Of Flower Girls and Ladies — Part II

Photo credit: William Watkins, 2014

In our post on November 22, 2014, “Of Flower Girls and Ladies — Part I”, we delved into a quote from George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion”, spoken by the heroine, Eliza Doolittle:

“. . . the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she’s treated. I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins, because he always treats me as a flower girl, and always will; but I know I can be a lady to you, because you always treat me as a lady, and always will.”

We explored how this central theme played out in the characters’ behavior throughout the play (as well as in its musicalization, “My Fair Lady”) and its implications, once Eliza realizes the truth of it, particularly for her independence and for her future.

We left by asking how all of that relates to the work of The Earl Wentz and William Watkins Foundation. It’s there that we pick up today.

If you haven’t read Part I, you may want to do that by clicking on this link before reading on.


Despite a marvelously nuanced performance by Rex Harrison in both the stage and film versions of My Fair Lady, where we see the heart of Henry Higgins start to melt before our eyes and thereby transform the exterior blustering beast as Higgins realizes that much to his consternation, he has “grown accustomed to” Eliza’s face, this Higgins is not that of Pygmalion either. Higgins arrogantly proclaims in the musical that he has made a woman of Eliza, but it is she who has actually made a grown man of him. It’s utterly charming here and delicious fodder for those with romantic appetites but it isn’t totally what the original author, George Bernard Shaw, intended.

In Pygmalion, Higgins doesn’t really understand what Eliza is so upset about on the morning after her triumph. He certainly can’t understand why, in exasperation, she has thrown his slippers in his face: “She behaved in the most outrageous way. I never gave her the slightest provocation.” It is for his mother, Mrs. Higgins, to begin the explanation: “She worked very hard for you, Henry! . . . . it seems that when the great day of trial came, and she did this wonderful thing for you without making a single mistake, you two sat there and never said a word to her, but talked together of how glad you were that it was all over . . . . and how you had been bored with the whole thing.” She continues, telling him what he really deserved: “And then you were surprised because she threw your slippers at you! I should have thrown the fire-irons at you.”

Henry still doesn’t get it all the way, though. There is an intimation that he may love Eliza: in their private confrontation, when she asserts that she can do without him, he rather vulnerably states, “You never asked yourself, I suppose, whether I could do without you.” That might be taken as an olive branch of tenderness, were he not so self-centered (although maybe that’s the best he can ever do, as Shaw claimed). He scoffs at Freddy’s declared love for Eliza and thinks that all she wants is the same romantic feelings from him: “In short, you want me to be as infatuated about you as Freddy? Is that it?”

No, Henry, that’s not it at all. Eliza wants something more. Respect. “I won’t be passed over!” she asserts. She wants “a little kindness”—“I’m not dirt under your feet.” She recognizes the differences between them: “a common ignorant girl” and “a book-learned gentleman”. But that’s no excuse for his total lack of consideration. Eliza’s is not a “romantic” assertion; it’s a mature one. For all Henry’s boasts, he has done nothing more than change some external matters of Eliza’s presentation. He hasn’t created a “lady”. He has opened the door for the strong person who was underneath the dirty exterior all the time.

And that is precisely what the educational component of our mission at The Earl Wentz and William Watkins Foundation is all about. We aim to open doors and let out the creative spirits that are there in our students. Shaping them, molding them, as we go, yes. But so much of our very basic work revolves around getting our students to realize that they have potential, dignity, imaginations, and worth.

Approximately 95% of the students under the age of 18 that we have worked with in the last two years come from families with incomes well below the poverty line. That’s not a guess; we actually document it.

How much might a young student be aware of that economic reality, though? Hard to say completely. But here is a good example of something a 5th grade boy, with whom I had been working for two years said to me not long ago. We were in the hallway of his elementary school and he wanted to show me some photographs that were on one of the school bulletin boards. One photo was of him and other students working in the community garden that is associated with the school. Another was of him and other students in his grade who had taken a trip to the local government center, met with the mayor, and got to sit in the high-backed swivel chairs in the city council’s chamber. We had also just talked about a visit by a local opera company to the school for a special performance of Hansel and Gretel and of the music lessons he was participating in courtesy of the local symphony.

“Wow!” I exclaimed. “This is such a great school! You’re so lucky!”

“Yes,” the child replied, “but it’s a poor school.” He pointed to a broken water-fountain. “They can’t even fix that!”

Ugh! What child needs to be aware of things like that? But they are. It’s constant. Television reports continually point out the poverty in the neighborhoods around the schools. News reports speak of “better” areas of town and areas with less racial diversity (that is, those that are predominately “white” and with more homogeneous language, cultures, and religions). Of course, they are aware of it. It’s pointed out to them every day in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. And it’s evident in the kinds of cars their parents drive, the kind of clothes they wear, and the often-crowded and rundown apartments they live in. To a Henry Higgins, many of our students would be “common guttersnipes”.

Far too often they are treated as such. The result is low esteem, shyness, and social isolation. Rarely are they outside playing and interacting with other children their age. How then are they to even know that they have imaginations—much less use them—unless we work diligently and in some extraordinarily creative ways to help them discover them? How are they to know that they have any potential at all other than what they are being told they have if we don’t present to them the notions that there is something more?

If, as Eliza Doolittle so clearly reminds us, one is always treated as an urchin, one will always behave as an urchin.

We work hard to find ways to unlock the doors between them and the rest of the world, helping them to find that they are good at something, helping them to discover what it is they are good at. Not by imposing it but by exposing them to the options. Not by ever telling them “No, you’re incapable” but by creating environments where they can explore and take their best shots. And not by giving handouts either. Yes, we offer very generous scholarships based on family size and income but we insist that every child must pay something. The children don’t know how much unless their parents tell them. We don’t discuss it with them; we don’t discuss it with each other or with anyone else. It’s all equitably done and documented so that there’s no discrimination but no parent knows from us how much any other child is paying. Only about three people in the world—those on a strictly “need-to-know” basis for bookkeeping purposes, etc.—know. No school administrators know. And other than myself, no instructors know. We let our students and their families keep the dignity of privacy and of paying for something valuable and desired.

While maintaining a structure for our programs and knowing the overall shape of what we need to do to get where we need to be by the end of a program, we let our students set their own learning goals within the context of each program and adjust as much as possible, even on a daily basis, to help each individual achieve their own goals while mastering the overall and communal goals of each educational initiative. All students participate in the creation and development of the scripts we have done so far through improvisations, writing exercises, or other classroom work that we can take good ideas from and expand.

This is “education” in the classical and best sense of the word. We want to “draw out” and work with what’s there, not “pour in”.

They, like Eliza, work very hard. We insist on it. And, unlike, Higgins, we recognize and give them credit for it. One of the first things we teach them to do is to bow when they receive applause. And we applaud when they try something new, when they use their imaginations, when they create, when they do good work. And when they behave well. Some of them have never realized the importance and necessity of that before. We set parameters from the beginning about appropriate behavior and treatment of each other. As more than one of my own early teachers taught me, “We are ladies and gentlemen of the theatre.” More often than not, we have found that if we, the instructors, treat them as if they are young “ladies and gentlemen”, they will behave as if they are rather than as the guttersnipes some would have them be. Eliza was right! A great deal has to do with expectations.

Our expectations of them are great because we believe in the dignity and value of each of them. We are not about creating puppets. We are not about feeding our own egos as Henry Higgins was. We work diligently to assist each student and we ask that they bring us something to work with. Rule number one is that “Everyone must try.” If they do, they will not be “passed over”. They will have their own respect. They will have ours. For some students, I’m convinced this may be the first time they’ve ever had it.

I’m most gratified by the small notes some of the children have written to me on the order of “Thank you for teaching me how not to be shy.” I’m awed by the little differences that have happened. For example, one boy last summer, about 9 years old, entered class on the first day and didn’t say a word. I shook his hand and introduced myself; he looked positively terrified. A few days went on and, while he would stand up in the group and participate from that standpoint, we could only manage to get him to utter, nearly-inaudibly, only one or two words or to nod his head.

I began to think perhaps he was autistic or had a learning disability, so I consulted in confidence with another educator from the school where the program was being held. She told me that the child was always like that but, indeed, very bright. What to do? We kept working and working and working. It came time to create a script around the Rapunzel story. It was easy enough to figure what roles most of the students would undertake but he was a special challenge. Finally, I asked him outright, “What would you like to play?” “A wizard”, was the tiny but surprising reply. There is no wizard in the original Rapunzel story but “A wizard! Oh, boy! Okay! We’ll do it!” was my response. He grinned.

We worked more. Soon, he helped write “magic spells” and before long he was waving his “magic wand” around in the air and doing karate kicks that we taught him in order to battle the forces of evil who would vie for the control of poor Rapunzel. He wore a large, curly fright wig with glee for the final scene. About three days before the final presentation for an invited audience he confided in me that he wanted more lines. I nearly laughed out loud. You can bet that we came up with some more things for him to say. Where did this magic come from? I don’t exactly know. But here’s the wonderful epilogue: That same educator told me six weeks later that all the boy’s school teachers were marveling! He was now talking up a blue streak in all the classes and participating with abandon.

Maybe it was that we took him seriously and not as a “guttersnipe”. That we gave him opportunities to try something he had always wanted to try. Maybe it was because we didn’t laugh at him or say “no, you can’t.” Maybe it was because we kept working and never “passed him over.”

Unlike Henry Higgins, we are not after making our students what we want them to be. Well, that’s not entirely true. What we want them to be is free and independent and to be able to make wise choices. What we want is for them to realize their own dignity and worth. (All of this as much as possible for their individual ages and stages of development.)

But we never want them to have Eliza’s quandary, being changed, and feeling that they are no longer fit for anything. We must “fit” them for something, then turn them loose to go where they will, not where we have in mind for them. We hope that we are “fitting” them for better lives with more possibilities than they would otherwise have ever imagined because of the experiences they’ve had under our watch.

Like Higgins, are we “relieved” the program is over and the goal accomplished? Actually, we’re sad—albeit sometimes exhausted—when the great thing “is all over”. But that’s part of it all. And we have to find our exhilaration, too, as we let them go, knowing that they, too, as Eliza would say, “can do bloody well” without us. Well, maybe, hopefully, because of something we helped unleash as well.

© William B. Watkins and “William Weighs In”, 2014-1015. All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction. This blog and all its content and components, including but not limited to photographs, videos, and text entries, are fully protected by all copyright laws of the United States of America and by international covenants. This work may not be reproduced in whole or in part in any form. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

2 thoughts on “Of Flower Girls and Ladies — Part II”

  1. Although I love both adaptions of the story, I never thought much about how Eliza was transformed from a flower girl to a lady even after enjoying the transformation. I did get what she was saying to Henry about not respecting her and not giving her credit for her part in the transformation. This was very enlightening.

    I can relate to the little boy that did not say much in class. That was me in 2nd grade until my wonderful teacher decided that if I wouldn’t raise my hand, she would call on me because she knew I had the answer. I will always be grateful to Ms. Rivers for bringing me out of my shyness, and Bill, as you well know, I can talk.

    Lots of gratitude for the hard work my coach and mentor Earl Wentz put into teaching me and giving me the confidence to perform in public and for making me believe in myself and to Bill for giving me encouragement as I transformed from “a flower girl into a lady.”

    Keep doing what you’re doing! Great job!!!!

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