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A Doll By Any Other Name

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Barbie. She's blond. She's busty. She's bubbly. She's only 36, but she's already been a pilot, an aerobics instructor, and even run for president of the United States. But now this American icon is on a challenging new mission. Faster than a speeding bullet, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound and teach quantum physics all at the same time. Yes, folks, it's Teacher Barbie.

This fall, Mattel Inc. welcomed Teacher Barbie to its latest lineup, along with sidekicks Slumber Party Barbie, Bubble Angel Barbie, and Baywatch Barbie. Always known for her fashion savoir faire, Teacher Barbie wears a white blouse and short jumper in a bright print: fluorescent apples, rulers, and numerals on a black background. It almost makes you wonder if she glows in the dark. The persistently perky Barbie wears glasses, but they're kind of hip--big Sally Jessy Raphaelesque frames that coordinate perfectly with her lipstick-red stiletto pumps and matching necktie.

Toy stores across the country are stocking both a Caucasian and African-American version, retailing at about $28 each. Many elementary educators might envy Barbie's teacher-pupil ratio--she comes with just two students, a young boy and a girl. But additional pupils are sold separately. And, of course, you can always use those extra Skipper dolls lying around the house to magically transform Barbie into a high school teacher--no extra certification required.

Some may wonder if Mattel is trying to recover from its public relations fiasco a few years back. You remember, the "Teen Talk Barbie" who complained, "Math class is tough," prompting protests that the dolls enforced stereotypes that math is too hard for girls. Mattel has linked the doll's debut to "Hand in Hand," its new public-awareness campaign to increase parent involvement in education. The toy company and its foundation have pledged $1 million to the philanthropic campaign, coordinated by the Institute for Educational Leadership, a Washington-based think tank. Mattel has also given its employees 16 hours of annual leave time to spend in schools. If they don't have children, they can use the time to volunteer. What's more, Mattel views the doll as a tribute to America's teachers. Its market research has found that teachers are "the No. 1 aspirational role model for children," company spokeswoman Karen Stewart says.

The new doll has found some unlikely fans, including Helen Bernstein, the outspoken president of United Teachers-Los Angeles. "This doll is so darling," gushes the union leader. "It's not often that people go out and say nice things about teachers, and here was a corporation that can touch an awful lot of people's lives saying something positive about teachers and teaching." David Haselkorn, the president of Recruiting New Teachers, agrees. But he adds, "We'll know the status of the profession has really changed when we not only have a Teacher Barbie but a Troops-to-Teacher G.I. Joe."

Some still had questions. "Are little girls going to expect all their teachers to look like Barbie?" asks Molly Merry, a teacher at the Exploratory School in Denver and the 1995 Colorado Teacher of the Year. "Because they are going to be real disappointed when they get to school. I wear jeans and Converse tennies. The one time I came to school in heels and a dress, my kids were all staring at me and saying, 'Go home, you look terrible.' "

What Teacher Barbie really needs, Merry says, is a trust fund so she can take trips to expand her horizons, improve her teaching, and not have to worry about low salaries. Others wonder if there might be a Teacher Ken someday. But alas, Stewart reveals, while Ken has occasionally had careers, he is--much like Barbie's friends and pets--ultimately just an accessory. Meanwhile, inquiring minds want to know: Is Barbie a union member? With the NEA or AFT? Is she certified? Or did she enter the profession through Teach for America or some other alternate route? "We leave those things to the child's imagination," Stewart says. "She can be anything she wants her to be."

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