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 Ashley Feiler, a 15-year-old sophomore, high honors student who maintains a 4.3 GPA, thespian and vocal musician, attending Wilson High School in West Lawn, PA on a brisk, windy Saturday morning in early March. We were granted access to the auditorium where we met for our interview and portrait shoot. Ashley's mom, Teresa Feiler was in attendance and also my middle daughter, Alanna happily joined us, too.
Here are some excerpts from the interview piece, peeks into Ashley's busy life, I was so generously granted...
BL: What do you most look forward to coming up this spring?
AF: Coming up this spring, definitely, our school musical. We’re doing Urinetown this year, which has got kind of a hard sell, as you can tell from the title, but honestly, we’ve been going through rehearsals and it’s really coming together nicely and it’s such a good show. I love working with all the people, everybody is so talented and it’s just…
BL: Wait. What’s it called again?
AF: It’s called Urinetown.
TF: Spell it.
BL: Oh, wow, like urine town. Wait a minute my brain can’t even...
AF: Yea, (laughs) It’s like a satire. Just a brief synopsis - it takes place in the future and this town, "Urinetown," is running out of water, so this big corporation is in charge of rationing the water. And so what happens is people have to pay to use the bathroom and so obviously the poor don’t like this and the people up top are the rich and they're in charge and so there’s this big revolt and it’s all kind of making fun of like modern society and politics, but it’s .. it’s such a good show. I promise. It’s so funny. It really is. It’s a Tony award winning show.
BL: When will it be playing?
AF: I believe it’s the last weekend of April, the 26th, 27th, and 28th. (Ticket information)
BL: It’s exciting! We’ll have to come!
AF: You definitely should.
BL: How do you balance your studies, extra curriculars and friends?
AF: I’ve been busy since I was little, so it’s just something I’ve learned to work with and I guess it’s just very important to maximize the time you do have. So, if you have rehearsal starting at 4, I like to stay an hour after school. I would stay in the library and try and get as much done as possible. But I think it’s all about priorities and sometimes knowing when you have to go to bed and maybe not finish that one assignment and just get it done maybe tomorrow morning instead because you have to remember that sometimes your own health is more important than the other things that you’re doing.
BL: I see you’re very interested in singing and the choir; have you received any formal training?
AF: I haven’t ever gone to a voice teacher, if that’s what you’re asking, but…
AF: In the chorus I belong to out of school, Berks Youth Chorus... they focus a lot on training you, especially from a young age they teach you what the correct way to sing is. Obviously, it’s not the same as going to a voice teacher where they work with you independently and they get all into the technique, but I think it was a really good place to start for me because it wasn’t just a place where everybody came together and sang. They really taught you some good ways to improve which I think was, like, crucial in getting to where I am now.
TF: She’s been doing that since 4th grade.
BL: Wow. That’s great. You must love it.
AF: It really is fun.
BL: So, when did you first start singing?
AF: 4th grade is when I started in my first official choir, Berks Youth Chorus, but I’ve sang in church for years before that. I did Calvary Kids since I was real little. It’s just always kind of been a part of who I am. Especially choral singing, like, I never did too much on my own, but I was always part of a group.
BL: So do you do solos?
AF: I do sometimes. I actually get stage fright pretty often which is why choral singing is more up my alley because you’re always kind of surrounded by a bunch of people. Yea, see she agrees with me (referring to Alanna), but I do do solos like at church, that sort of thing which is pretty low pressure environment and I try out for a few solos during our regular concerts, just small things. It’s nice. It’s a little bit of a challenge for me to get out of my comfort zone a bit and to kind of show off a little bit because you know this is something that I’ve worked really hard at.
TF: What about 8th grade? She had the lead in the school musical, Grease, in 8th grade!
AF: That’s my claim to fame. “Sandy” in Grease (laughing) in 8th grade.
BL: Wow! That’s amazing!
TF: She was amazing! (big smiles)
AF: Thanks, Mom! (big smiles!)
BL: So, I see you also have a very strong interest in the theater and acting; when did you discover this about yourself?
AF: Well, the first time I did this was either second or third grade and our music teacher I think was Mrs. Bishop at the time was asked to select like four or five of us from our class to be in the high school musical because the high school was doing the Wizard of Oz. So, a bunch of the elementary schools were giving some of their best musicians. “Best musicians” I say, (laughs)…
TF: For second grade. (everyone’s smiling and laughs)
AF: But, yea, some of the people could tell they cared a lot and they were going to be Munchkins in the school play. So, I remember I got to be in one scene on this very stage when Dorothy was leaving on the yellow brick road. A bunch of my friends and I from all over the district we got together and we learned this dance to the Wizard of Oz and we sung and, oh my gosh, it was so much fun and that was the first time that I did it. And I really wasn’t in another, like, school show until, what? Seventh grade? But yea that was my first taste of it and it was so much fun.
BL: And then the "Theater Bug" bit you. Right?
AF: Yea. (smiling)
BL: Playing a lead role, how does that help you grow as an actor?
AF: Oh man. Umm...
BL: Or do you feel that it does help you grow?
AF: No, it definitely does. I mean, I would say, for me personally, its a lot with that stage fright thing because it puts you in the spotlight, but in a way it almost helps you grow as an ensemble member because you learn the importance of every role, of every range ‘cause going from an ensemble to a lead role you learn those dynamics in between and so as a lead role you start to figure out, like, okay, I’m listed as the lead, but honestly how much of this could happen without everybody else who is in this show. So, it kind of puts a lot into perspective.
BL: I’m sure. That’s great.
BL: Is there anything special you do to prepare before a performance?
AF: Well, for choir concerts it’s more of me just trying to calm myself down. So, I’ll listen to music, or something like that, something relaxing. But one fun thing we do for theater company is that before the show we meet out in the hall and we do a few exercises. We like shake everything out and we do lunges and that sort of thing and then we do a ritual. It’s called the "Prune Pumpkin Face." All the seniors get in the middle and everybody else forms a circle around them and so we all go “Prune!” and you scrunch up your face and you close your eyes and all the seniors walk around on the inside of the circle and they find someone that they stand in front of and then when you go “Pumpkin Face!” you like make a big expression and you pop out your hands and then a senior may or may not be right in front of your face. It’s really fun. It’s just kind of a way to get the jitters out and it’s a way to acknowledge them and everything they’ve done. So, that’s a really cool little habit that we have.
BL: That sounds like fun!
BL: So, things change. At this time in your life where do you see yourself in 3 to 5 years? Like, what would you like to study later?
AF: In 3 to 5 years, well, I would definitely like to go to college. Honestly, this is something that I’ve been trying to work out for a while. I’m not really sure. One thing I’ve always been drawn to, because music is such a big passion of mine, I’ve always considered that as a potential career option. I’ve always kind of wanted to be a teacher because I just really love kids and I’ve found myself through the years kind of being a bit of a teacher to my friends and that’s just something that I really am drawn to. So, possibly being a music teacher or really a teacher of any subject. Recently I was looking up different colleges, that sort of thing, it’s a fun way for me to pass the time. I know it’s kind of out there (laughs), but I found a major called Cognitive Science and I’ve really been interested in psychology and that sort of thing and it takes elements of that. It’s all about how the mind works. You take, like, psychology and neuroscience and linguistics and you kind of combine everything in order to get one of the best understandings of the mind possible and I thought that was really cool. And, honestly, I could use something like that to then become a teacher. You know, I mean…
BL: Definitely. It would help in all aspects.
AF: Yea, I’ve found that I just want to learn so much about everything that it’s really hard to pick something and something like that would combine a lot of different elements. So, yea…
BL: That’s exciting.
AF: We’ll see (laughs).
BL: I know things change. Definitely. And especially, you’re young, there’s so many options out there for you and so many things to think about, but you still want to be a kid. Ya know? It’s preparing you for later. It’s a hard juggling act, isn't it?
AF: Yea. The way schools push it on you, ya know, like, even in 8th grade I remember going to career fairs and teachers telling us, like, look when you go to high school you need to pick classes that will lead you down this path to get to the college to get to the career that you want. I mean, they do put so much pressure on us. They make it seem like you need to know what you’re doing by age 12. (Looking at Alanna) So, you better have figured out what your career’s gonna be for the next 30 years, like, right now. (everyone’s laughing). But honestly, it’s really not, don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Just kind of enjoy it. Take classes that you know you’re going to enjoy because if you do that you’ll end up somewhere you’re having fun.
BL: And learning at the same time.
BL: What life lessons do you feel have helped to prepare you to be a leader in your community?
AF: Oh man. What life lessons?
BL: Or any situations that you’ve been in maybe that have helped you to be who you are now. You are a leader, even though you may not acknowledge that, you know there are young girls who are looking up to you.
AF: Thank you.
AL: Like me! (everyone’s laughing)
AF: Aww, that’s so sweet of you! I guess, some of the most important things that I’ve learned are just to always stay humble, I think. I think a great leader is not someone who stands up and shouts like, “I’m the best! You should follow me!” Like, no. You should stay humble and realize that nobody’s perfect and while you do have to step up sometimes, like, you don’t .. I don’t know how to phrase it.. Just, just..
BL: Do your thing, right?
AF: Yea, and just always do everything kind of with a smile, you know. I’ve found that people remember you because of your attitude and if you’re a happy person that’s what people will remember about you and people are more likely to agree with and follow someone that they feel listens to them and does things with a positive attitude and I can’t think of any specific time when that may have popped up, but I’ve always done my best to try and stay optimistic about everything and I think that’s really important because there’s a lot of times when life can really get you down and it’s important to just kind of find the silver linings in everything and I think that will reflect when you are a leader because people see that you’re trying to make the best out of certain situations and they’re willing to go along with that.
BL: Fair enough. Yes, I agree.
BL: Emilia [my youngest daughter] wants to know, what’s your favorite food?
AF: Mac ’n Cheese. By far, oh… yea.
BL: Uh oh. (pointing towards Alanna)
AF: Oh yea, you too?! (everyone’s giggling). It’s delicious. My dad makes mac ’n cheese with hot dogs in it and that is a treat. I will tell you.
BL: She [Emilia] wants to know what’s your favorite class?
AF: My favorite class. I really like English. My teacher, Mrs. Genova, she’s great. I love her so much. We get to read a lot of books in this English class and I really love reading. So far this year we’ve read Life of Pi. The thing with this class is that we have so many good discussions. Like, what I found before in English class is that you read the book, you take a test on it. It’s not very fun. But in this class we really get to delve into everything that we read and that’s really exciting for me.
BL: And she wants to know who you’re favorite Disney character is?
AF: Oh boy. Like any Disney character? It doesn’t have to be a princess?
BL: No. It doesn’t.
TF: When she was little, her wish was to be a princess.
BL: Right? All little girls want to be a princess.
AF: (giggling) I would have to say that my favorite Disney character is Mushu from Mulan. I love him. He has so many good lines throughout the movie. He’s so funny. I just love him. I mean, I love all the Disney characters.
BL: He’s a good sidekick. Right?
BL: What’s your best advice to young girls?
AF: I would say just do what makes you happy. And, you know, other people have very valuable advice so listen to what other people have to say, but ultimately it’s going to be your life so do what you like and take other peoples opinions with a grain of salt because, I mean, as I said, they can have very valuable advice that’s good to listen to, but you can’t base your self worth and your own passions on what other people tell you you should or should not like so just do what you love.
My gratitude runneth over for all the key people involved in placing Ashley in my path. Number one is Mrs. Rebekah Marconi, one of the Wilson High School's Counselors who went above the call of duty to gather a terrific long list of bright young women to refer me to for this project. Her enthusiasm for this project 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.
And to the Facilities Coordinator, Caryn Croll, for granting us access to the auditorium on a cold, blustery March morning. And the janitors who were so patient with us - who rightfully could have chased us out since our time ran over, thank you!
Warm, abundant gratitude to Mrs. Teresa Feiler for your trust and willingness to welcome this project of mine highlighting your amazing Ashley. You've done an outstanding job in your guidance of your bright, warm-hearted, talented daughter. I am simply humbled by this experience and forever grateful to you.
And most especially terrific appreciation and gratitude to you, Ashley. Your wisdom is beyond your years. You have such a calm presence, natural gift for bringing out the best in everyone in your midst (I have never seen Alanna - my quiet, shy girl - take to someone so quickly, or easily! Seriously, I was a bit shocked!). You've gained so much insight already into the world and you've managed to keep it grounded, real, yet able to dream with such passion for the immense possibilities life holds for you and your generation. I'm in awe of you. Thank you so very much for sharing so freely with me and my Alanna and for all who look up to you. We'll look forward to seeing you at the show in April!!!
If you know of a girl that would be a good fit for Year of the Girl, please get in contact with me! I'm open to your suggestions, friends. We need to hear from more high-achieving girls driven for success. Thank you!