The Gatekeepers

I was in the 7th grade, sitting in class, when I heard my name called out over the intercom, directing me to go to the counselor’s office. I probably went either white or red, I don’t know. I just remember being paralytically shy in those years, and I remember the horror of having this attention directed toward me.

The school counselor, Mr. Larsen, asked me to sit down in his office and he got straight to the point. “I called you down because you made an error on your class registration form for next year. You signed up for shop instead of home-ec. Here, I just need you to fix it on the form…”

He knew it wasn’t a mistake. I knew he knew, because he had the same conversation with my older sister, Sarah, the year before, when she signed up for wood shop.

“No, that’s right,” I said, standing to go, but he wasn’t done with me. He argued that it wasn’t appropriate for me to take this masculine class, reflected on the wonderful experiences I would have in home-ec, and did I even know I would be the only girl? Yes, I did. I assumed I would be. Sarah was also the only girl in her shop class.

The conversation ended with an unsubtle threat. “Fine,” Mr. Larsen said, “but don’t bother coming to me in the fall when you realize you have made a terrible mistake and you need me to save you. This is your last chance to change your schedule.” I nodded to show I understood and left his office with my schedule unchanged.

It would take me years to realize just how crazy that conversation was. This would have been in the early 90s. (As in 1990s, not 1890s, just in case you were wondering.) But I grew up in an aggressively conservative county in Utah, where 99% of my classmates were Mormon. Gender roles are very important in the Mormon church, even to this day. Though I doubt a counselor would be so blatantly sexist to a student now, even in Utah County.

My first class of every day of 8th grade was shop. The class was divided into three sections and all the student rotated through each unit. Our class started with wood shop. Then we had a different teacher in a different space for a unit just called “tech,” which was never clearly defined (We did things like watch movies on the Wright brothers and designed and built balsa wood planes, if you are trying to picture it. Perhaps it should have been called “low tech.”). The last section of the year was metal shop.

I wish I could say this about the experience: It was tough in the beginning because I knew the boys didn’t want me there, but I stuck it out and I earned their respect and by the end of the year no one noticed I was a girl. Or even better: The last day of class they carried me out on their shoulders in appreciation and/or apology, just like in the movie Rudy, but cheering “Rachel! Rachel!” Instead of “Rudy! Rudy!”

That didn’t happen. I had a much harder time than my older sister had. She was already friends with a few of the boys in her class, so I’m sure that helped. She has also always been more emotionally aerodynamic than me, so maybe she got some nasty comments, but didn’t notice or care. I, on the other hand, was stuck in a class of 20 of the meanest 13-year-old boys in the school. A pre-teen boy can be naturally mean, I suppose. But this is the year I learned that year that a group of 13-year-old boys trying to impress one another, one upping each other, and feeding off the combined energy? That’s a special kind of mean. (I also learned a lot of really bad words from those nasty pimply good Mormon boys.)

It was mostly verbal abuse, which I learned to ignore in the moment and process later, at home. I was ugly and probably a lesbian. I was too dumb to know I had signed up for the “wrong” class. Once, I decided to part my hair on the other side at some pre-teen attempt to reinvent myself. That gave them a week’s worth of fuel. I was informed that could change my hair or my clothes but I was still ugly and stupid and always would be. Got it guys, thanks. Mostly I remember the peals of mean laughter, and the grubby nail-bitten fingers pointing at me. So much laughter.

There was some physical abuse. It was mostly getting shoved or tripped, but one time they pushed the spot welder behind me when I was working on some riveting and I didn’t noticed until they set it off and the resulting sparks burned the back of my neck and arms. There was also one time that might have qualified as sexual abuse, but I was the secondary victim in that one. There was a mousey boy in the class who was also teased mercilessly. One day, the boys waited until I walked through door and then one of them grabbed onto the waist band of his sweatpants and pulled them down to his ankles, exposing his underpants. Then, on cue, another boy shoved the “pantsed” boy into my body, nearly knocking both of us to the ground. I felt so bad for that poor kid, but I was also embarrassed and uncomfortable and I burned with shame and humiliation. As you can image, the boys in the class thought this was hilarious. It got a laugh any time someone referenced the incident through the end of the year.

I never complained about any of it; it never even occurred to me. At that age I had the “snitches get stiches” lesson well ingrained. There was no way I was going to speak to one of the teachers and earn even more derision for “narking,” or by proving that I couldn’t handle it. I don’t remember ever wishing I had taken the counselor’s advice, or even considering going to him to beg him to get me out of my situation despite his threat. Part of that was my stubbornness. If Sarah could do it, I no doubt told myself, by God so could I.

I think the lowest moment, however, didn’t involve my classmates. I was in the “tech” unit of the class, which was taught by a student teacher from BYU. The regular teacher was around occasionally, but not often. On the first day of the trimester, the student teacher pulled me aside and told me that I needed to know I was on my own. “Don’t even bother asking me questions,” he said, his blue eyes flashing disgust. “I know what you are up to; I’m not stupid. You are just here to meet boys. I’m not going to help you if you get stuck on a project.”

Yet another conversation that seemed normal at the time that would, in time, stun me with the blatantness of the discrimination. He held to it, also. It was the one and only “conversation” we had. It was the only time he ever made eye contact with me. For the rest of that section, it was like I didn’t exist as far as he was concerned. How could he think I was trying to get a boy’s attention? Has he met these boys? I thought on more than one occasion. Gross.

There were only two people that I interacted with in shop who actually knew what the hell they were doing – the wood shop teacher and the metal shop teacher – and both of them liked me. The first assignment in wood shop was to make a pen set. I carved a small bear – about the size of a tennis ball – and mounted it and a pen holder on a board I routed. I used different types of wood and different stains to make the bear stand out. The wood shop teacher gave me 100% and a compliment on the woodwork. Ten or so minutes passed when he called me away from my worktable and asked me to come back to his desk. I thought I was in trouble (I always reflexively think I’m in trouble) when he told me he had reconsidered my grade. He decided to give me 200% because I made a three-dimensional object, when the assignment only required two dimensions.

The metal shop teacher gave me high marks on my projects, also. I don’t know if he was impressed with my comfort around the shop tools, or just impressed that I survived all the way to the end with those boys, but the last month of the year, he nominated me for Student Citizen of the Month, and I won.

That’s what bothered me, in the end. I knew that I was breaking tradition and pushing back against the predominant culture by taking that class. But I wasn’t trying to upset the apple cart. I was sincerely more interested in the curriculum. I guess I thought, eventually, I would be given a chance to prove myself and that the people who discounted me offhand would see that they were wrong; that I could handle it. I was the one who was wrong. It never mattered if I was talented or skilled. I had stepped out of the chalk circle designating as where I “belonged,” and I was punished for it every day for an entire school year.

After that, I was done with wood working. I shifted my focus to music. I learned to play a couple of instruments and joined the choir. In high school, I auditioned for some plays and I got a talent scholarship to the University of Utah for acting. These were spaces where girls “belonged,” and I stayed safely ensconced in them.

Over the years, I have reflected on my shop experience a great deal. It was the first truly hard thing that I did. I made it through the year and that fact has steeled me when facing other hard things in years since. I am glad I did it, even if I never went near a band saw again. I used to harbor some anger toward the counselor and the student teacher, who were adults at work and should have treated me with professionalism, if not respect. These days, I write that off as just part of the culture I grew up in. I don’t feel anger anymore. What I feel is shame.

Sure, I made it through the year, but I also “learned my lesson.” I never again tried to push into a “male space.” My sister, Sarah, never gave up on the fight. She became Utah’s first female State Sterling Scholor for Science and is a field biologist professor with a PhD now. Yes, her shop experience wasn’t as rough as mine, but she’s endured discrimination and disregard her entire career and never backed down. This is the kind of woman I always wanted to be, and the person I thought I was when I signed up for that class. Then, I got discouraged and I retreated with my tail between my legs.

I’ve had a conversation several times over the past twenty years or so, always with a white Christian cis gendered male. At the heart of this conversation is an argument over affirmative action. The men say some version of, “it’s been long enough. This isn’t the 1920s or even the 1950s. Everyone has a chance to succeed, nowadays. Maybe it isn’t perfectly equal, but if we believe in a meritocracy, the best candidates should get the scholarships and prized spots at the universities/ internships/ clerkships/ jobs, etcetera, and if it is a white man then give it to the white man.” One man said to me, “how long do you expect us (white men) to give you all (women and minorities) a head start in the race?”

Then I try to make a point about the extra challenges that women and minorities face, yes, even now, but I have just received eye rolls in response. I realize that some white men get this. That mousey kid from shop was right there in hell, burning next to me. But I think for most of them, the idea that talent is not enough… intelligence is not enough… the tenacity to work through medical school or law school or bootcamp is not enough… is foreign. The fact is, none of it is enough if you can’t walk in a room where you aren’t wanted – or openly despised – and refuse to leave, no matter what they put you through.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg embodied this brand of endurance in her career. Michelle Obama has this kind of grit. So does Vice President Kamala Harris. I do not. I suspect most people don’t, but only some of us are asked to prove that we could handle it, and most of the white men I know don’t know what that feels like.

I don’t mind being asked to be talented. I’m fine with proving that I can handle the work. I love the idea of living in a meritocracy, where the most talented and relentless achieve the most elite laurels. But a true meritocracy requires gatekeepers with merit. What if the problem with meritocracy isn’t with the candidates competing for a chance to actualize a dream, and what opportunities they had (or didn’t have) access to? What if the problem is the gatekeepers? What if brilliance gets choked out in middle school because the wrong people took it upon themselves to steal its oxygen? The gatekeepers deciding my worth were a bunch of little boys who felt empowered to enforce the gender rules they learned at home and in church. There was also an elderly school counselor nearing retirement, and one sexist twat with half a degree in education from BYU keeping those gates, but the teachers (who should have been the gatekeepers) saw my work gave me encouragement. It just couldn’t compete with the downpour of vitriol from the multitudes who appointed themselves officers in maintaining the established order. Affirmative action isn’t a perfect solution, but it can create a correction. One more chance for someone sidelined for the wrong reason, before it is too late.

Think of all the voices and visions and insights we have missed out on for centuries because only one type of person mattered. It’s more tragic than the burning of the library in Alexandria, which is something I literally cried over when I first learned about it. It’s a colossal loss for all of us, whether we see it or not.

I was thinking about these things as I sobbed, watching the inauguration on Wednesday. A woman of color was sworn in to the second highest office in the land (by the first Latina Supreme Court Justice, I might add). I was weeping with joy and pride, as well as a great deal of relief. And yet, I thought about the men that I have argued with in the past. What is going through their heads, I wonder? Is Kamala the first because she was the first who earned it? The first woman talented, hardworking, and eloquent enough to belong on the dais? Or maybe they don’t see her qualifications. Maybe they think Joe Biden picked her out of a sense of obligation, and women have yet to earn this distinction. That if white men represent 31% of the U.S. population, yet still hold 65% of elected offices, it is because they were the best sprinters in their foot races, head starts be damned. That any woman in this country who is truly talented enough, smart enough, relentless enough, and not Hillary Clinton, could have done it before now, but that woman simply hasn’t come along.

I wonder.

I’m reading Michelle Obama’s Becoming right now. I’ve had it in my stack for a while, but I am really glad I saved it for this moment. Here is a quote from the Becoming documentary. “I am coming down from the mountaintop to tell every young person that is poor and working class, and has been told regardless of the color of your skin that you don’t belong, don’t listen to them. They don’t even know how they got at those seats.” (Leave it to Mrs. Obama to say in under 50 words what it took me most of 3,000 to say.) That would have been so great to hear as a 13-year-old girl who thought that anyone who told me their opinion stated it as fact, even another 13-year-old, must know something I don’t know. Still, it is good to hear it as a 43-year-old woman. I will make a point of repeating it whenever I can to help the kids I know to ignore the self-appointed gatekeepers. If you show them what you can do and it makes no difference, just move on. Keep going; if you want it, go out and get it. Maybe some of us didn’t think they had what it took, but every woman and/or minority who manages to endure the gauntlet and climb out the other side may prove to be a worthy gatekeeper for those coming up behind them, the new meritocracy. In the words of VP Kamala Harris, “I may be the first woman to hold this office. But I won’t be the last.”

About Rachel Lewis

I am a writer, ceramic artist, knitter, and new stepparent. As a playwright, I had six short plays produced in showcases and festivals in Manhattan, Salt Lake City, and Austin. My full-length play, Locking Doors, was presented by Wordsmith Theatre Company in The New Lab Theatre (University of Utah) in 2005. I co-wrote a teleplay titled “Thank God I’m Atheist” which won the 2015 “No God But Funny” contest founded by the Center for Inquiry. My short nonfiction essay, “It’s Coming Down,” was published by the online literary magazine Halfway Down the Stairs. I currently work in pharmaceuticals professionally and write recreationally, but dream of making the transition to write professionally and do pharmaceuticals recreationally. I am a Utah native and live in Salt Lake City with my Yorkshire terrier, Wensleydale Doggiepants. I am working on a collection of humorous non-fiction essays and a second full-length play. Follow me at: rachelclewis.com @rachel_lewis_ut (Twitter) @rachel_lewis_ut (Instagram)

One response to “The Gatekeepers

  1. Heidi

    So good, and so infuriating. I wish I knew the names of the people in this post because I really to hunt them down and send them this post with a note to get bent. I took shop in middle school with no similar repercussions and it was just one state away in CO. Mormon culture was/is so messed up. I like how you name the problem as the gatekeepers. This American Life recently did a podcast on the God Committee which was a situation where the people were trying to pick who should live and receive treatment-they tried to be unbiased but in the end picked mostly white males. I’d say that we could try to use algorithms and computers to do it, but at my work we’ve even seen implicit bias make it into the code unintentionally. So I’m with you, there has to be a corrective action somewhere.

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