The Art of Stars: Learning Free from Stereotypes

OCTOBER 27, 2021

On October 11, the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI), a global partnership dedicated to advancing gender equality in and through education, launched a new digital global campaign on the International Day of the Girl Child focused on the theme: “Step Outside the Gender Box: Learning Free from Stereotypes.”

Nightingale is proud to share that Maya C. Popa ’07, alumna, English faculty member, and director of the creative writing program, was invited to deliver the opening remarks in the form of a feminist poem for the launch of this important campaign. Her poem, “The Art of Stars,” written exclusively for this occasion, celebrates the women and girls who changed the course of history with their courage and hope, and worked towards a better, more equitable future for us all.

Popa is the author of two books of poetry, Wound/Wonder (W.W. Norton 2022) and American Faith (Sarabande Books 2019), which received the 2020 North American Book Prize. Her poetry appears in The Atlantic, The Nation, The Paris Review, and elsewhere.

A former Oxford University Clarendon Scholar, her criticism has received awards from The Poetry Foundation and appears widely, including in the TLS, Poetry, The Poetry Review, and The London Magazine. She is also the poetry reviews editor of Publishers Weekly, the largest international literary trade publication, and teaches poetry at NYU.

As a part of the launch, teachers, activists, and creatives came together to bring attention to the harmful gender stereotypes that continue to perpetuate inequities in the classroom. The goal of the UNGEI is to ensure a more equitable future for all children, so that they can feel safe to be themselves in their classrooms.

Erasing gender stereotypes is of the utmost importance to Popa, so being able to participate in the programming for the day and support this specific cause aligned exactly with who she is as a woman and as an educator. She shared, “The damaging effects of gendered stereotypes, some of which are so insidious and woven into the fabric of our culture as to be nearly imperceptible, have been studied extensively by psychologists and sociologists. The less noise and baggage young people need to sort through while they're in development, the’s hugely important to me that students feel seen for who they are, and not biological factors that are out of their control. Equity, in the most basic sense, is the most fundamental human decency, and I stand for that.”

When reading “The Art of Stars” (included below), Popa would encourage her readers to remember that the idea of “firsts” is subjective and potentially misleading. The idea of who decides who is the “first” to accomplish a task or make a new discovery is decided by historians who choose to recognize that person as such. Popa asserts, “Maria Mitchell was the first female astronomer in the United States—really? I'd hazard to guess there were plenty of women here—and all over the world—whose names were erased from the annals of history. I wanted the poem to emphasize the idea of lineage, which feels particularly vital when we're thinking or writing about marginalized groups.”

The International Day of the Girl Child is recognized globally every year on October 11. Declared by the United Nations General Assembly in December 2011, the day is dedicated to highlighting the importance of girls’ rights and the challenges that plague achieving true gender equality and women’s empowerment throughout the world. By recognizing the strengths of girls at a young age and ending all forms discrimination against women—a basic human right—the world is poised for a more equitable and prosperous future.

Ms. Popa is currently overseas completing her PhD at Goldsmiths, University of London, and is looking forward to returning to the Schoolhouse to teach in the spring.

The Art of Stars

What the history books neglect
is that the first astronomers
were women gazing up at depths
and wishing for a different planet.

Pleading with pinpricks
for the glimmer of a promise,
an abacus or alphabet,
a way out of fate that seemed

written not in stars, but stone.
So alone were the women
they invented a language
for each other and for light.

Perched atop the roof
of her father's business
at the Pacific National Bank,
Maria Mitchell discovered

the first American comet.
Leave it to a woman gazing
out the window of the universe
to name the racing fire

splitting the sky. She opened
schools to train girls in math
and science, fought against
slavery and for suffrage.

She knew that hope must
leave a trail, a glow that can
be followed, a lamp by which
the past can write itself onward.

Every woman I’ve known
carries three futures inside her—
the one forged from the present’s
patience, and the longed for one

hung on what might be, if only.
The third, imaginary imminence
of a child’s if she chooses—
our human history in short—
like a star awaiting its turn
in the firmament. Imagine
carrying all of these tenses
inside you and learning

the ones who walked before
kept you from learning at all.
They feared your brilliance,
your way of reading the sky

for signs of falling, the spaces
inside you the opposite of empty.
They could not believe what
was so obvious: that your silence

was capable of moving mountains,
your arms were as strong
as invisible threads that guide
one orb around another.

For what is a star if not proof
that what we think we know
and see, is larger, darker, warmer
than it is? Each woman is a list

of unacknowledged achievements:
to live after bearing life, to outstrip
every opportunity for death, to look
and see the infinite for what it is,

an emptiness filled with light.
And who, time and again, but girls
will save us? Bless their shoulders
that carry the planet, and the heavens,

and the stars which are their art.