Follow the Legacy of Dauntless Women and Men

Dauntless women have long traversed the globe in search of adventure, love and freedom from the constraints of patriarchal societies. They often give little thought to the following day even during difficult times although perhaps they are struck by a yearning to take a lighter road. An avid reader of biographies, I have always loved reading about such women and their exploits. Biographies of Colette, George Sand and Isadora Duncan are cherished possessions in books now yellowed with age.

Just as fascinating for the reading are tales of women seeking spiritual enlightenment in far-off corners of the world. For a while, I read all I could find about the Russian Jewess Isabelle Eberhardt who converted to Islam and disguised herself as a Bedouin traveling through the North African Algerian Sahara. Residents of the walled city of Damascus revered Lady Jane Digby el Mazrab, the much-married English aristocrat who ended her days with a man 20 years younger, writing vivid journals of her experiences traveling in the desert.

Stories of the sharp-shooter Annie Oakley who traveled with Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show and the notorious outlaw Belle Starr left me wanting to join their ilk. Other heroines were those who gave their lives to service, renunciation and political activism. The lives of Sojourner Truth, Madame de Pompadour, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Louisa May Alcott, the Stowe sisters and Prudence Crandall are profiles in courage. Ms. Crandall was an educator and abolitionist who opened the first private boarding school for black girls in New England.

Petitions were drawn up against the school, rocks were throw into windows, and eventually it was burned to the ground. When the school closed, Ms. Crandall took in private students and spent time lobbying for women's rights. Never having made more than a subsistence living, she struggled on in poverty until a group of concerned citizens, including Mark Twain to whom this quote is attributed — "Every time you stop a school, you will have to build a jail" — contributed to Ms. Crandall's pension of $400 per month.

I could go on and on reflecting and recalling the courage of well-known and unsung women and men and continue to note the risks they took for what they believed in. When seeking qualities that bind them, I realized they all felt it necessary to challenge the status quo even at risk of failure. Many of our lives are so structured and programmed, saddled with debt, that risk taking seems out of the question. In fact, those who step out into uncharted territory can be seen as headstrong or out right fools. This came home to me vividly after I received word the school I started in Trenton for high-risk children was not going to be funded. My dream of creating a model school that could be replicated was dead.

When I confided my situation to an acquaintance and the fact my pension was in question, the man replied, "You were a fool. Why were you a teacher to begin with? And why did you leave your school in New York for uncertainty?" After the initial shock at his response, I became angry. How does one know without trying, even with the ever-present risk of failure?

My childhood idol, Isadora Duncan, never hesitated to move onto uncharted territory in her quest to find freedom in the dance. Yes, she became lost along the way! Yes, she experienced more tragedy than most, culminating with the sudden death of two children. Her character combined the capacity for bold vision combined with a tendency to make some catastrophic choices but whatever the circumstances, she got up, dusted her off and kept walking.

The death of Christopher Reeve came as I was writing this column. It was my pleasure to have spent time with him when he visited the learning center and school I started in New York several months before his tragic accident. He came with one of the teachers with whom he had attended Julliard.

Mr. Reeve exuded vitality and a sincere interest in the well-being of children. Each student spent time with him, and after spending the entire day, they had memories for a lifetime. Only a truly special person would take hours out of their busy schedule to spend time with children they did not know, particularly ones with problems or facing a crisis as many students at our school did or were.

Upon hearing about his riding accident, I was deeply saddened, and then, as the years went by, I became overwhelmed by his courage. I and many other individuals applaud his commitment to finding a cure for spinal cord injuries and other related afflictions. Mr. Reeve was a rare person, leaving a lasting legacy, and I celebrate his courage as he joins the pantheon of men and women who, regardless of their circumstances, lived life to the fullest, and, when confronted with struggle and earthly failure, picked themselves up and went on.

This month's column is dedicated to the indomitable spirit.

What better gift can we give to our children?