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No Girls Allowed

Here's my first piece for my new Write A Letter Wednesday meme. "Mr. Smith" taught Industrial Arts (essentially drafting and woodshop classes) when I was in high school in the early 1970s.

Dear Mr. Smith,

In my guestroom stands a beautiful handmade black walnut "stereo table" (as we called them long ago) which now holds a flat screen tv, and a Dish satellite DVR recorder - things we never could have imagined back in 1972. I wonder if you would remember it if you saw a picture. I'm betting that you would!

I never got around to telling you how much that class meant to me, and how this cherished table is the one item that has accompanied me thru every stage of my life since then. You were probably in your late 40's back then, so would be an elder now, if you are still living. I wish I would have written you or stopped by your house a long time ago to tell you about the table and that I still love the smell of fresh cut wood.

I remember so well the turbulent days of my high school years. It was a difficult time to grow up in, with the Vietnam War not yet ended and the 60's movement still going strong. I wasn't one of the popular kids, but rather one of those on the fringe... book smart, and very much aware of what was going on in the world around me, but totally socially inept. I kept to myself mostly, only speaking out now and then to protest things I perceived as unreasonable or unjust.

Back then, you'll remember, elective classes for girls included secretarial skills and home economics. By our Junior year, my best friend Joan and I had long since grown weary of sewing aprons and baking cookies, though we did both well. I had no interest in learning shorthand or accounting, which ironically is exactly what I'm doing now. Funny how life turns out, isn't it?!

Do you remember us coming to ask if we could be allowed to take your Industrial Arts class? It was a class for boys only, no girls allowed. It had never been heard of in the Midwest where I grew up, girls taking classes like woodshop.

After you realized we were serious, you warmed to the idea but said we would have to gain permission from the school administration to register for the course. No easy task that. First the principal had to approve, then the Superintendent, and finally it required school board sanction. One wouldn't think it was such an extreme breach of protocol to allow girls in the woodshop, but you know how men can be about women encroaching on their territory!

Finally, near the end of our Junior year, we got approval to take Introduction to Industrial Arts, the freshman level course, in our final Senior year of high school. We were elated! It would be just the two of us, in a classroom of approximately 20 boys. We put up with a lot of teasing from all quarters, remember? I wonder if the rest of the staff approved of your decision to admit us or frowned on it. Girls in the woodshop... what would be next, girls in auto repair? :-)

I remember the first semester fondly, as we spent day after day perched on stools at our drafting boards learning the fine points of mechanical drawing. I remember how strict you were regarding neatness and having every line exactly the right thickness, length and angle. Finally some of the formulas we learned in geometry made sense! You were a stickler for learning to label things precisely. We spent hours honing our printing skills until they met with your approval. You taught me well... I still print in the same form and exact angle to this day!

Near the end of the first semester we began to plan the project were going to build in the woodshop in the next semester. Being a first year class, most of the students chose breadboards for their mothers or birdhouses for the yard. But they had future years to aspire to greater things. Joan and I had one shot at this and we wanted to go full out! She loved the turning lathe and - ever the brainiac - decided to make a chess set and chess board. She designed her chess pieces with identical opponents in light and dark wood and it was awesome!

I wanted to make a bigger statement, and I had fallen in love with the beautiful samples of hardwoods you'd shown us. Black walnut... expensive but so very pretty was my choice. Do you remember when I first approached you with the large oval stereo table I'd drafted and wanted to build? Bookshelves on both ends and a storage space below for record albums. (If you are of the younger generation you'll have to Google records to find out what they are. :-)

"Too ambitious" you grumbled, "you will never get it done before graduation". But I suspect you were secretly pleased with my desire to create something functional and lasting, and at last I won your approval and project funding from my somewhat reluctant parents.

And and so we began the second semester, getting acquainted with the woodshop... Joan and I in long-sleeved work shirts borrowed from our fathers worn over our school clothes to keep them clean. I was elated when we were finally permitted to begin construction under your constant guidance and direction!

I remember so well you helping me select black walnut woodstock with the prettiest grain to construct the top, suggesting I use round brass coaster wheels on the bottom to make the table move easily, cutting tiny rounds of black walnut to use as decorative plugs on the table top above the dowel rods which served as rails for the bookshelves.

Board by planed and glued board, the table took form. Then came routing and sanding...and more sanding... and more sanding! Class hours weren't long enough, and soon I was spending extra time after school and in the evenings to get my table finished on time. The race was on, but I was determined!

It was your suggestion too, that I use oil for the finish rather than lacquer, a more natural, softer patina. You told me I would need to continue oiling the wood regularly in the future to keep it from drying and splitting. It remains one of my most pleasurable "housework" chores to this day... how beautifully it still shines after all these years! It remains amazingly sturdy too, having travelled with me thru so many homes and stages of my life!

Finally it was finished, as was Joan's chess set, and we proudly transported our projects to the local gymnasium to display at the end of year open-house. My table held court amidst the bird houses and cutting boards, and I beamed with pride at the nice compliments it received. I remember you smiling a lot that night too!

Sadly, my father chose not to come, I guess it embarrassed him to have a daughter taking woodshop. (Wasn't I always the one saying or doing something unconventional?) Funny in a sad way, because I had always been the one of me and me two sisters who worked side by side with him on house remodelling projects and such. I think it was more about what his friends would think. That was terribly important in those days for a businessman in a small Midwest town.

But mom came, and I think she was proud, or maybe just relieved that the darn thing was done and she wouldn't have to hear me stressing about it any longer. Together we brought it home in the back of Dad's pickup truck and hauled it upstairs to it's awaiting place of honor in my bedroom. With my stereo record player atop it, and all my albums and books neatly placed in their spots, it was a creation more beautiful than anything I'd ever seen before! I love it just as much today as I did back then, Mr. Smith.

Do you remember the grade you gave me for the project, and for my final term grade? I sure do... an A+, a "great job", and a hug! Woodshop remains one of the few very happy memories I have from my high school years, and you have held a special place in my heart ever since then.

Thank you, Mr. Smith for believing that girls should have the same opportunities as boys, and for believing in me and allowing me to create the table of my dreams! The black walnut stereo table is listed in my will now, and when I travel the the spirit world someday, it will still be standing strong and beautiful... in my son's home for future generations to remember me by.

Warmest thoughts always,

Josie H. (as I was known back then)

(Note: Now it's your turn to write a letter to someone this week and post a link to it in the Mr. Linky form in the Write A Letter Wednesday blog post below! Check out the letters other bloggers have written too! )

10 comments:

  1. I've been thinking about this letter writing thing you have here. I always hated pen and paper letters. I could never make them sound sincere, probably because I wrote most of them at the insistence of my mother. I rarely have written anyone I wanted to write. Perhaps I'll give it a go, though you've set the bar rather high.

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  2. What a beautiful tribute to someone who made such a real difference in your life, and a powerful reminder of how far we as women have come.

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    My photography is available for purchase - visit Around the Island Photography and bring home something beautiful today!

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  3. Wow,what a great story. How brave of the two of you to go for it.

    What a wonderful memory!

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  4. Ahh yes, Frank. I remember those thank you notes my Mom used to torture me with. But at some point I realized that I could write to express myself and to vent... wish I still had some of those diaries and letters! My problem is, obviously, once I get started I can't stop... that was hell on my hand back in the days of pen and paper. They keyboard is my friend! :-) I hope you will take up the challenge, it can be just a paragraph or two. Tell off some customer or business that's annoyed you! I know you have it in you! LOL

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  5. Thank you Robin! Yes, just writing that last night I realized how strange it would seem to girls now that I was only permitted to sign up for baking and sewing and such. Now even those classes are co-ed and they should be, and so very much more is out there for women to experience and enjoy! We have indeed come a long way Baby... some of it awesome, and some not so much so.

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  6. Thanks Lena! I'm glad you enjoyed the story. My husband enjoyed reading it too, and I will send it on to my son, who probably doesn't remember much that I've told him about the table, other than I made it. You really should give it a go, doesn't require bravery, just a desire to communicate with someone. What would you like to say that you haven't gotten around to saying to someone in your life?! The link will be up until next Wednesday, then we'll start a new round of letters.

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  7. Great tribute. Great story. You created a heirloom, and now, the story to go along with it.

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  8. Thank you Cheryl! It was a fun exercise, remembering this moment in my life as I was writing. Once again, it goes to show that even in difficult times good things are happening to us, if we only step back and take notice!

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  9. This was beautiful Joshie. Lovely. Nice tribute.....

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  10. Sorry about that mistake in spelling JTS. It was supposed to be Josie....

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Your comments are always appreciated... they make me smile! :-)