How to Grow a Nice Girl / On Nursery Rhymes, Suffrage, Spice, and Everything (Not) Nice / That’s What Memory is Made Of

“Why can’t a nice-looking girl like you act nice,” the principal asked.

How to Grow a Nice Girl /  On Nursery Rhymes, Suffrage, Spice, and Everything (Not) Nice  / That’s What Memory is Made Of
Photo by Alain Rieder / Unsplash

by Jen Schneider

International Women’s Day was celebrated for the first time on March 8, 1908. Also in 1908, John R. Neill illustrated Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes, while M.A. Donahue published Mother Goose Melodies. Later that same year, child development scholar Louise Bates Ames was born on October 29, in Portland, Maine. In February 1908, Maud Malone organized the first U.S.-based street parade for women suffrage. Each event, a tangled web of melodies turned moments turned minutes turned memories (many now forgotten), took place almost ten years before the 19th Amendment (and its immediate impact on voting behaviors) was approved by the Senate and later ratified by a divided Congress.

Ames spent years studying behaviors -- mostly those of children. Her pen stroked (and often stoked) comments and commentaries that would outlive and outlast ages and years that served as the formal focus of her study. As a child development and behavioral expert, Ames shared research widely and across a span of ages. “There’s nobody nicer than a ten-year-old,” she wrote in Your Ten- to Fourteen-Year-Old. “If now and then your own Ten’s behavior is less than ideal, keep in mind that growing up isn’t easy,” Ames noted. Others, suffragists included, would most likely agree. The path of (and to) growth is rarely one without bruised knees. Curious but not superstitious, Ames also spoke (and wrote) about “niceness” across ages. She studied Tens, Twelves, and Thirteens. Fourteens, too. From corsets to bell bottoms, to Lycra to high-waists, Ames explored growth, divisiveness, and niceness cycles amidst miles, changing styles, and fashions recycles. I sometimes wonder what Ames might make of Maud Malone’s behavior. Maud “always willing to be brave enough to go first” and also always controversial (her behavior rarely that of a traditional form of “nice”). The concept and tracking of niceness amidst divisiveness (and divisive behaviors – voting and otherwise) has persisted, even as language and descriptors have aged, and as associated fashions have changed.

Fashion trends and forward focused marches (though, notably, street meeting and parades ultimately “became the fashion not only in New York but through the country”) aside, much of Ames’s advice might feel “old-fashioned” to a present-day reader. Nevertheless, her texts remain popular with posts and links scattered across digital platforms. More recently, during COVID-19 lockdowns, many found the works helped them “feel like [they’re] not living in the upside-down” even as the world spun (and spins) wildly out of control. Easy to consume, “nicely” presented, highly relatable information is, perhaps, one of the works’ greatest appeals.

The question of what it means to be “nice” continues, as well, to spin with (and of) time. Interestingly, the word “nice” originated as a negative term that meant “unaware” or “ignorant.” I learned this only after additional reading prompted by a 10-year-old’s experiences (with respect to whom there’s nobody nicer, according to Ames) after the Supreme Court overruled Roe v. Wade. Conversations (perhaps expectations) and communications (if not compilations) of “niceness” both casual and compulsory persist.

Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells, and cockle shells,
And pretty maids all in a row.

Despite its untoward origins, the term “nice”, somehow, remains commonly revered. Multiple Top-100 Hits include the word in both title and lyrics. The Beach Boys “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” was released as a single in July 1966 and peaked at Number 8 on the Billboard Hot 100. As of 2021, it was the band's most streamed song on Spotify and it’s listed among the thousand-most highest-rated songs of all time on Acclaimed Music. “(If Paradise Is) Half as Nice" is a popular 1968 song originally written by Lucio Battisti. In the mid-’70s, Ambrosia had a hit with “Nice, Nice, Very Nice”. “Niceness” both intrigues and sells in all quarters, from academics to pop music.

Merriam Websters defines nice (adjective; \ ˈnīs  \ ) as follows:

   1: POLITE, KIND / a very nice person
   2a: PLEASING, AGREEABLE / a nice person
   2b: APPROPRIATE, FITTING / She always wears nice clothes.
   2c: well-executed / nice shot
   3a: socially acceptable : WELL-BRED / from a nice family
   3b: VIRTUOUS, RESPECTABLE / … I met nice girls whose skirts reached    the ground.
   — Jack London

Fashion, semantics, and niceness also remain inextricably intertwined. London published Call of the Wild in 1903, and wrote widely (if not wildly) at a time when women’s skirt trends were changing (and hems rising). Girls as young as ten wore clothing of a more liberated nature. Catcalls and so-called “wild girls” were on the horizon.

I rarely fit Ames’s definitions or the societal expectations, growing up not being easy and all. I was a (somewhat wild) tomboy who liked (and needed) to run. Despite the persistence (and pervasiveness) of “niceness”, I can barely remember what it was like to be ten. Or what I wore. Memories of hem lengths, folk tales, and fabrics remain largely blocked. Yet oddly specific details stick and prick.

A Tuesday in May: I must have been in fourth grade. A newly primed “ten”. I tried to be nice. We all did. Choice was not available for popular consumption. I recall running to avoid boys that teased then tossed meaningless three-letter words. I recall finding a like-minded friend (whose name or image I no longer recall), then riding piggyback through fields. Some permitted; some not. In the principal’s office. I recall being told to play like nice girls. The office smelled of turpentine and white-out. Staff wore gray slacks and blue polos. I remember a yellow duck. I remember the principal’s voice, but not his name.

“Why can’t a nice-looking girl like you act nice,” the principal asked.

“I don’t know, Sir” I replied and stared at a fly on his bald head.

“Be nice,” he advised then swatted.

Yes, Sir.
No, Sir.
Sorry, Sir.
May I go, Sir.

I recall ducking (unsure if I or the fly was the target) then returning to class (the boys still snickering, the teacher still seething, and revisiting Charlotte’s introduction to Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web. When Wilbur admitted he found Charlotte beautiful, Charlotte replied, “Well, I am pretty. There's no denying that. Almost all spiders are rather nice-looking. I'm not as flashy as some, but I'll do”.

I recall highlighting the text (in orange, to match my dime-store nail polish) then canvasing the room for spiders (much more interesting). I recall where I placed my copy of the text on my bookcase, in between a can of Play-Doh and a Cabbage Patch doll, but not how the book ended.

I may not recall everything, but I know that truth is as pliable as Play-Doh and Cabbage Patch doll (I wonder if Charlotte would consider them nice-looking). Memory even more so. Reliability not a strength. Oddly specific details continue to stick (and prick).

Research tells us that we forget information shockingly fast – within days, sometimes minutes. Studies suggest individuals of all ages forget approximately 50% of new information within an hour of acquisition. Within 24 hours, 70% of it is lost. In the late 19th century, Hermann Ebbinghaus tested his own memory over various periods of time. He used meaningless three-letter words as his subject matter. Forgetting curves both steep and deep.

I might have told the principal I forgot how to be nice, but that would have been a lie (something nice girls didn’t do). Even so, memories continue to stick and prick. The less nice an experience the more likely we are to remember it. Research suggests that negative emotions trigger increased brain activity and associated memory. There are also strategies (of varied intensity), including conscious review, that improve memory. Studies suggest simple rhymes can help with memory. While I appreciate the sentiment (I recall nursery rhymes I learned at age three), I wonder if the scheme (and schema) serves memory of text and/or expectations.

I was first fed “Sugar and Spice” as a young child. Especially when I wasn’t being nice.

What are little girls made of?
Sugar and spice,
And all that's nice;
That's what little girls are made of.

I consumed repeated versions of the rhyme (and other versions of alphabet soup and Mother Goose) well into and beyond my teens. Ring Around the Rosie and fair ladies as common as Mary Mary Quite Contrary (all pretty maids in a row). As I grew (both in stature and opinion), rhymes were often warnings -- cautions to cease some behaviors and craftiness to encourage others.

I was a curious tomboy with curly hair. I preferred hardball to rag dolls. Waded in tunnels and creeks rather than tulle and crepe paper. I wasn’t alone. As one example, Robin Harwick writes that she was often reproached with the phrase “girls are made of sugar and spice and everything nice”. Perhaps because she, too, “was playing like a tomboy, speaking up… or questioning” authority. While “Sugar and Spice” was originally published over 200 years ago, the notion that girls should be nice has existed (and persisted) in spoken and unspoken words and works for all eternity.

Songs and music videos continue to reinforce the sentiment (both language and meaning) amidst webs of supposed well-wishers and winkers. Though I can no longer recall where I first learned repeated rhymes or the names of repetitive well-wishers and teachers that reinforced finely tuned sentiments, I think of Charlotte, webs, and what it means to be nice often.

Some say to be nice is tired – out-of-date and old-fashioned. A bit like Louise Ames’s advice. Or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem.

There was a little girl
Who had a little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead.
When she was good,
She was very very good
But when she was bad
She was horrid.

Some may have tried to believe that. Even so, sugar and spice remain closely connected with niceness in both digital and physical versions of reality.

A Monday in March: I recently changed jobs. “Everyone’s excited to meet you. They’ve all asked what your like,” a voice on the phone exclaimed. “She’s nice,” the woman I was hired to replace clarified as her regular reply. I listened, wondered (complement or condescension? complacency or confrontation?), and pondered, what might my old principal think. Would he smile or, perhaps, does he no longer conspire?

Whatever the intent (and knowing that intent and impact are distinct concepts), it would have been nice for her to have remembered something (anything) other than my “niceness”. Perhaps something I had shared in interviews, a blurb about my research, a prior work experience. Yet, memory tells us we forget. Research also tells us that what we remember is often distorted. Experience tells us niceness is often synonymous with a lack of notability and simultaneously not as simple as nursery rhymes might suggest. Reality reminds us that women of all ages, stages, and rages are often forgotten. Despite attempts to forget-me-not.

Oh, this sweet and lovely flower
Forget-me-not, forget-me-not.

A Thursday in July: My thoughts move from Charlotte’s Web (still on my bookcase) to suffragists. Women like Charlotte Despard (imprisoned four times for her activism), Charlotte Woodward Pierce (the only woman to sign the Declaration of Sentiments at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention and live to see the passing of the 19th Amendment), and Charlotte Forten Grimké (an African-American teacher, author, abolitionist and suffragist). All, largely forgotten, in popular recountings of the movement.

I wonder what they’d think of the ten-year in Ohio. And how they might feel about Dinah Shore’s “It’s So Nice to Have a Man Around the House” (the song a billboard hit). “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” another hit. I wonder if they’d even recognize the tunes (or the times).

As oddly specific details stick and prick, the brain has a surprisingly strong ability to remember all kinds of music, even (or perhaps especially) in times of distress. Research has found music is one of the last things we forget. I take note and play tunes while my thoughts on “niceness” wander.

I wonder if niceness is something that is learned. Wiki-How provides instructions, a sort of how-to broken down into simple (or, perhaps, deceptively complex – growing up never easy and all), easy-to-apply steps. The steps oddly vague and disconcertingly prickly.

   “One: Smile and Be Positive
    Two: Acknowledge Other People
     Three: Be a Good Listener
     Four: Be Courteous, Polite, and Helpful
     Five: Smile
     Six: Practice Empathy
     Seven: Never Speak Ill of Others When They Aren’t Around”

While the page has an equally disconcertingly high number of views – 1,584,727, not all readers consume (then resume) such tips. Fast Company suggests niceness can be harmful. Scholars do, as well. Business books explore niceness and its impact on leadership. Many writers explore the problems with niceness. Robert Taibbi writes on dangers of being a nice guy. Kelly J. Baker writes on the dangers of nice.

Unexpected danger, it seems, reveals in a variety of forms, fashions, and movements. Both terminology and testimony closely linked. Semantics often more a matter of degree and shading than sustenance. Take terms like nice, bitch, and witch. Salem aside, all movements make waves.

The word bitch was first popularized long before Lost’s Sawyer uttered it on household TVs each week. Other than a short and long “i”, just how different is “bitch” from “nice” when used in daily speech? Take the word “bitch”. I grew up thinking “sons of bitches” were insults meant for men of stature. the kind that whistled when I walked to and from the public elementary. Also, the kind that whacked my bottom when I wavered. Mathematics not my destiny; rulers everywhere. I didn’t understand that all terms are borrowed. and that not all that is borrowed is meant to be worn. And that not all that is sworn is meant to be secret. and that everybody doesn’t like something.

The suffrage movement as good an example as any. Suffragettes were generally characterized as unlikable, violent, emotional. Eager to speak (their mind), they’ve been characterized as women who pursued “less than nice” paths and forms of protest. The term bitch first came into use during the suffrage movement. Its use surged after women’s suffrage, largely as a way to contain women’s power. Were suffragists really that different than suffragettes? Don’t they all fall along a continuum of nice- and bitchiness? Don’t we all?

As I think about them (mostly forgotten) and their choices (mostly unknown) I wonder about niceness. Studies find that niceness, too, is mostly forgotten. And that people, in general, are much better at remembering things in their lives that they want to remember.

In The Last Day, Charlotte asks Wilbur,

“After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle.”

I think of messes. And trifles. And what it means to be stifled. And I recall, like the ABCs, life as a string of prose and senses. Of potlucks and sentiments. Of apricots and applies, sliced and diced. Blueberry flavored mittens and snowmen with carrot noses. Crhystanthemus by the dozen, hand-picked. Diced potatoes in chicken soup. Softly boiled. Fresh squeezed lemonade, 10 cents a cup.

Mostly, I remember that it was always important to be nice -- and to be A Nice Girl. Though, of course, I can’t be sure. Like dust, memory lingers in layers. Distortion, like shadows, also commonly present.

Research teaches ways to boost memory. Active recall, spaced repetition, and note-taking have proven useful for retention and memory. Even so, questions of time and space continuums (and optimal algorithms) persist.

I take note and wonder about sensibility. Nice often closely interconnected with the term. And with naming conventions. (Names also easy to forget.)

"Will you just pick out a nice sensible name for me-something not too long, not too fancy, and not too dumb?" a spider asked Wilbur who then thought hard.

Intentionality along with action improve recall. Suffragists took action, often with consequences of recall and recollection. Each of them accepted consequences of varying degrees -- including to be forgotten. Sally Roesch Wagner writes that Matilda Gage, for example, “got written out of history because she was far too progressive — saw a vision of a transformed world not just for equality but a world in balance and harmony”. With respect to Maud Malone, Susan Kriete writes that “[b]eing forgotten is something that Maud Malone should be remembered for”. Kriete explains, “Malone was an uncompromising activist who courted the media to promote her causes, rather than herself. If this cost her a place in history, it should earn her a place in our hearts”.

As I think about how to define and document a memory, what it means to be nice, and who (and what) gets remembered (and why), I realize that legacy, lists, and what’s left linger in layers. Amidst and among webs both torn and tangled. Not the niceness of sugar and spice, but of sticks and stones. Inks and ice. Noodle soup, ABCs, and (often random) rolls of the dice.

I no longer recall the color of the carpet in my childhood bedroom, but I remember the October night a spider crawled on my wall. Its shadow danced with darkness. I screamed. No one heard me.

I’ve learned that limited recall is both a blessing and a push and that letters linger when prodded amidst protest. I’ve also learned that documentation is often random, legacy often flavored, and memories often linked.

I can’t remember the names of my 4th, 5th, or 6th-grade teachers. The years I was 10 and 12.

Though I recall forced diets of steamed green beans. No butter added. Being nicely filled out not always welcome.

"I'm sorry, Templeton," she said,
"but 'Pre-shrunk' is out of the question.
We want Zuckerman to think
Wilbur is nicely filled out.”

And as haiku drop like rain, I collect recollections. I take note. I remember.

Lousia Ames Bates wrote a popular advice column in the 1960s (not long after Charlotte’s Web was first published in 1952). She’d urge parents to take document their child’s behaviors. Ames also encouraged parents to keep children busy. Boredom often associated with trouble (and not being nice).

Perhaps out of boredom, I kept busy. I sought sustenance in stories and, often, took note(s).

Of forgotten suffragists. Of a woman named Victoria. And women named Minor. And Gage. Of children like the 10-year-old with respect to whom “there’s nobody nicer”. And of children the age of those Ames studied. Busy not with moving blocks but locks. And daughters. And a girl named Bessie. Of women who cast aside visions and versions of niceness for necessity.

"But Charlotte," said Wilbur, "I'm not terrific."
"That doesn't make a particle of difference," replied Charlotte.
People believe almost anything they see in print.”

  • A Meeting

The women’s images proliferated before they paled. In marketing and memory. On postcards and posters. Atop walls and walkers. All while niceness taunted and tangled with moments turned minutes turned memories. Now, mostly forgotten.

dust dances
against a backdrop
of finger puppet shadows

I turn the radio on. Louis Armstrong’s “Oh What a Wonderful World” plays. It’s nice. I think of all the Louise’s, Charlotte’s, Maud’s, and Bessie’s I’ve known. And the ten-year-old girl whose experiences were questioned and hushed in both whispers and waves. And the Tens I’ve birthed, bounced, and bathed. And all the versions of A Nice Girl I’ve been. I think of the forgotten suffragists for whom every step and every cell were threads of sugar and spice and all things (not) nice. And I know that there’s nothing more wonderful than a life of memories lived outside the bounds of what it means to be nice. Life a tangled web of recollections -- that’s what (nice) girls (and memories) are made of.

Jen Schneider is an educator who lives, works, and writes in small spaces in and around Philadelphia.