A letter from Caela Carter, author of HOW TO BE A GIRL IN THE WORLD

On Sale 8/11

Dear Reader,

In February of 2017, I was invited to be a key note speaker at the Women’s Leadership Summit at Ridge High School, my alma mater in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. I was asked to simply share my experience of being a woman in any way that felt appropriate. It felt most appropriate to start by talking about being a girl.

Actually, when I sat down to write the talk, I was feeling like a girl. The night before I had been out to dinner with several other YA and middle-grade writers. I had been the last person of the group to show up because I wasn’t able to escape my house until my kid was asleep. I arrived feeling very much like a harried grown-up. I sat down and dished myself some fancy cheese when suddenly a large, warm, male hand was on my back. Not tapping my shoulder or something, but resting between my shoulder blade and armpit. It was our waiter asking if I wanted something to drink. His other hand came down lower on my back and together they robbed me of my adulthood and my agency. I was wearing short sleeves and his hands were splayed so wide across my shoulders that his fingertips touched the actual flesh of my arms. I wanted to splay, to flail, to run.

I didn’t.

I answered his questions politely while attempting to squirm away from him.

Throughout the night, I watched as my friends acted exactly like me. All of us were women. All of us were feminists. All of us are people who think about these boundaries often. We all fell apart at the ancient experience of having them broken. We wiggled to the very front of our seats as he put his hands on our arms, shoulders, and the smalls of our backs. We whispered about how uncomfortable we were with his touching and then turned to him with smiles plastered on our faces. I felt at once ashamed of him touching me and powerless to stop it.

So when I sat at my computer to write this talk the next day, I dug into the familiar wound the waiter had reopened until I could find something close to its origin. And I wrote. I wrote about being in sixth grade at my Catholic elementary school. I wrote about the feeling of knowing that my bra was completely visible through the white linen shirt I was forced to wear every day. I wrote about how the boys pulled our bra straps and how, having now been a middle school teacher for years, I was certain the teachers knew about that and did not stop it.

I wrote about being chosen to play Captain Hook in the sixth-grade play. How I was teased relentlessly for having the ambition to play the most fun character, simply because he happened to be male. I wrote about how I embraced the role and eventually the teasing stopped, and I was accepted to lead the force of pretend pirates made up of my male classmates.

And then I wrote about the game the boys made up during rehearsals. I would often be talking and singing at the front of the stage while the boys shuffled behind me, mimicking the supposed hustle and bustle of a pirate ship. After a few weeks, I started to feel pinches on my shoulder blades as I worked my way through A Pirate’s Life for Me. They were pulling my bra straps. They were competing to see who could snap my bra strap the most during my little soliloquy.

But it wasn’t a big deal. They snapped our bras all the time. They were just flirting.

It didn’t matter.

They continued relentlessly right up to dress rehearsal and I was the way I was supposed to be. I laughed with them. I pretended I enjoyed it. Dress rehearsal involved a lot of bra strap snapping until suddenly one boy pulled not my bra strap but the hook of my bra and pop it came undone. I was halfway through talking to Smee when suddenly I felt my breasts come free. It was like they were everywhere. I was certain everyone knew. I was certain I was jiggling all over the place and that everyone in the small dress rehearsal audience was staring at my chest. I was no longer a pirate. I was no longer even a person. I was only an unsnapped bra.

I could hear snickering behind me. What could I do though? I pinned my arms to my side to keep my bra in place. I straightened my shoulders as much as I could so that the straps wouldn’t fall if the boys continued to snap them. I delivered my last line. I exited the stage, brandishing my hook. And then I booked it to the ladies room to fasten my bra back up, my eyes burning with tears I would not let fall. I didn’t tell the teacher. I didn’t yell at the boy. I didn’t even tell my friends. It was over and I let it go.

But did I? Because twenty-five years later that moment happened all over again, but this time with a waiter’s hands on the small of my back while I failed to lean far enough away.

That was the gist of my talk. I wrote it. I felt good about it. I felt a little exposed. It felt a little personal. But I was going to give it anyway.

My husband, son, and I drove to my parents’ house, at the time still in my hometown, so that they could babysit while I gave my talk. I’m a mess of a public speaker. I always almost melt into a puddle before I start to talk. So I was completely unprepared when my dad said to my mom, “Why don’t I watch the little guy so you can hear the talk?”

My mom was enthusiastic.

“That’s ok,” I said.

She persisted.

“I really don’t think you want to hear this one,” I said.

She insisted.

So then there I was, sitting in the auditorium of my old high school, printed pages on my lap with no time to rewrite them. I was certain my mom would be shocked. I was certain she thought she had protected me by sending me to this small Catholic school. I was going to break her heart.

I stood up to talk and gave the entire talk as written without so much as glancing at her.

It went well. The crowd was about 95% girls between one and five years past sixth grade, and I could see the recognition on their faces. It was a women’s leadership summit, so I finished by asking them to think about the more quiet ways to be a leader. I encouraged them to pursue their dreams in science or the arts or politics or business or education, but to also think of the ways to be leaders in their personal lives. I suggested that simply saying “stop” when a stranger crosses your boundaries can be as brave a move as running for office.

In the end I got a standing ovation. It relieved only some of my jitters. I still had to face my mom.

But she didn’t say, “Where was the principal? Where was the teacher? How did that happen to you?”

She didn’t say, “Who was he?”

She didn’t say, “I tried to protect you from all of that.”

She was not shocked.

She said, “The boys used to pull my bra straps too. I never thought about how messed up that was before.”

This stuff is universal.

And I thought, that’s my next book.


Caela Carter, author of How to Be a Girl in the World

Caela Carter graduated from The New School’s MFA program in writing for children. She taught children and teenagers for ten years. Her books for teenagers include Me, Him, Them, and It and My Best Friend Maybe. Caela has also written three books for middle grade readers, My Life with the Liars, Forever, Or a Long, Long Time, and One Speck of Truth. This is her fourth. Caela lives in Brooklyn.