Men and women alike have to examine the lessons we...

Men and women alike have to examine the lessons we teach - even for fun - and rewrite the rules of the games we play. Credit: Tribune Content Agency / Donna Grethen

Like almost every other woman I know, many of the lessons I've had to unlearn in life I first learned in kindergarten.

For example, I've had to break the habit of having cookies and a nap at 3 in the afternoon.

That's because as an adult I developed this fetish about wanting to hold a steady job and not take up so much physical space I need to be hauled around by a winch.

Lying down every day after a heavy sugar and carb intake can undermine a girl's ambitions as well as her ability to enter a room without turning sideways and breathing in.

After a certain age, I also had to learn to stop automatically holding the hand of the person walking next to me.

I discovered in my mid- to late 20s (I'm a slow learner) that the unoccupied hand belonging my "buddy" (or boyfriend, or first husband) was often furtively engaged in holding a miniature bottle of cinnamon schnapps, the keys to a vehicle he didn't own or the hand of another wide-eyed girl. (Sometimes all three. Remember: slow learner.)

One of the biggest revelations came when I realized that I did not have to share everything. That was fascinating. To believe I could be a good girl and yet insist that some stuff belonged only to me? It was hard to convince myself that somebody else wanting a piece of what I've got (a piece of pie, a piece of the action, a piece of my heart, whatever) was not a reason to fork it over. I was in my 40s when I learned that even if somebody asks nicely, it is OK to say no.

Over the years, I've also had to learn that life is not a game of tag (nowhere is "safe") and that in most workplaces, time-outs are not the penalty for behaving badly.

I also discovered, along with the rest of America, that although in politics, professional sports and Hollywood there are no penalties for behaving badly, if you're working retail or for a corporation, you'll be fired before you can say, "I'm sorry." Lately, though, I've realized that I've clung to the schematics behind the game of "Duck, Duck, Goose" as a guiding force for far too long.

In women's lives especially (and since I'm talking about the pre-K demographic I'll call us "girls" without fear of appearing patronizing), all sorts of lessons have encouraged us to sit politely and wait to be chosen. Remember the game "Duck, Duck, Goose," where you sat in a circle facing the center and waited to be recognized as the "goose," whereupon you were tapped and permitted to run around making choices yourself? And how many fairy tales taught us essentially the same lesson? "Duck, Duck, Cinderella!" "Duck, Duck, Snow White!" Or classic books? "Duck, Duck, Jane Eyre!" "Duck, Duck, Anna Karenina!" Or popular movies? "Duck, Duck, Julia Roberts playing a hooker in 'Pretty Woman'!" (Only in the case of the Julia Roberts' film, of course, could the words "duck" and "goose" also be used as verbs. I'm just saying.) Great lesson, right? Not about the verbs: about a game where ritual passivity is preparation for random selection. Where the goal is to be distinguished as exceptional, not presumably because you possess any duck-like attributes (God forbid), but because you're not paying attention and might be a slow runner.

Boys are rewarded for playing games where they line up by height and then run into walls. Perhaps I'm making that up - or perhaps you should do a computer search for "Guy Runs into Wall for Fun." If you do, you'll notice that the recent number of visits to that site is about 3.5 million. The official YouTube site for the London Olympics, in contrast? Fewer than a million views. And the YouTube site for the National Women's History Museum's video titled "Three Generations Fighting for the Vote"? 56 views, total.

Men and women alike have to examine the lessons we teach - even for fun - and rewrite the rules of the games we play.

Nobody wants to go through life as the guy who slams into walls. And nobody wants to spend her life as a sitting duck.

Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut, a feminist scholar who has written eight books, and a columnist for the Hartford Courant.


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