By Chana Shapiro | cshapiro@atljewishtimes.com

When I was in sixth grade, girls took cooking and sewing, and boys took shop and mechanics, but I wanted to make things that could splinter or rust.

Chana Shapiro

Chana Shapiro

I loved the heavy-duty aprons the boys wore and loathed the calico apron I sewed first semester so that I wouldn’t get cookie dough on my clothes second semester. I envied the birdhouse my brother made and resented the recipe box I had to buy. The smell of sawdust and the sound of table saws excited me; the scents of yeast and cloves put me to sleep.

My friend Charles hated getting dirty and complained that droning machinery made him nervous and adversely affected his self-esteem. He decided that we had to talk to the principal about changing our assignments. We invited another pal, Myra, to join us because she detested sewing and cooking even more that I did. She’d cleverly managed to visit the nurse or lost-and-found during many of those classes, but I, less cunning and more bad-grade-fearing, silently suffered through each lesson.

Charles, Myra and I gained an audience with the principal. Mr. Mueller was a former respected football coach, and he had the physique and confidence to prove it.

I had been chosen as the (reluctant) official spokesperson of the trio. This was because, unlike them, I had never been in trouble, and, although we all had braces, my pronunciation was deemed clearest.

Mr. Mueller listened carefully as I made our case. In retrospect, I see that we were pretty pitiful and I should have been stronger, but at the time we were hopeful. We thought we had a chance. However, when I finished our presentation, Mr. Mueller denied our request. “You’re learning real-life lessons,” he explained. “This is the way the world works, and we’re teaching you exactly what you need. Girls need to sew and cook, to follow a recipe and a pattern. Boys need to use tools, build things, take care of cars, change fuses.”

I was 100 percent certain that he was dead wrong, but I was in sixth grade. I didn’t know how to debate or have the guts to confront an authority figure (except my parents, of course). Defeated, Charles, Myra and I shuffled out, but Mr. Mueller got up from his desk and stopped me. After all, the man had been a coach. He had to teach me to be a good loser.

“Miss Shatzman,” he said, “you’re upset now, but you’ve got to stick with the program. Stand up straight. Make the best of it.”

I wanted to maintain my 11-year-old dignity, but tears rolled down my cheeks. I knew very well that I’d be great at shop and mechanics. My birdhouse and cutting board would be spectacular. All my nails would go in straight. I’d never electrocute myself or anyone else. And poor Charles would have given anything to make blueberry muffins.

I didn’t discuss any of this with my parents. My mother (usually wearing an apron she or my grandmother had made) sewed perfect hems and prepared a lovely dinner every single day. My father erected a fence and repaired our bikes. If I’d asked them, they’d have agreed that boys use lathes and girls use stoves. But even if my parents had sympathized with me, they would have repeated the family mantra that I’d heard all my life:

You learn more from bad experiences than you do from good ones. There are terrible bosses in the world. School is your job, and Mr. Mueller is your boss. Put a smile on your face, and don’t kvetch.

You know what? In spite of the fact that our parents didn’t storm the administration on our behalf, Charles, Myra and I were not destroyed by Mr. Mueller’s decree.

Charles is a costume designer in Chicago. Myra teaches math in a university. And I changed a tire on the New Jersey Turnpike using the top-of-the-line Swiss Army knife my apron-wearing mother bought for me.