By Gretchen Wehmhoff
In the fall of my first grade year in Anchorage, some friends and I were seated on a small bench near the playground watching the older second-graders play fours-square. Suddenly, I was on my back with my legs up in the air as a group of giggling boys taunted me about seeing my underwear. I was as mad as a six-year-old could get.
In 1965 girls had to wear dresses to school. In 1966 they were allowed to wear slacks. I’m not sure about the politics, but I’m pretty sure my mom was involved with the change.
I came home from school that day complaining about the boys on the playground. The next day when I came home mom told me, “You are wearing pants from now on. If anyone asks, it’s because of your eczema.”
That was it. Case closed.
Evidently Mom had gone to the school that morning and told them what she thought about girls wearing dresses in Alaska temperatures and boys knocking them around on the playground. She didn’t win the entire battle, but she pulled the “medical card” and I wore pants. That was also the last time I saw a boy push a girl over on the playground.
Mom was a powerful, yet stealthy, advocate for her kids – especially when it came to her girls’ opportunities. I never knew about many of her missions at the time, but she made sure that “being a girl” wasn’t a reason we couldn’t participate equitably. Better yet, she made sure we never heard someone tell us being a girl made us less qualified. It seriously never dawned on me that society was crazy like that. She was that good.
Mom helped my sister and me join Girl Scouts where we were surrounded by inspiring female role models. We learned to play music where everyone was equal. We lived full lives and Mom and Dad supported our endeavors.
In sixth grade my teacher announced that students interested in being a crossing guard should talk to her. I was on it. Yellow raincoats, the power of the bright orange flag, stopping cars. Oh yeah, count me in.
“I’m sorry, Gretchen. Only boys can be crossing guards,” my teacher said.
That statement hit like a balloon popping in my face. Only boys? What kind of scam was this? Of course I told Mom about this stupid plan that only boys could be crossing guards.
Mom made another trip to the school. She didn’t fare so well on this one, but she brought home a small lie.
“I guess they are worried that you are too short and the cars won’t be able to see you,” she said. She didn’t sound excited about her statement.
I took it well. I was short. I understood height limitations. It still bugged me, but Mom made sure I wasn’t being told that being a girl was stopping me. It was a lie she told in order to protect me from the misogyny that had plagued her and I would eventually confront in later years.
I watched the boys leave class early every day to get ready for crossing guard duty. I accepted it after observing that they were all taller than I was. But it was the day the teacher held a special ceremony in front of the class awarding the boys nifty pins and certificates that brought back a flood of frustration and anger towards the injustice.
I should have been standing with them.
Mom knew it, too.
Happy Mothers’ Day.