Raising Girls with Backbones, not Wishbones

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Montrose’s Head of School, Dr. Karen Bohlin, delivered this address to the 11th graders during their Junior Ring Day Ceremony. This speech is reprinted with permission.

A wishbone, as we know, is the forked bone near the neck of a bird. It’s not a strong bone
– it breaks easily. After a turkey dinner, many of you remember wrestling with one of
your siblings and pulling the wishbone until it breaks. You knew that the one who ends up
with the longer piece gets to make a wish.
Despite this fleeting reward, the signature characteristic of a wishbone is its weakness.
Clementine Paddleford, a food writer and author of cookbooks in the 1900s, once
remarked, “Never grow a wishbone, daughter, where your backbone ought to be.”
The founders of Montrose School started this school because they wanted to create an
educational environment where young women would learn to develop a strong backbone
and a mature vision for their lives. Montrose was founded to educate leaders: women
with backbone, women of vision, of character and of faith.
Vision is about knowing how to think and how to lead. In a speech to the incoming class
at West Point in 2009, author William Deresiewericz describes vision this way:

“For too long we have been training leaders…who can answer questions, but don’t know how to ask them. Who can fulfill goals, but don’t know how to set them. Who think about how to get things done, but not whether they’re worth doing in the first place…. What we don’t have, in other words, are thinkers. People who can think for themselves. People who can formulate a new direction – a new way of doing things, a new way of looking at things. People, in other words, with vision.”

A person with vision is committed to Veritas, inscribed on the Montrose School seal – she seeks the truth. She is not afraid to ask questions, to take intellectual risks. She is not afraid to have her convictions and beliefs questioned. Leadership requires vision.

Never grow a wishbone, daughter, where your backbone ought to be.

At Montrose we cultivate a strong backbone with character development. We build our
lives with the choices we make each day – to forgive and forget, to build up rather than
tear down. We learn from mistakes, make amends and begin again.
Professor Laura Garcia of Boston College spoke to our faculty in March about the
meaning of freedom, Libertas, which is also inscribed on the Montrose School seal.

“Leaders,” she explained, “learn to use their freedom effectively to reach their goals.”
In the absence of intelligent reflection, our choices are blind. When our choices are
dictated by what we feel rather than what we think, we cannot lead well. “True happiness
and strong character,” Professor Garcia explained, “is not found in what we get, but in
what we give.”

I’ve watched our athletes pick someone up from the field after they’ve knocked them
down. When I emerge from my car overburdened with bags, a student inevitably comes
to my rescue, asking “Can I carry something?” These small unselfish choices reveal
strength of character.

I am struck, too, by the challenging professional paths our alumnae choose, because of
their commitment to public service. One alumna is a recent graduate from the Police
Academy in Framingham – one of five women in a class of forty. Another, at Tufts
University’s Fletcher School, is in Ethiopia studying the impact of droughts on Third
World countries.

Never grow a wishbone, daughter, where your backbone ought to be.

I met a woman at Accepted Students’ Night who learned about Montrose through one of
her colleagues, a Montrose alumna. The alumna is a hospice nurse who cares for the
dying. “Why are you happy all the time?” this woman asked her. “Our work is difficult,
even discouraging.” The alumna responded with a smile, “When I was in high school, I
learned that I could offer my work, that I could turn even the most difficult task into a
prayer. I pray for my patients when I take care of them – whether it is changing their
sheets or changing a dressing.”

Faith is born of understanding who we are – children of a loving Father. Faith helps us see
beyond the shadows, to understand we are part of something larger than ourselves. God’s
love, the Caritas inscribed on the Montrose School seal, invites us to discover God’s
presence and the peace and joy He longs to give us, despite obstacles.
Never grow a wishbone, daughter, where your backbone ought to be.

The Montrose ring is inscribed with these three ideals of Veritas, Libertas, Caritas. They
are a reminder of your mission in this world. Your ring is a symbol of strength, the
backbone of your leadership. As women of vision, you are called to pursue the truth –
Veritas. As women of character, you are called to use your freedom – Libertas – for good.
As women of faith, you are called to love others – Caritas – authentically, seeing the face
of God in everyone you meet.

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