Year of the Girl: Skyler Burnham

Year of the Girl, a personal project I've embarked upon seeking out girls making a difference in the community, doing what they love.  I interview them for tidbits of wisdom that only they have, and then I make portraits of them to share with them and with all of you.  At it's core, "Year of the Girl" is a human interest project which seeks to empower young girls, their voices, their desires/dreams for the future, their unique qualities in order to offer other girls (and women alike) role models, inspiration, motivation, strength. 

I met Skyler Burnham, a 17-year-old junior, honors student who maintains a 3.8 GPA, on a bright Sunday afternoon in mid March.  Skyler's an athlete; bilingual in Spanish-English; a prize-winning hunter; and a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) driven student, attending Wilson High School in West Lawn, PA.  She and her mom, Beth Burnham, agreed to meet with me for our interview and portrait shoot at my in-home studio.  My middle daughter, Alanna, was also in attendance.  

Here are some excerpts from the interview piece, peeks into Skyler's busy life, I was so generously granted.  As well as, some of the portraits we created together. 

Side note:  Please keep in mind, as you read through our interview, that the views and opinions within are not politically motivated.  They are simply views and opinions stated by the women in attendance around my dining room table and are relevant to current events.  This was an honest conversation, through which I learned quite a bit.  And I couldn't be more grateful to Skyler and her lovely mom, Beth. Thank you ladies!  Thank you, dear reader, for keeping an open mind, too.  

BL:  What are you most looking forward to this spring?

SB:  Being outside.  (laughs)  Because I’m in track right now and it’s really cold, so, we always have to wear like 5 layers of leggings and sweatshirts.  So, I’m excited to be outside in shorts and a t-shirt and enjoy the weather.  And also, outdoor volleyball starts, and I’ll get to play doubles with my friends. 

BL:  What do you feel you gain most by playing a team sport?  

SB:  I think you make connections with people which is really cool because then you’re all coming together to play the same thing that you all, well, most of you all, are passionate about, but at the level that I’m playing [Volleyball] at now everybody is.  And it’s just fun because you all share that one thing in common.  You can all be into totally different things, totally different aspects of life, but when you come together on a court you’re really just united as a team. I meet so many different people and experience different things.  I play for Surge, so there’s people from Fleetwood and Cocalico and Wilson and it’s nice because you’re all rivals during school season but then you all come together and you’re one team, which is really cool. 

BL:  So, you played against them at one point and now you’re all together as one team?! 

SB:  (laughing) Yea. Yea. It’s cool because then you meet a lot of different people.  Like last year there was someone from York on my team, which their school is kind of faraway.  But it was cool because you would have never met these people before now and feel close to them. So, that’s why I like it.  

BL:  Is volleyball a pretty popular sport?  

SB:  It’s getting more and more popular as the years go on.  And they’re starting to get kids involved younger and younger ages.  

BB:  She was just in Boston for a volleyball tournament and there were over 600 teams.  

SB:  It was a 3 day tournament.  

BL:  Wow!  That’s great!  From all over the country? 

SB:  Yea. 

BL:  Wow.  That’s awesome!  It sounds like a lot of fun!

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BL:  I noticed, according to your resume, that Mrs. Marconi sent to me, that you have a particular fondness for Chemistry and Math.  Has this always come natural to you? 

SB:  Yea, math always usually does.  Well, in sixth grade at Southern you can take this test to be in advanced math and I passed it.  So, like right now, I should be taking Pre-Calc, but I’m in Calc. It’s fun.  I just like solving things, I think that helps a lot. 

BL:  That’s great!  So, what excites you most about these areas of study? 

SB:  Solving the problems.  I don’t know, it might sound weird because when you solve a math problem it might not be that exciting, but I love actually getting to the answer and figuring it out.  And for Chemistry, I like when we learn stuff on paper and how to do it and then actually do it in lab and how you see how it actually works.  We were doing equilibrium problems, and how you have a certain compound when you add it and it changes colors and you go back and forth.  When we actually do that in lab it makes sense and it’s cool to actually see it when everything works.

BL:  I see, so taking the actual problem and then having the hands on experiment is what gets you excited about math.

SB:  Yea, that’s what I like about Engineering, because you do everything on the computer then you actually build it and it’s cool to actually see it come to life.  

BL:  We need more women engineers! (we’re all smiling and laughing in agreement)

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SB:  That’s what I’m going for. 

BL:  Yes!  What type of engineering? 

SB:  I haven’t really decided.  I’m in Aerospace Engineering class right now and I really like it because we learned how to fly planes on a simulator.  So, I can technically go take my pilot’s test now.  The simulator is what you have to pass to get that.  So, I did that and I also really like, … I don’t know… I did a computer-integrated manufacturing class last year.  We would design things on the computer and then actually go in there and build it with the machines and stuff.  I don’t really know yet, but I really like Aerospace and then I like, obviously, Chemistry.  I like Chemical Engineering, too.  So, it’s hard. (laughs) 

BL:  I know, right?!  To pick one area, ahhh (everyone’s laughing).  What are some of the things you learn about in your aerospace engineering class?  And do you want to explore space? 

SB:  Well, we first started learning about aerodynamics and how everything works.  Our first project was making a boomerang and a lot of kids in my class they had designs that were really hard to make work and they usually didn’t, but mine worked.  That was really fun to actually make something that works how it’s supposed to.  Then we learned about planes and how to make them, so we built little plane models and flew them.  Now we’re learning about space.  So, we know all the planets, orbits and how the orbits work and how like to launch something and everything that goes into it.  But, yea, I would want to go to space.  It seems really fun.  But, like, there’s a lot of training that goes into it, so, I don’t know about that.  I think it would just be fun to fly because you get a whole different perspective of the earth from that atmosphere.  I have more interest in flying planes than a spaceship (laughs).  I would go up to space if I had the opportunity.

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BL:  What qualities or traits do you most admire in a leader? 

SB:  Someone that can take charge even though it’s with their friends.  So, like at the mini-THON this year, with a lot of friends, I really liked how the captain could tell her friends what to do while being nice about it.  Even though they’re her friends they still have to do what they’re supposed to do.  So, I really liked that because she wasn’t like, “Oh you’re my friend, so I’ll let you off the hook.”  She was still strong about it.  And another thing is just being kind and understanding because like some of the captains, they’re in a rough spot, so they needed help with something and they couldn’t come to every event because their family couldn’t do it, so I think it was nice that she was understanding about it.

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BL:  Your mom told me you’re a hunter.   

SB:  Yes, I am.  

BL:  What led you to become interested in hunting?

SB:  My Pappy.  My mom’s dad.  He’s a big hunter; he goes out to Colorado to hunt elk and he travels to Iowa.  So, when we were young he was always like “Look at what I got!”  We thought it was always cool when he would bring home a turkey with all the feathers on it and he’d give us a turkey feather or show us his antlers.  He has some of his deer mounted in his basement and it’s cool because it wouldn’t be scary because they’d put like the big glasses on them and necklaces; like really dress them up (laughs).  We just really got into it and then when I was 8 (questioning) he bought me my first bow.  So, that was cool.  

BL:  Is that what you use when you go hunting?

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SB:  No.  Bow season is right in the middle of school season, so I can’t really go.  But when he bought me that it was so cool to actually have something of your own and really use it.  He had a deer target and it was fun just to shoot at that and with him.  So, then as we got older we started using the guns and stuff that you can use.  Last year, it was our first time actually able to go out hunting, well, he always took us turkey hunting when we were little, but we never saw anything (laughing).  We would hear stuff, but nothing would ever come to us.  So, last year, we went deer hunting and I didn’t get anything, but my sister did.  I was really mad about that.  (laughs)  She didn’t even want to go, but she got something, a doe.  This year I went out and I got …

BB:  You went out by yourself. 

SB:  Yea, I went out by myself.  I had a free weekend, so I said I’m gonna go hunting.  I drove up by myself [to Raystown Lake] because that’s where my grandparents live, stayed with them all weekend and went hunting on Saturday morning and I got this beautiful buck.  It’s 13 points which is beautiful! 

BL:  That’s huge, right?! 

SB:  Yea, I don’t think I’ve ever been more happy in my whole life!  Like, right when I got it I didn’t believe that I got it because then you have to go down right away, took a little bit, I was like “dangit!”  I thought I missed it.  So, I got ready to get another one and I got a doe and my Pappy looked over at me and said, “You got the buck!”  I was like, “No, no, I didn’t!”  He’s like, “Yea, you did!”  We were both SO happy!  I don’t think I’ve ever seen him smile so much in my life!  (laughing)  We were dancing and jumping up and down.  It was beautiful!  As we were getting closer to it, he was like “Dang, if I knew it was this big, I would’ve shot it before you!”  I was the only girl that went out hunting because he always goes out with a group of guys and they were all so shocked.  They were all like, “Did you really get this?! Or did your Pap get it and give it to you?!”  I was like, “No! I got this! This is mine!”  It was cool to be a part of that.  

BB:  And we’re still eating it.  (laughing) 

SB:  It’s just nice being outside.  Nobody’s up that early usually when you go which is hard (big smiles), but when you’re up that early you actually get to see the forest come alive.  You sit down in your spot and as the hours are gone more things start moving and it’s beautiful.  It’s beautiful.

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BL:  So, what sort of a gun do you use when you’re deer hunting?  

SB:  A deer rifle. 

BL:  Ah, okay.  You’re talking to someone that has no clue about this sort of thing. (we’re all laughing)

BB:  It has a lot to do with the bullets so that it would kill the deer

SB:  You’re supposed to use deer rifles.  It’s not like a BB gun that spews.  It’s just one bullet that goes straight through. 

BL:  Gotcha.  

SB:  And some have a scope.  Mine had a scope.  But you usually don’t get anything if you don’t have a scope (laughing) because it’s hard to see.

BL:  I’m wondering, given the, without getting too political, even though you’d have to live under a rock not to notice what’s happening lately with all the talk about gun safety.  I’m curious to know, from your stand point [as a hunter], do you feel it’s important to have stricter laws passed (such as background checks, registration, training, mental health evaluation)? 

SB:  Most of the things that are happening are with guns that are semi-automatics and nobody needs a semi-automatic.  The only people that need them are the people in the Army and they’re going to war.  Really, when you’re hunting, you don’t even need a semi-automatic.  If you do, you’re just cheating.  Like anybody can go out into the woods with a semi-automatic, you’re gonna kill anything because all you really do is try to aim and you’ll hit it. 

BB:  Also, then you destroy the animal. 

SB:  You can’t even use it to eat it.  

BL:  Oh!  I didn’t even think about that!

BB:  It’s all shredded and you can’t eat it with all the shrapnel.  

SB:  The pieces you can eat are usually full of little bullets.  

BL:  Ewww!  Gross! 

SB:  Honestly, I don’t think there’s any need for those types of guns.  Even some of the guns that some people use to hunt, you don’t really need them.  All you really need is the standard deer rifle, or a shotgun if you’re hunting turkey or pheasant.  Yes, if someone has a mental illness, I don’t think they should have a gun.  And the whole point with protecting your family, I get having a gun for that, but you don’t use a semi-automatic for that.  There’s no need for anybody to have a semi-automatic at all.  Background checks are important and for a hunter you actually have to have a license to get the certain types of hunting guns, which is smart.  But for people just protecting their family I think they need a background check to get one. 

BB:  Skyler had to go through a class.  

SB:  I took a safety class.  My sister and I took it when we were 13 and she was 11, or something.  There’s a certain age requirement.  My Pappy just waited until my sister was old enough so we could take it together.  But you have to get a certain percentage on the test and if you don’t pass it you have to take the course again.  You keep taking it until you pass it.  Because they obviously want you to have it right.  Part of the test is paper where you actually have to respond to multiple choice, but another part is this piece of wood shaped like a gun; it doesn’t do anything, and they throw frisbees out and you have to aim at it.  There are people next to you making sure that you’re not turning around with your gun and pointing at someone.  There’s that whole part of it for the hunter’s safety course.  It’s a test, so people are always nervous.  So, they get to see how people react with a gun when you’re nervous.  It’s a piece of wood (laughs), but still. 

BL:  That’s good. I’m glad to hear that. 

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BL:  My Emilia, she’s [now 9], has some questions for you.  She wants to know what’s your favorite food? 

SB:  Pasta and chicken.  I love those two together.  I like pasta because it’s nice and light.  Chicken has… I don’t know, it’s just good, and you can cook it different ways.  So many things you can do with it.  

BL:  What’s your favorite class?  

SB:  That’s hard.  I don’t know.  I think my favorite class this year would have to be Chemistry.  I’m in the AP class now, so it’s really hard, but I really like the teacher.  She really is there for her students and is always helping.  It’s my second year having her, so, obviously I get along with her.  It’s really nice because she understands you’re a high school kid you have other things to do.  I get Chemistry, too.  It clicks, which is nice.  

BL:  That is great.

BL:  What is your favorite color?

SB:  Red. 

BB:  It’s always been red. 

BL:  Do you have a favorite musical group?  Or artist? 

SB:  NF.  That’s the stage name.  

BL:  What kind of music is that?

SB:  It’s like rap, but not bad rap.  He doesn’t swear in any of his songs at all.  I like the meaning behind his songs.  Some of his songs are sad, but some really do have meaning and it just opens your eyes.  

BB:  Some are religious.  

SB:  Which is nice because it’s not, like some other rap.  He’s probably my top.  But then I also like Florida Georgia Line, which is country, with Marshmello. 

BL:  Last question!  What advice do you have for young girls?  

SB:  Not to get caught up in everything.  Take some days and just enjoy it.  Some days, I get so stressed because I have a test, and this work, and this essay to write, but like I feel so much better when I take a few minutes and go outside.  Or take an hour and play volleyball or go to a practice or something.  I feel like just take some time for yourself, even when you’re super busy that’s when you need it the most.  I know, some nights I’m up so late and I’m like, “I just need a break.”  I remember the one night I had a huge chem test the next day and my friends were all going out to eat at PJ’s for half price wings and I was so stressed.  Okay, I just need to take a break, so I went out with them and I had so much fun.  When I came back, I felt so refreshed and I could actually focus.  So, that’s the best advice - to take a break and have fun (laughs).

My gratitude (yet again) runneth over for all the key people involved in placing Skyler in my path.  Number one is Mrs. Rebekah Marconi, one of the Wilson High School's Counselors who went above and beyond the call of duty to gather a terrific long list of bright young women to refer me to for this project.  Her enthusiasm and additional work (on top of all the other many things counselors are in charge of doing for the students) she made time to do for me is tremendously appreciated.  Thank you, Mrs. Marconi! 

I am deeply grateful to Beth Burnham for your trust, willingness to make time by coming to my studio for our interview and portraits, and for sharing your brilliant girl with me.  I learn so much through each of these projects I am granted - and without a doubt - each and every girl I've met has a devoted, caring and inspiring mom by their side!  Kudos to you!!  Keep up the amazing work of raising incredible girls. 

And to you, Skyler, my deepest appreciation for your infectious positivity, your beautiful smile and for being so graciously accommodating in answering some "tender" questions and allowing me to share with everyone here.  As someone who appreciates an interesting topic to discuss in order to learn new things, see a subject from a different perspective, you certainly shed new light on these ol' eyes of mine. ;)  I wish you well, the best of everything, and that your desire to solve problems will not only stay with you, but will drive your curiosity straight on into your soaring future!  Keep that light shining brightly, I know you will!  Thank you!!   

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