A pivotal point

A thought expressed on my statewide e-mail list, VaEclecticHS, was that it is “near impossible to be accepted…and do what is right for yourself,” while in school. That seems true. While I was in school, I walked on that edge many times. Fortunately, for the most part, I did what was right for myself, even when it meant withstanding disapproval from teachers, administrators, and fellow students.

I was a goody two-shoes in the elementary years, but in middle school I began to recognize that the sytem had some serious flaws, and I started took action when a gender bias issue awakened my consciousness. Being denied the education I wanted–solely on the basis of my gender–was an offense that fired my anger and resolve.

The incident began at the end of 6th grade, when I was choosing classes for the following year. I signed up for Wood Shop, after the woman who was staffing the sign-up had answered my question, affirming that girls were indeed allowed to take this class. I turned in my forms and skipped away, my heart light with pleasure at the thought of learning some of those things that, in my family, were relegated to the privileged and powerful world of men and boys. How excited I was, imagining myself working those tools to build useful, durable things in which I could take pride!

Now, picture a 12-year-old girl’s face, when she receives her class assignments the morning of her first day of middle school. She unfolds the paper with anticipation, only to discover that, rather than the Wood Shop she longed for, she has been assigned to Home Economics.

This became a pivotal point in my life. The searing injustice I felt at that moment was not just a reaction to the school system’s pushing me aside, but also to a larger sense of being relegated to a second class, within my family–where the boys had a measure of privilege and status that was denied to the girls–and within the larger world. At twelve years old, I well knew the sting of descrimination, and I determined it was time to stand up and fight.

With steady support from my mother, I resisted the school system’s attempt to sweep me under the rug of the Home Ec class. The authorities tried various methods to keep me in line: force, manipulation, intimidation, lies, and distraction. My mother’s guidance was perfect. She served as council, but empowered me with the responsibility of taking action. To each of the school’s attempts, I responded firmly and calmly, until they had run out of excuses and tactics, conceded, and let me into the class. They lost the battle to keep a girl from learning what she desired to learn, and I won the ability to determine for myself what I would learn–at least for one period of the school day, for one half of the school year.

By the time I had won my case, the quarter was half over, so I entered Wood Shop at a disadvantage. Still, my interest and enthusiasm garnered me a “B” for the grading period, and I made an “A” for the second quarter. Although I suspect it was partly due to the shop teacher’s admonition before I came into his class, my fellow classmates were polite, and seemed to accept my presence. They even indicated respect for what I had done, and for what I created in class.

So, I made my little mark in history, being the first girl to enroll in Wood Shop at that school. Through this experience, I learned something of the importance of being oneself, of speaking up, and of holding out for what one wants. I discovered that, with support and determination, I could stare down The System and change it for the better. It is remarkable what one can learn from life when meeting it head on.

This post first published at the Life Without School Community Blog.

(C) 2007, 2011 by Shay Seaborne. All rights Reserved.

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One Response to A pivotal point

  1. Shay, I had a similar experience at about the same age. Title IX had been passed, which should have ensured equal athletic opportunities for girls. In reality, most schools at the time had not sorted out to what extent they would be required to abide by Title IX, and my school certainly did not offer equal opportunities.

    Because there was no girls track team, in 8th grade a friend and I decided to go out for the boys track team. There was a little resistance until it became clear I could contribute to the team. I had a successful track season, mainly because my much older brother had taught me how to run hurdles, and in middle school in those days, knowing any kind of technique gave you a leg-up. I was pretty much the “first hurdler” on the team, tho’ I couldn’t have beaten many of the guys in a flat race. It’s just that I’d been hurdling lawn chairs in my yard with my brother, correctly, for a few years.

    The problem came during the transition to 9th grade – high school. My slightly reluctant but mostly supportive middle school coach, who had once picked cinders out of my knees and worried whether I would regret the scars (I don’t), encouraged me to try out for the high school team. I lasted one day. At 5’1″, I had stopped growing. I took 15 to 17 steps between hurdles. My male mates whose growth spurt had been ahead of them when I competed in middle school, were now as much as a foot taller than I. They took 9 to 11 steps between hurdles. The high school coach was pleasant with me and told me I was welcome to work out with the team, but I would never qualify for a real race. And, by the way, there was no girls team.

    I turned my focus more exclusively on a socially acceptable female physical pursuit: training horses, but I still rubbed shoulders with the athletes at school. I was the administrator of various boys’ events at our home track meets, running pole vault, long jump, and triple jump competitions. I kept track of the competitors and the heights and distances they jumped. I called their names across the field: “Jackson up, Donaldson on deck, Bryce in the hole.” The language lover in me still loves the rhythm, and the public speaker in me knows I got something out of being able to keep my events running, because I wasn’t afraid to be heard. And I learned about coaching and competition and technique and heart — tho’ at track meets, it was only as an observer.

    Today, when I watch my son practice soccer on a competitive team, I’m often able to watch serious high school female athletes practicing on another field. They take my breath. Powerful, graceful, focused girls, with a chance to compete. I don’t know that I could have ever competed against these girls – many of whom would also have quite the height advantage on me.

    How I would have loved that chance.

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