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Nancy L. Wagner Smith

 Of All Things Possible
Well there I was, a 12-year old, just past the last throes of Summer 1963. This was well before the "Women's Movement" had come knocking on our doors, or at least in Royal Oak, Michigan. I was a naive 7th-grader, just entering the halls of Helen Keller Junior High School and feeling very small, very awkward and not very brave. All of my classes had been pre-selected in the previous summer months and I was ready for the next big phase in my young life, Junior High School.

Most of the classes we took were mandatory. Of the very few elective courses, Cooking and Sewing were all but expected of the girls while most of the boys took Wood Shop and Metal Shop. Our first "project" in Sewing Class was a simple, boring apron. After cutting and assembling it together in mere minutes, I then sat there, bored beyond belief. You see, I had been sewing for years. My mother had taught me on her Pfaff sewing machine and I had made many things, far more difficult than that simple, boring apron. After a few days, I began to see what the boys were making in their Wood Shop classes...door racks for hanging clothes, exotic wooden salad servers, lathe-turned lamp bases, and beautiful wooden bowls and I wanted to do that, too. I decided to switch from my "girls" class and try Shop classes instead. Little did I know the obstacles I would face.

Off I went with naive enthusiasm to see Mrs. Newman, my trusted guidance counselor, with my best friend, Denise Frey, in tow. While walking through the crowded halls, we had hatched our devious plan to crash the boy's classes. Well of course, Mrs. Newman quickly burst our bubbles. "Girls do not take Wood Shop or Metal Shop, they are for the boys, we girls take Cooking and Sewing classes." We sat there with our mouths agape and "we girls" began arguing our case. We explained to her that we already knew how to cook and sew and we wanted to learn how to work with wood and metal. She actually seemed quite surprised that we were so adamant; we wanted to take the boy's classes! Then, like I was possessed by some other unknown person, I said, in a rather harsh tone, "We aren't going to stop fighting for this, no matter how long it takes." We decided to make posters and protest. Of course this was way before protesting was in vogue. Then we left her office and headed back to our classes, undeterred.

The days turned into weeks, then months and we didn't get into our coveted classes. We were now 13-year olds, with boys, The Beatles and many other pressing matters occupying our attention. Then came that fateful day November 22, 1963; everyone's attention and grief were focused elsewhere. Still I knew I had a valid cause to fight for so nothing stopped me from badgering my counselor every single time I saw her. Poor Mrs. Newman...and so the school year ended.

Little did we know that behind the scenes, the school administrators were now quietly working on a plan to allow the girls into Wood and Metal Shop and the boys in Cooking and Sewing classes.  Of course, no one told us of their plans.

As we entered 8th grade, we were the top dogs on campus, as our Junior High School had only 7th and 8th grades. I had selected my classes in preparation for the following year's academic adventure...High School. Wood Shop and Metal Shop were now a distant memory of bureaucratic red tape that we just couldn't cut, despite our best efforts. We were back in school just one week when I heard that the incoming 7th-grade girls were now being admitted into our coveted shops and the boys were taking Home Economics classes! This, I had to see for myself; certainly they were kidding! I slithered down the hall for a peek in the Wood Shop class.
There they were, 7th-grade girls in my spot, turning my lathes, sawing my wood, gluing my veneers... Off I marched to Mrs. Newman's office. "I want in. I fought for this and I want in" I declared. "It's not fair". She told me they started a pilot program that was available to the 7th graders only. Well, that wasn't good enough for me. I belonged there, too! After all, I started this campaign.  Finally after all my incessant arguing, begging and whining I had convinced her to take up our cause or perhaps I just wore her down. One week later, there Denise and I sat, in OUR Wood Shop class! I was giddy with joy and felt a great sense of accomplishment. We had won! We were going to learn how to work with wood and metal. We were going to make new things-useful and fun things.

As could be expected, some of the 8th grade boys were neither happy to have us there nor kind to us. There were snide remarks and a lot of mean-spirited name calling by a few of the boys; they were relentless. They did NOT want us there and they were making it very clear. It was their domain, their sacred place, not for the girls and they were attempting to drive us out through insults and bullying. It almost seemed as though they were frightened, frightened of change. My girlfriend finally succumbed to the pressures and went back to her Cooking class. But they were not going to drive me out. It was my idea. I had fought too hard to get there, for all of us to be there, both girls and boys. So I stayed and tried my best to ignore them. I went about the business of learning practical new skills. The shop teachers were very accommodating and helpful by teaching me about tools, safety and machines. In no time at all, I had made my own veneer-layered wooden salad fork and spoon set, my beautiful wooden bowl and my totally useless clothes rack for the back of the door. Unfortunately I forgot to angle the pegs up and the clothes wouldn't stay put on the rack! But I was happy and I got an A in Wood Shop. At the beginning of the second semester, I entered Metal Shop. Among the many projects in Metal Shop, my most vivid memory is making a screwdriver from scratch. Apparently I improperly tempered the metal, which resulted in a broken tip while removing my first screw. It was a true screw up! But I was still happy and I earned a B in Metal Shop.

Those days are a distant memory now. I look back fondly on what I did and I feel proud. Those two classes, that I fought so hard for, taught me to never stop struggling for something you believe is right. They helped give me the ability to persevere under adverse conditions. But most of all, they gave me the courage and confidence to tackle challenging projects both around my home and at my workplace. You can't imagine the joy and sense of accomplishment I feel while customizing my home with tile and marble, building decks and gutting and designing my kitchen. My skills were instrumental in developing ergonomic prototypes at work, some of which are in use nationally promoting employee safety and health.

I tackled projects that "women" weren't supposed to want to do or be able to do and loved doing them. I have encouraged many of my girlfriends to "Just go for it...If I can do it, so can you!" My dear husband of 42 years is delighted to step aside as I muddle through my latest project while relegating himself to the gofer position! My daughter grew up seeing, believing and knowing that a woman could do anything.

And for the record, I can still whip up a mean soufflé and stitch a one-of-a-kind prom dress!
I'm proud of the legacy I left behind in Royal Oak Michigan. I was brave beyond my years and for that, I am proud.
Nancy L. Wagner Smith
San Diego, CA
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