October 8, 2001
Although the sun was shining and it was a brilliantly crisp fall day, I walked back into Windsor High School a little nervous and anxious. It had been many months since I strolled through the halls where I was once one of the most popular girls in school, and now I knew that very few of the current students would even know my name. I went to the main office in search of my former science teacher; I had loved her so much that I took a class of hers every year, from Freshman Earth Science to Senior Advanced Placement Biology, and a little Isle of Wight and its Environs, a class about our county’s water, soil, and plants, thrown in between. When I sat in her classes, Mrs. Julia Perkins, whom we all called “Mrs. P.” reminded me of my mother, snapping sarcastic remarks that showed her students that she loved us but would not take any less than the best work that we could do. Her approval mattered so much to me in high school that although I struggled through Advanced Placement Biology, I once studied so hard that I earned an “A+/100” on a midterm just because I wanted to make her proud. As soon as I saw her, I felt that way again, and I would do no less than my best; as she used to say, “You’re either pregnant or you’re not, and there ain’t no in-between!”
She was standing in the office when I arrived, and although at least a year had passed since I saw her last, she looked the same. Her shiny gray hair hung straight in a simple bowl cut, and she smiled through her glasses and said, “I’ve been waitin’ for you girl!” She always wore buttoned shirts and tennis shoes, and this afternoon was no exception. Mrs. P has a round figure that is not completely soft; years of playing and coaching softball have weathered her into a woman who looks like she could handle anything. I smiled and walked closer to the woman who knew me so well, but I realized that I did not know much her life at all.
I started to laugh, remembering the time when I was seventeen and about to make my first visit to the gynecologist after her class. I was nervous and Mrs. P. had eased my fears; she had the same doctor as I did, exclaiming, “Lord child! If he’s been looking at me all these years, then you know you don’t have a thing to worry about!” Then, she had calmly explained what was going to happen and how it was not exactly fun, but it was not a scary experience. She started laughing too as she led me to her new office in the Principal’s wing; after I graduated she was promoted to a Lead Teacher position, and she no longer teaches classes but she acts as a supervisor, and her duties resemble that of an Assistant Principal. She grinned widely as I noticed that she still had the paintings of insects, created by some of my classmates several years ago, on the walls of her new office; Mrs. P. was stirred up by my surprise, as if there was no way that she would part with them. We sat down and began to talk.
Mrs. P. was born in 1943 in Louisa County, Virginia, and she lived on a farm in the rolling mountains of the area. Although she had one brother, he was nineteen years younger than she was, and she said that she “basically grew up as an only child.” She described herself as a typical tomboy, and as she searched the ceiling for her words, I could tell that her childhood memories pleased her. Walking around with her dad most of the day, she lived among tractors and horses; her nearest neighbors were the boys who lived a half mile down the road, and she played with them because the girls were about ten miles away. I asked her whether her parents were strict about gender roles and she said that she did not think so; “I wore dresses to church on Sunday and it was a pain in the tail,” but she took piano for nine months and they let her quit because softball season had started. This thrilled me because although I knew that I had never seen Mrs. P. in a dress unless she was going to a funeral, I did not know that she had as much childhood freedom as she did. Her parents seemed to let her run around the farm and do what she pleased; I thought it might be because they lived so far away from anyone that they did not have to worry about what other people thought, and that they could allow their daughter to be who she was.
She told me about one time when she had caught a garter snake and kept it in a jar in her room. “See, garter snakes have live birth,” she explained, “and my mama came in like mamas do, walking around and straightening things up in my room as she tried to get me out of bed, and she lifted up a ball a string beside the snake jar, and she shook it.” She started to laugh as she described little baby garter snakes slithering out of the string, falling to the floor as her mother picked it up, “she wasn’t too thrilled with me right then!” Her mother seemed to have a traditional role in the house, but it did not seem as if she expected her daughter to fulfill any specific role, except maybe to keep her snakes inside the jar!
Mrs. P said that school was slightly different, because she “wasn’t allowed to beat the hell out of the boys at school.” I almost fell out of my chair when she said this; I could picture little Julia in the schoolyard daring the boys to mess with her. The boys usually played “cowboys and Indians,” while the girls played “Ring-Around-the-Rosie,” but “Marbles” was the great equalizer. “Everybody had marbles,” she mentioned with a smile, and as her eyes lit up, I could almost see her crouching in the dirt, waiting for her turn. There was no bathroom inside the school, and she said that the boys’ favorite thing to do was to “go to the door of the girls’ Johnny-house” and try to sneak a peek inside. I wondered at this, because it reminded me of when I was little and the boys chased the girls, attempting to catch them on the playground and lift up their skirts. I wore pants, ran fast, and told my second grade teacher, but she answered my complaints with a “boys will be boys” comment. Mrs. P.’s experience made me realize that it is not unique for the school system to use a different disciplinary scale for boys and girls; whereas many teachers expect girls to be obedient and not fight, the boys are treated with more lenience, and not much had changed in over thirty years between our playground experiences.
Mrs. P said that she always wanted to be a teacher and she could not remember ever wanting anything different. I asked her if she thought that teachers’ salaries are low because it is traditionally a female occupation, and she agreed wholeheartedly. “Used to be that teachers were not allowed to marry,” Mrs. P. said; “if a teacher got married, she lost her job.” She volunteered that teaching is not a well-paying job because even when it became socially acceptable for teachers to marry, “the husband was seen as the provider, and the wife as a teacher was just a supplement to that main income.” She actually lives in an old boarding house for local teachers; “there is a big bedroom upstairs that could hold at least six or seven of em’,” and I was pleasantly surprised that she had obviously thought about these issues before. Her parents did not approve of her desire to be a teacher because of the economic factors involved; they wanted her to be able to support herself. However, her father took another job in order to be able to send her to college, and she said, “They always supported me, financially and otherwise, as soon as they saw that it was what I really wanted to do.”
She went to Radford University, “when it was 2,300 women.” I was eager to hear about how her life at Radford was different from mine, and she did not disappoint. She said that she could not leave school with a man during the first quarter, could not go on a date off campus, and could go to the movies, but only if she signed out, which was only allowed for a few hours at a time. She described the curfew, “you were back in by 10:30 Monday through Thursday or your ass was out or got called before house council! We had housemothers, straight up, old women in every dorm; she was the big cheese who had an apartment and she met whoever you were dating. And,” she added with a sly grin, “gentlemen did not call without a coat and tie. They had to kiss the housemother’s ass.” Mrs. P said the women used to walk around campus with their dates trying to find “an unoccupied bush to crawl under; there were lots of babies made under those bushes.” I was surprised that the women would take that big of a risk, but if they had so little freedom to do what they wanted, they had to find ways to get around the rules.
She described one night when she went to meet her roommate’s train at the bottom of the hill to help drag her luggage back to the dorm.
“We could wear anything but shorts, unless we had a raincoat on—we could have nothing on but underwear and a raincoat, but as long as there was the long coat, we were all right.” However, on this particular night, she had on a short jacket and shorts, and she was not even supposed to be out. She said, “The Assistant Dean of Women caught our asses, but let us go—it scared the crap out of both of us.”
One of the things that disturbed Mrs. P. while she was in school was that there were no competitive women’s athletics. Because she was a Physical Education major and Biology minor, she did a lot of research denouncing the absurd idea that, “due to one’s delicate anatomy and physiology,” she quoted with a grimace, women were unfit to compete, “especially not during your period,” she emphasized with mock seriousness. Because she had such freedom to play sports as a child, it seemed to be a very significant point in her life when she was no longer able to play on a competitive level. This experience seemed to help shape her ideas that it is wrong for men and women to be treated differently, and led her to become a softball coach, where she teaches young women that they can do anything they want as long as they have the determination and the will to succeed. This influenced her teaching style as well, because she never got frustrated unless she could tell that her students were not giving it their all.
Miss Julia Weir became Mrs. P. in 1965. She and her husband were both working on their Master’s degrees, and she described their relationship as “partners in crime.” They had three daughters, and I asked her if she tried to raise them in defiance of or according to any specific gender requirements. “I allowed them the freedom to develop into their own people,” she responded; she said, “I was always athletic, so there was always athletic equipment around that they had access to, but they also got dolls—it wasn’t a case of ‘because she is a girl’ she can or can’t.” Mrs. P. has two very athletic daughters and one that is the complete opposite, and she is proud of the people that her children have become. She beamed when she spoke of her daughters, and she truly seemed content with her role as a mother and the things that she taught her children. Because of the freedom that her parents gave her as a child, and because of her open ideas concerning gender and equality, she has a well-balanced view of gender and she is more focused on strength of character than femininity and traditional gender roles.
During our interview, the secretary paged her several times to deal with school issues, and I was able to look around her office. Looking at the cluttered stacks of papers, softball pictures, and computers, that resembled the chaos inside her house, I realized what she had to give up to move from a teacher to a member of the administration. I was certainly pleased that she had earned this promotion, but I also felt a little sad. Because she no longer teaches classes, I knew that she would never be able to affect a student’s life in the classroom the way that she had affected mine. It seemed wrong to me that she had to give up teaching—her true love—in order to receive the prestige and salary that comes with an important position, but I hoped that she made the choice because she wanted to, and not because of the financial need that affects so many teachers.
We finished the interview in the noisy cafeteria because she was on duty, and I asked her how she felt about getting older as a woman in today’s society. I was a little wary; I thought she might smack me in the head for asking her such a question, but she was very candid about her age—“Aging doesn’t scare me; I don’t think I’m old till I look in the mirror.” She noted that her body does not do what she wants it to, but younger women do not intimidate her. Mrs. P. never wears makeup and she appears to be very comfortable in her own skin, so I was not surprised that she did not feel the need to compete with younger women. She is more concerned with the fact that “age discrimination is a pressing issue, whether it is with males or females,” and she is more concerned that she will lose her job because of her age than her gender. However, I am not sure she realized that older women are more likely to be discriminated against than older men—a combination of ageism and sexism.
I was excited when I asked her what gives her the greatest peace and satisfaction, and she joked, “well not my messy house!” Then she added, “My family, what my girls have become as persons, and my ‘other kids,’” as she looked at me and grinned. That made me feel great; I have made her proud after all. Her advice to young women is, “Be your own person and don’t take no shit from nobody, cause’ we can do what we want now.” It may be a little optimistic, but I will take revolutionary optimism over negativity any day—and who knows, maybe one day, that statement will be completely true.