How A Girl At Summer School Changed My Life In A Week

It was a teenage art residential I'd never forget.

How A Girl At Summer School Changed My Life In A Week
How much do we stereotype women into sexual or intellectual?

I only knew her for a week.

I only know her name is Helen.

We met on a summer school in the UK when I was 16. It was a week of creativity where we could make a film, or make pottery, or do photography.

During that short time, this one girl called Helen inspired me more than any female I’d ever met.

Can I tell you why?

She was electrically creative. She spoke excitedly of going back to college at the start of the next term, of the things she would make. Now it might sound odd to people, but I’d never heard someone speak like that before.

I was only ever used to hearing my fellow pupils and peers speak begrudgingly about education. There’d been this feeling long ingrained in me, that it was kind of obligatory, when in reflection of the past or anticipation of the future, to generally moan about school, about life... even if we actually enjoyed many parts of it.

I’d never heard someone openly speak positively, proactively, about embracing going back to school.

During that week, I saw Helen engage with the creative opportunities available on the residential like no-one else did. She created art with wholesome confidence and fervour.

Two other girls left halfway through the week. Quitters. They missed home, and decided they had enough. The opposite kind of role models, girls I knew I never wanted to be like.

But I learnt, from watching Helen, that maybe I should take even more happiness from my own creativity, get both hands dirty in the way she did.

But the inspiration didn't stop there.

Whilst Helen modelled clay and fired pots at the residential, I also watched as she seemingly embarked on a whole relationship with a boy, all in that same week.

Whilst speaking intelligently, smiling her wide smile, and making friends with other girls; she preened her Afro, flirted and danced around a ginger-haired boy from Newcastle who was also on the course. At one point we were sitting in the town centre after having all gone to the cinema to see The Matrix, and I turned to see Helen and the boy snogging on a park bench.

At that age I’d never kissed anyone before, so I was rather bemused to turn and find them ravishing each other right next to me.

What society might consider a rather too quick relationship, filthy holiday romance perhaps (I had no idea whether they had sex), was fascinating to me because... well, most of my school life was spent staring daftly at boys in the playground with my friends wondering for years, 'will he, won't he', getting into weird embarrassments, denying you 'like him', both playing stupid hard-to-get, the boy pinching or jabbing you with a pen instead and never really getting anywhere.

Helen just went for it.

She liked him, he liked her, they acted upon it. Simple.

Despite being the same age as me, she seemed years beyond. By that point I was feeling really quite fascinated by this tall, vivacious, determined young woman.

Simply because, I’d never seen another female allowed to be intelligent and sexual at the same time.

To express all sides of herself, in an openly authentic way.

Let me pause here for a moment. Because I know many people may not get it - especially men who might respond as my partner Matt did when I told him this, and say, really? I see women like that all the time, everywhere.

Was it really that odd to see a woman like this?

Yes, absolutely it was, for me!

Through my teenage years, intelligence and sexuality in girls was polarised. You were either one or the other. Intelligent or sexual. Further stigmatised, into swot, or a whore.

Yes, maybe I was with the wrong crowd. Or in the wrong school. Or in the wrong social class.

As a child I was creative making art, writing, and I loved primary school. Upon high school, I went through the usual modes of teenage rebellion of experimenting with the expression of one’s changing body through clothes, make-up and hair-dye. That’s all normal, but I also felt the pressure to supplant everything about my intellectual self in order to pursue the new sexual self. Expression of intellect and expression of sexuality weren’t compatible - or at least - I did not have one single role model available to show me that it was.

Until I met Helen.

And that, is specifically the Eureka! moment I had, to first witness the co-existence of both.

A young woman who was not ashamed to use both body and brain, simultaneously, seamlessly; that indeed, the woman’s brain and the body aren’t compartmentalised at all, but part of the same being along with spirit and emotions and a million things more.

A whole woman.

Looking back, I now trace the influence that Helen silently, subconsciously had on me from that point forward.

In the months and years following I'd started to reconcile the sides of myself - or rather what I perceived to be separate ‘sides’ at all - into one whole woman that I wanted to be. Or rather that I was.

I started to realise that having a wide vocabulary was sexy. I found new pride in my fondness for reading, for writing, for art-making; for everything I enjoyed using my brain for; together with my growing interest for the opposite sex.

Of course, this wasn't all to do with Helen, but she was a catalyst. An electric spark, that once zapped me, I saw Helens everywhere.

I found an evolving version of myself that was my own, and expressed it when I went on dates. My own way of dressing, my own way of being. Embracing my eclectic tastes in everything from clothes to music to mannerisms, all sides to myself, that a woman often feels she has to play selectively like a pack of cards.

I'm not saying males have it easy, but I had always got the notion they don't have the same problem of being their whole selves, consistently, unapologetically. They might struggle in the same areas of life just as women do, but they haven't been culturally programmed to be multiple characters, and turn one of them off, to act as another.

I reached my late teens and early twenties, had a few relationships in which I did not feel to be my "whole self". Then I began a long-term relationship with a man where I could. That man is now father to my children.

Now as a mother to two daughters, I think ahead to how the past influence of Helen on me, might now transfer to them.

I want to be able to exhibit to my daughters that same example of a woman who uses both brain and body collaboratively.

I’m excited by the fact that ever since my daughters were tiny, they have seen me engaged in creative acts. Writing, reading, shooting photos, arranging costumes and props, making storyboards… whilst also witnessing that my physical appearance is both something I might adorn or not adorn at all.

That to be female means being able to be expressively feminine, as much as not, at any one time, on any one day, at your discretion.

That I might dress myself in beautiful clothes on some days but can just as much speak up for myself in the scruffiest day-to-day garb.

That it is both ok to wear make-up, and not. And so on, in a million more examples there isn't room to list here, the complexities of being a human, female, feminine, artist, mother, wife, and all...

I’m excited by the possibility that they can learn something quicker than I did, and have more years to enjoy the results of the early ingraining of that habit. More fiery creative years. Perhaps something I'd lament not having more of in my early life, if it weren’t for the gladness that I have at least reached this epiphany now.

Where might that turbo boost take them?

I can’t promise I will approve of everything my daughters do in their wayward teenage years, nor the first lovers they might bring home. But they can first have years of watching their mother who still emanates the positivity of being around glorious Helen - then do what they like with the influence, as boldly as Helen would have done.

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gender roles
Natalie Lennard
Natalie Lennard
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Natalie Lennard

I am a fine-art photographer and mother based in the UK, creating Birth Undisturbed, an award-winning series staging scenes of childbirth. (www.birthundisturbed.com). All proceeds from clicks and tips go toward the next in the series.

See all posts by Natalie Lennard