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The First Time I Fought Back Against a "Boys Only" Rule

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

By Daphne Gregory-Thomas

Decades ago, when I was in high school, we were not permitted to wear sneakers. Though I loved my stylish saddle shoes, the term “not permitted” piqued my burgeoning desire to revolt and put on my sneakers anyway.

Our teachers were vestiges of a bygone era that I couldn’t wait to leave behind. Back then, we had gendered classes that we were required to take: auto mechanics and wood shop for the boys, cooking and sewing for the girls. Though I liked to cook, I knew that my beloved Greek grandmother was teaching me everything I needed to know, and the limp recipes in cooking class using Bisquick and margarine were no match for the rich spinach pies and baklava in my own kitchen.

In sewing class we were forced to make sheer blouses, something I would never wear, as I was more interested in the up-and-coming styles defined by a new group called The Beatles. I envied the tough talk that I imagined the boys were sharing as they plotted fixes under the hoods of their jazzy cars. I loved the smell of the wood shop when I walked by, watching the boys craft stools and benches from long, smooth planks of unfinished wood. The teachers in those classes were unlike any other in the school: gruff, bearded, and reticent.

It was the early sixties, and a cultural revolution was on the horizon. I decided to channel my rebellious spirit into approaching the wood shop teacher, who both scared and intrigued me, with a request. I wanted to take his class. “Boys only,” he said. The brusque answer from the instructor stung.

It was not just his response, but the accompanying laughter, that riled me. My interest in escaping a predetermined role was amusing to him. Though fearful of these uncharted waters, I dug deep and decided I was going to mount a challenge.

I anticipated my parents’ responses. My patriarchal father told me to stay out of it, and my mother rolled her eyes at him and encouraged me. It was the story of my life and theirs—and the era. I petitioned the school administrators to intervene. Word got around. Most boys snickered and scoffed. Some girls supported me; others looked down their noses. After weeks of wrangling with the administrators and the tough-guy wood shop teacher, an “exception” was made. I was going to be the Beta Girl in the boys’ shop class.

“It was the early sixties, and a cultural revolution was on the horizon. I decided to channel my rebellious spirit into approaching the wood shop teacher, who both scared and intrigued me, with a request.”

The boys in the class shook their heads, and I knew the story was far from over. I had to ready myself for the barbs. Because a girl was now in the room, the boys were told to watch their language and mind their manners. I told them to just be who they were and I would too. I ignored their lewd responses. I did not let them see the tear that stung my eye. Thinking about “the laugh” kept me going. I knew I had more than just myself to avenge.

I was shown the tools. Their proper and safe use was painstakingly demonstrated, as if to a child. The teacher suggested that I make something simple, like a shelf, but I had something else in mind. I wanted to make a bowl, in spite of how difficult it would be. I wanted it to be many colors, with different shades of wood that I would glue into a block and then sand. I wanted to take the wooden square and make the rough edges smooth, hollowing out the unfinished center to show its inner strength and natural beauty. It was not the easiest task, but something told me it was the best way to begin.

I donned my shop jacket and safety googles and started. I selected each piece of wood, some light, some dark, each with its own physical characteristic. The gluing and clamping came next, and I used every ounce of strength in my isolated corner of the workbench to make it all stick. Once dry, I began to cut and sand, sawdust floating into my long hair like new snow. When the sight of my dusty hair became the butt of yet another joke, I donned a scarf and tied it tight around my head, like a crown.

I began to gouge and chip at the center, digging deep to find the right place to curve and mold the inside. I envisioned a pair of hands, cupped and waiting to receive. I asked questions when I needed to and got just enough of an answer to proceed. I recognized that failure was the anticipated outcome and, in fact, what the teacher hoped for, putting an end to this idea. I just kept gouging, sanding and digging, determined that, instead, it would be the first sentence in a new chapter.

Once the bowl took form, I varnished it to a glowing shine that reflected its dark, light and muted colors. I quietly stored in it my assigned cubby each day, keeping its creation and form to myself until it was completed. When I presented it to the teacher, his bushy eyebrows raised and he went quiet. He examined the seams and curves, searching for flaws.

Eventually, he spoke. “Good,” was all he said, placing it begrudgingly on the center table for the class to view. The boys gathered round, some expressing a word of faint praise, others turning without comment. It was all they could give. Their world was changing; my bowl showed them as much.

In later years, when I burned my bra in a collective barrel, marched and raised my fist against a war, and fought for equal pay, I often thought about my bowl. I realized it held much more than what my proud mother put in it at the dinner table each night.

It contained more than the satisfying proof to my teacher that I could hold my own. It held a promise that if I spoke up about signs, joined the class, and did the hard work, things could change. It held the message that taught me to stand up for my rights and those of others. Though the bowl has long since disappeared, the memory of how and why I fashioned it stays with me. It’s a story I now tell my granddaughters, hoping it informs them that whatever they are up against, a bigger bowl is always worth the fight.


Daphne Gregory-Thomas spent 45 years as a high school educator in New Jersey and New York. Her focus was on working with students with and without disabilities in their transition to the post-secondary world via her award-winning self-awareness, self-advocacy, and career-awareness internship programs. She believes her professional success was a direct result of everything her students taught her over many years. She was diagnosed with cancer soon after she retired, and then became a patient-to-patient volunteer at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. She is also a participant in the Memorial Sloan Kettering Visible Ink Writing Program.