Nevertheless, she persisted… as a role model for girls in STEM

Yesterday, the Washington Post published the account of a girl who heretofore—since the age of 8–had been a role model for other girls interested in science and math. She was a popular YouTube star, garnering up to a million views for her robotics videos. She was even invited to the White House in 2013.

But at 16, Super Awesome Sylvia, after (by her own report) spending some time on the Internet considering trans stuff, announced she’s now a boy.

wapo sylviaAs is typical for journalists covering trans-kids at the once-venerable Post, not even the mildest skeptical question was asked about why a strong, somewhat gender-atypical girl would morph from a positive example for other girls, into a “trans boy.”

And not only are there no questions: The author of the puff-piece even used male pronouns to refer to the little girl before she “identified” as a boy, thereby neatly erasing her past as a spunky 8-year-old girl with a penchant for invention.

We used this story as a springboard to create an alternate story: about a different girl named Spectacular Sarah who resists the gender-saturated, society-wide encouragement to proclaim she’s a boy because she likes short hair and geeky pursuits (in Sarah’s case, renewable energy).

For full effect, we recommend you read the entire Washington Post story prior to ours.

Note: This piece is a work of fiction and a fair-use parody. Characters and details in this story should not be construed to represent any actual person or situation.


Anywhere, USA. — This is the story of Spectacular Sarah, an ingenious little girl who made portable backyard windmills.

At age 8, Sarah Smith put on a lab coat and started a web show. A gap-toothed little kid with a pony tail and soldering iron, a rare sight in the boy’s club of amateur inventors.

Before long, Sarah had tens of thousands of viewers. And tons of windmills, of course.

The most famous was the windmill that powered her family’s kitchen appliances. On days it turned, it generated enough power to keep a small fridge running and to cook three meals a day on the electric range.

But that windmill did other things, too.

It got Sarah invited to her state’s Science Fair in 2015, when the governor tried it out to run the microwave in the governor’s mansion. He told its shaky-legged, 10-year-old inventor that it was great to see girls in tech who could serve as inspiration to other girls.

By middle school, Sarah was giving speeches all over the world, from the United Nations to elite girls’ schools in South America. This was a big deal for a kid from a small, windy town in Anywhere, USA, whose parents often worried about paying the next bill.

That’s how — year after year, show after show, speech after speech — Spectacular Sarah’s windmills turned a little kid into a role model for girls everywhere.

And that’s how “they”—some adult activists and confused kids on Tumblr– tried to trap her.

Because these days, when a girl breaks the stereotypical mold, people start asking if she’s “really” a boy. Especially people who’ve spent a lot of time on the Internet, or reporters who didn’t take the time to get the backstory. Sarah didn’t feel like a genius, or a celebrity—but she knew darn well she was a girl—though she had her doubts for a while.Wapo SarahThis is the story of Sarah Smith, a 16-year-old girl who actually prefers art to science, and knows a lot more about herself than her Tumblr pals and clueless reporters seem to think.  Now when people ask about her pronouns and assume she is a boy, she tells them, “Just because I’m a girl who got famous for doing geeky stuff, that doesn’t mean I’m going to take the easy way out and tell everyone I’m going to ‘transition.’”

Instead, Sarah broke free.

  1. My name is Sarah

In the beginning there was simply Sarah. No one asking if she was a boy (this was before that sort of nonsense got started), no spectacular anything. Just Sarah and her mom and dad (and later a sister and two brothers) growing up in windy Anywhere, USA. A regular little girl, by all appearances.

“When I was a kid, I was just a kid,” Sarah said. “Making cool stuff.”

Sarah had always wanted to know how things worked.

She liked to pull apart old TV sets and put together miniature solar panel kits with her dad, Bill, an industrial engineer.

One day in 2011, Sarah decided to make a Vimeo show about making things. Her mom, Jane, sewed a lab coat fit for a 7-year-old. Dad helped write the scripts and held the camera. (Mom and Dad were pretty “gender conforming”). Then Sarah just did her thing—and her thing was renewable energy projects on a kid-sized scale.

“Hi! My name is Sarah and this is our spectacular science show!” Sarah said in the first episode, pumping her arms in the air. “Let’s get out there and show the world we can do better than fossil fuels!”

Spectacular Sarah showed kids how to make a miniature solar panel that could power a table lamp, a small radio fueled by the energy from a super-hot compost pile, and a boom box wired to the mini windmill that would serve as prototype for the bigger windmills she engineered later on.

And kids watched. And Sarah watched, amazed, as hundreds of viewers became thousands. “Renewable Energy for All” magazine started hosting the show on its Vimeo channel, and altogether more than a million people clicked on Sarah’s videos.

Sarah got into the character. She wore the lab coat to alternative energy fairs, selling Sarah bling at her booths, or posing with cardboard-cutout idols like “Hermione Granger” from Harry Potter.

In time, Sarah would get emails from parents who told her she was an idol herself especially to their daughters, but also their sons.

One day last summer, when it was all over and Spectacular Sarah was just Sarah, dad Bill sat on a patio eating chips and salsa, watching his daughter splash in a pool, wondering if the fun had been worth all the trouble it caused.

“Before any of this happened I used to tell Sarah, ‘Fame happens to the unlucky; it’s not a healthy thing.”’ Bill said. “As a kid, it’s a trap.”

Bill was thinking about something else, too: He’d seen “I am Jazz,” and he knew that a new fad was starting to take hold: A fascination with kids who were “gender nonconforming” who are now being promoted as “born in the wrong body.” He knew Sarah had already been asked more than once about her “preferred pronouns”–including by some adults who ought to know better.

 2.  Sarah meets the governor

When she was 10, with a few years of making miniature renewable energy devices behind her, Sarah decided to enter the international “Alternatives to Fossil Fuel” games. The competition was fierce: teams from around the world competed to see whose toy-sized windmills and solar panels could keep a test radio running the longest.

wapo windmill 2Sarah dreamed up something more in her artistic style:  windmill arms that painted abstract designs as they rotated around. Her windmill had a paintbrush on two of the spinning arms, with a bright wood frame and five little trays of paint. As the arms spun, paint spewed onto a canvas. A local tech company partnered with the Smiths to build it, Sarah’s fans helped crowdfund it, and Sarah’s dad made a computer app to send windmill artwork through a Galaxy Note.

It won the gold medal in the Most Creative Renewable category — and caught the eye of people in the Anywhere State legislature and the governor’s mansion.

“They were just freaking out that there’s a girl making stuff,” Sarah said.

Right then and there, Sarah knew she wanted to be a role model for other girls. She was starting to learn, even at 10, that some of the other techy girls in her school—some of whom liked short hair and rough play—were wondering if all that meant they weren’t “really” girls.

Sarah remembers shaking nervously as she walked through the governor’s mansion that spring. The other kids’ projects all seemed so elaborate. A huge solar panel; an artificial waterfall to demonstrate the power of rushing water; even a ski parka heated by a small solar panel on the back, invented by three 9-year-old boys.

“Why am I here?” Sarah thought. “I have this weird windmill that I made.”

“It’s really neat!” Spectacular Sarah told a solar engineer who’d come to see the show.

And she smiled in her lab-coat with the governor, and held up a model of a windmill that might someday power the state legislature building.

She came back to Anywhere, USA with photos that still get passed around her family — the highlight of her career as a girl genius.

At the end of that school year she got an F in math.

The truth was, Sarah says, she’s never been a natural at science. She liked the fairs, and she liked messing around with her family on the show, and she knew how to say the right things.

The last big trip was to South America, where Sarah would make speeches at elite private girls’ schools — and finally begin to confront those who claimed a girl like her just had to be a boy.

3.  Just the beginning for Spectacular Sarah

Even before South America, there had been signs that all was not as it seemed with the person called Sarah Smith.  Sarah remembers asking a friend in seventh grade, “Is it weird that people keep wondering if I’m a boy? It’s starting to make me wonder, too!?” In her private sketchbook, she started to draw herself with shorter hair and hairy legs. Her friend, who’d just gotten a Tumblr account said, “Yeah, I’ve noticed lots of girls who hate long hair and never want to shave their legs ‘coming out’ as boys. What do you think?”

Sarah spent a lot of time thinking about this stuff. But they were still passing thoughts. In South America, in 2014, girls in uniform skirts crowded around the windmill and listened to Spectacular Sarah’s tips on invention.

The tour went so well that after Sarah returned home, the Smiths said, she got an offer to come back and study free at one of the schools — “a place where girls make their visions come true.”

“It’s an amazing school,” Sarah said. “An entire wing is dedicated to women inventors.”

But as she waited for the start of the South American school year, those questions she’d discussed with her friend began to pass through her mind more and more often.

The character Spectacular Sarah began to fade from her life—and for a brief time, so did the person called Sarah.

Sarah became reluctant to make new Vimeo shows, and eventually stopped altogether. Her parents weren’t sure why at first. They didn’t know that Sarah could no longer stand to look at her long curls, or listen to “how squeaky my voice was.”

And the thought of that school in South America, with its laboratories and uniforms, loomed in Sarah’s mind like a deadline.

Finally, she decided, “I can’t live with myself wearing a skirt every day.”

She wrote a letter to the school, asking why a girl couldn’t wear pants instead of a skirt to school. To her surprise, the school principal wrote back right away. She said, “You know, you’re right. We support girls being and becoming who they are, no matter what they wear, how they cut their hair, or what they like to do. If you want to wear pants, you’re still very welcome. In fact, you can be the first to challenge our outdated dress code. Hope to see you soon!”

4.  Shape-shifting goddess of the sea and prophecy

Sarah was spending more and more time alone in her pink-painted bedroom, not making things anymore, not talking much, sometimes crying for unexplained reasons. The Vimeo show was all but abandoned.

Sarah’s mom, Jane, went into the room one day to talk it out, mother and daughter.

“Mom,” said Sarah. “Why is everything pink in this room? You know, I’ve never liked that color. And you know what else? I hate dresses, and I want to cut my hair—I hate the curls and they just get in my way!”

Jane looked surprised for a moment, then answered,” Of course, we can change that. It’s just a color, after all. And you can do what you like with your hair. I’ll make an appointment for the haircut this afternoon.”

Sarah hesitated. “Mom? You don’t think I’m really a boy because I want to have short hair and I hate pink—do you?”

“Of course not!” Jane answered. “I know there’s a lot of those kind of messages on TV and the Internet now. It’s pretty much everywhere, wherever you look. But you just be the best person you can be.”

In secret, Sarah was already working on that. She was drawing herself in her sketchbook all the time, prototyping new haircuts. She was looking up words on the Internet: Lesbian; gay; gender fluid; pansexual; asexual; bisexual; tri-gender; demi-girl.

“So many labels,” Sarah thought. None seemed to fit.

She sat down at the dinner table one evening, and told her parents and siblings: “I have something to say. Everyone on social media, and even some of my friends keep saying a girl like me must be transgender. But the more I think about it, the more I realize I’m fine the way I am. But sometimes I do get confused by the stuff I see online, and what my friends are saying.”

Luckily, Sarah’s parents weren’t born yesterday. They said, “You know, Sarah, trends come and go. We know it’s tempting to believe you might be “born in the wrong body” because you’ve done stuff more typical of boys your age. But you shouldn’t feel any pressure at all to agree with what other teenagers are saying or doing.  No matter what, just think for yourself!”

It took some time for Sarah to get used to the idea that the older teens on Instagram and Tumblr might be wrong.  She started reading and watching worrisome accounts and videos by young people who’d been injecting themselves with testosterone and having their breasts removed. A lot of them seemed happy for awhile, but the obsession with “passing,” and the side effects from the drugs and surgeries, weighed on her.  With her parents’ support, she came to realize she’d been swayed, as teenagers always have been, by the opinions of her peers. She’d always been a tough, independent thinker, and it didn’t take long for her to realize she was fine just as she was—especially since her parents fully supported her getting a super-short haircut and taking all her “girl clothes” to the thrift store, swapping them for the more comfortable pants and T-shirts in the boys’ section.

As fall turned to winter, Sarah fell silent less often, and her confidence grew. She painted her room blue over the pink, covering one wall with a “women in tech” mural, and another with Post-it notes to herself. “Wow, that was a close call. Girl, you are loved.”

The family came to realize that Sarah Smith’s greatest project had been to figure out that she had always been Sarah Smith, after all.

But she still wanted a change, something to honor the journey she’d been on—from wondering if she was a boy to returning home to herself again. So, the family sat down and brainstormed a new name. They settled on Thetis, a Greek goddess known for shape-shifting and prophecy. Sarah liked that Thetis was a sea goddess, given her own strong interest in protecting the planet by working with renewable energy.

Sarah’s journey home to herself may seem pretty simple, in hindsight. It was anything but at the time.

“About the best thing we can do when we’re young is give ourselves time to grow and mature into the unique adults we all become someday,” her mom told Sarah one day.

“There’s no need for a strong girl to say she’s trans, just because she’s different,” her dad remarked. “Strong, independent girl” probably covers 90 percent of what you are. The rest is something else that’s uniquely you.”

5. Spectacular STEM girls

“Do you want to just shut it down?” her dad asked Sarah one day, when she was still in the throes of trying to figure out if she was “really” a boy or not. He meant the show, and Spectacular Sarah. To erase and move past that whole chunk of a life.

But Sarah didn’t want that.

“I’ve thought about it, and I’m still that girl role model I’ve always been,” she said. “I don’t want it to end. Yeah, I’m not crazy about my squeaky voice, but I’ve noticed most women’s voices change and get a richer tone as they get older. Besides, I also did research on the testosterone that some girls are taking to lower their voices. That’s a permanent change. What if I regret it later? I can’t go back—my Adam’s apple will stay the same. And that’s not even considering the hair I’d grow on my face and chest, and maybe later going bald!”

So, she decided to keep Spectacular Sarah on Vimeo–but also added a drawing of the Greek goddess Thetis whose name she’d chosen: a powerful woman who could shape-shift when she wanted to. Thetis/Sarah could wear what she wanted, cut her hair or grow it long, choose a career as a social worker some day or as an industrial engineer. That brainy girl character was here to stay.

Sarah drew a comic strip, explaining how shape-shifter Thetis represented the wide-open choices every girl had, if she had supportive parents and teachers who believed in her potential.  And because Thetis was also a goddess of prophecy, Sarah added a caption predicting that one day soon, girls who didn’t fit the typical “feminine” mold would  no longer be asked “preferred pronouns.” They’d just be left alone to become  shining examples of the many unique ways girls can live their lives.

6. Mini windmills

Life now . . . well, it’s never perfect. Sarah met another girl who had also considered whether she was trans for a while last year. They bonded over a shared hatred of gym and started dating. Sarah is coming to terms with the idea that she might be a lesbian, and feeling glad that she didn’t start down the road to hormones and surgery like some of the girls she’s seen on Tumblr. She’s learning to do sculpture and working on her drawings of Thetis.

She gets a few glares in the hallways of high school, people insisting on misgendering her as male, others asking her if she’s sure she doesn’t want to be referred to as he/him. But all in all, she’s glad not to be worried about which locker room to use; glad to be done with the chest binder a friend let her borrow to try out a couple of times. That binder hurt, and made it nearly impossible to run faster than a walk,  without having to take a time out to catch her breath. And while wearing it, she sometimes thought that the only way to get away from that constricting device would be to get rid of her breasts entirely. What was the point of all this, really? Who wanted a life spent in doctors’ offices and hospitals?

A few months ago, Sarah went with her family on her first science trip since fully resolving her feelings about being a girl—and a lesbian.

Sarah and her girlfriend and Sarah’s dad sat at the next table, trying to sell mini windmill models to pass the time.

To advertise, they put up the same photo of Spectacular Sarah and the governor, which had always drawn customers. That day, it drew a huge crowd.

“Oh, who’s this person?” someone would ask, looking at the ponytailed kid in the photo.

“Well . . . it’s this person, right here,” Bill would say, and point to his daughter.

“But that’s a guy.”

Bill tried the direct explanation: “That’s no boy—it’s my daughter. She just likes her hair short now and wears more comfortable clothes.”

To Sarah’s surprise that day, a lot of girls her age walked up to talk to her. So many had the same story: They preferred the hobbies, clothes, and hairstyles more typical of boys, had briefly considered they might be trans—then realized they could do everything they wanted as the awesome, strong girls they’d always been

The next time someone looked at the photo and asked for the girl — “Oh, is she here today?” Sarah was the one who answered. Pointing to herself, she said:

“She hasn’t gone anywhere. She’s right here.”

wapo windmill 4

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