Going Off-Script Seldom Works

Going Off-Script Seldom Works


I know it’s time I put this old grievance aside – especially since it’s been more than 50 years – but I’m still mad at Mr. Mueller.

Chana Shapiro
Chana Shapiro

He was my junior high school principal; the authority who forced me to toe the line.

My friend Myra and I worried over the summer about entering seventh grade, where we would have “specialties.” We, with the drama and resolve of girls on the cusp of becoming teens, decided that we’d die if we had to endure a full half-year of sewing with Miss Banks followed by an equally painful half-year of cooking with Mrs. Hoagland.

So, we concluded, we would take our case to the big boss.

This is how it worked for girls at our school: In the first semester, we sewed three garments, one of them an apron. The next semester was spent wearing that apron in a classroom kitchen, preparing recipes and filing them in store-bought recipe boxes.

All the while, we knew there was another world down the hall – shop class. Myra and I yearned to walk purposefully down that hall and take part in what was considered “men’s work.”

You might think that our aspiration to go from baking and hemming to drilling and soldering was motivated by a desire to be with boys, but that wasn’t the case. Myra and I, as it turned out, were with boys a lot: in youth groups, after-school plays, clubs and Sunday school.

No, it wasn’t a clever ruse to share sexy items, like hammers and drills, with males. Rather, we understood that boys got to do more interesting things than girls, and it just wasn’t fair. In fact, our “plan B” was a girls-only shop class.

“Plan C” was to alternate cooking, sewing and shop, but that was just to show we weren’t averse to compromise.

All of our other classes were co-ed; only these specialties (which were meant to prepare us for real life, in which there were “manly arts” and “womanly arts”) were gender-specific. Our fathers and brothers tinkered with the innards of cars, while our mothers tinkered with the innards of turkeys.

Home life reinforced that division, to a degree. My mother – who knew how to do all sorts of hard, complicated things like knitting sweaters and lining drapes – didn’t change light bulbs or replace batteries, while my father – who could take a clock apart and put it back together – never made his own breakfast. And it was the same with Myra’s family.

We knew better than to tell our parents about our planned encounter. From them, we couldn’t hope for support or encouragement; in fact, if they knew that we wanted to rock the boat, they’d be on the school’s side. So Myra and I were on our own.

We wanted other girls to join us, but even though many liked the idea and dozens promised to sign up for shop if it were open to girls, not a single one agreed to talk to the principal with us.

The King and We

When we came to the front office to make our plea, the office secretary seated us near her desk, where she could keep an eye on us. We waited and waited because Mr. Mueller made sure the bused kids and the walkers were taken care of. Then, there was a “short” faculty meeting.

Finally coming back to the office, the regal Mr. Mueller saw two skinny, nervous, frizzy-haired Jewish girls, with braces (me) and eyeglasses (Myra), both of us precariously balancing books, notebooks and purses on our laps (the only people who had backpacks in those days were mountain climbers). Expecting that we were in some kind of trouble, the man gravely escorted us into his private office.

We planned to convince him that we’d take shop seriously and that we were truly interested in making useful things out of wood and metal. We claimed that we could already sew and cook very well – so why waste the teachers’ time?

This was another lie, but we thought it a necessary and convincing one.

Myra stood as she presented her well-rehearsed speech. I remained seated, figuring that if Mr. Mueller considered her confident stance an affront to his authority, I’d play it less assertively from lower down. From my chair, I delivered a stirring plea.

Mr. Mueller listened to Myra and me without emotion or comment. When we finished, he sat quietly, thinking, while we fantasized about a positive response.

He was taking too long, so just to move things ahead, I added a new, unrehearsed reason.

“It’s not only going to be good for us,” I said, “but it’ll make the other girls happy.”

“Oh,” he said, possibly imagining a revolution of hundreds of frizzy-haired girls with braces. “It’s not just the two of you, then. A lot of girls want to take shop, do they?”

“It’s got to be more fun than sewing and cooking!” I blurted out.

“Do all your friends know how to sew and cook already, as you two do?” he asked, wryly.

I’d foolishly shown my hand. Mr. Mueller turned us down. He was nice about it, though, and he invited us to come to him with any other novel ideas. We gathered our belongings and left.

I was worried that by the time I got home, Mr. Mueller would have called my parents to make sure that they knew about our visit. Fortunately, he had plenty of things to call other parents about.

Myra and I spent the rest of the year avoiding Mr. Mueller and obeying the “specialty” rules: We traced patterns and baked muffins.

Believe it or not, I still have all the seventh-grade recipes, filed in a recipe box.

But would it be infinitely cooler if I’d made that box myself in shop class? Maybe you can see why I’m still mad at Mr. Mueller.

Chana Shapiro is an educator, writer, editor and illustrator whose work has appeared in journals, newspapers and magazines.

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