Life is not a Popularity Contest). It didn't help matters that she was skinny, wore ill-fitting hand-me-downs, and had buck teeth. She even tried to build her own orthodontia because her family had no money for braces. The other students took every opportunity possible to tell her that she was ugly and to call her a string bean (6: Life is not a Beauty Pageant).

Fortunately, Walls managed to overcome her childhood difficulties and build an enviable career in the Big Apple. She graduated from Barnard, hen became a familiar face on TV, in print and in book stores (8: Turning No Into Yes). Perhaps because Walls grew up in such an unstable family environment, bravery seems to have become part of her DNA. After her sister left West Virginia and moved to New York, Walls - as a teenager - left home (before graduating from high school) determined to build a better life for herself (11: Risk Addiction).

In today's world, when so many people find it easy to feel sorry for themselves, learning about Walls' childhood is a useful way to put our own "difficulties" in perspective. This beautiful, talented woman spent much (if not most) of her childhood hungry, either too hot or too cold, poorly dressed, and sleeping in one small bed with two siblings or in a cardboard refrigerator box. And on top of the physical challenges, she had to deal with the emotional uncertainty of a mercurial, alcoholic father and a depressed, unstable mother (12: Hard Times).

Not surprisingly, the outside world assumed that the ill-dressed skinny little girl from the "strange" family didn't have much to offer, even though she was a gifted reader and wise beyond her years. When the family moved to West Virginia (they had previously lived in the Southwest) she was unable to understand the Principal's accent at Welch Elementary School - and he couldn't understand her's - she was enrolled in classes for students with learning disabilities (13: More Than Meets the Eye).

Curling up with The Glass Castle is the best way I can think of to be reminded that no matter how tough life seems to be, things can always take a turn for the better. Lucky me to have met Jeannette Walls!

Looking forward to your comments...

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