Picture it: the first day of 8th Grade. I was at Central Junior High, a middle school before they discovered the concept of middle schools. The place smelled like a mix of ketchup and chlorine. Imagine pretty much any 80’s teen movie, and you get the gist. The year was 1988, our main concerns were making sure our hair didn’t move, our jeans were safety pinned tight at the cuff, and we carried the coolest bag our parents would buy us.
In retrospect, we didn’t even know what we didn’t know.
Being aware of female representation in our culture wasn’t even on the list.
In fact, we didn’t even know it SHOULD be on the list.
I was excited to have Mrs. Capistrant for English class. I knew she directed plays, and I was eager to get involved with Drama. She was different than most teachers I had had up to that point. Of course, there was the required reading. The lessons. The sentence diagramming. But there was something else. When Mrs. Capistrant thought something was important she wanted us to learn the concept, but she wasn’t going to tell us what to think. She’d introduce the idea, bring in supporting evidence, and allow learning to happen.
“I want you all to take out a piece of paper and write down the name of a famous woman.”
Easy. I started writing “Marilyn Mon-“
“Wait,” she interrupted us, and we looked up from our desks, “The woman can’t be from entertainment.”
I sighed and erased my favorite blonde bombshell’s name. I sat there. This is dumb. Why does this matter?
I stared at my blank piece of paper.
It took awhile, but I’m sure I came up with an answer. Probably Nancy Reagan or somebody, I don’t remember for sure. I know I struggled. The whole class struggled.
“That was harder than it should have been,” Said Mrs. Capistrant as she collected the pieces of paper from NOT everybody in the class. “There are women who are contributing every day to our society, and they aren’t only the ones in entertainment. Every day in our class, we’ll start the day with The Woman of the Day.”
There was a collective 8th grade eye roll and grumble of “what does that have to do with English?”.
Every day? Really?
Sure enough, every day, Mrs. Capistrant would start class with The Woman of the Day. We heard about Susan Butcher, the second woman to win the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in 1986. She told us about Sandra Day O’Conner. We learned about scientists, politicians, athletes, writers: all women. None of them movie stars, although she noted, movie stars had their place too, “but they ALWAYS get the attention. We’re talking about who else you should know.”
We learned to expect to find women in every facet of society. As young Gen Xers we had been raised to believe that girls could do anything that boys could do, but in our small central Minnesota town, the idea got a lot of lip service and not a lot of practical examples.
I still think about the lesson.
Sometimes now, 32 years later, as I’m trying to fall asleep, I go back to that lesson. I look again at that blank piece of notebook paper, and think of the accomplished women in the world, the ones who really made a difference. To fall asleep, I’ll visualize writing their names on that blank paper.
The name at the top of the list?
Happy International Women’s Day