Lauren Hedenkamp
April 23, 2018 4:52 pm
Anna Buckley/HelloGiggles, Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images, Fox Photos/Getty Images

I held my mother’s hand as we briskly walked through the small locker-lined hallway of my elementary school toward the art classroom at the end of the hall. My mom warmly greeted my art teacher, Mrs. Rosser, and handed over a plastic bag that contained a dozen left-handed scissors; she had purchased them for the entire school art department. Scissors might not seem that important to the average right-hander, but when you’re a left-handed six-year-old unable to complete your art projects with the rusty right-handed “normal” scissors provided to you, they take on more meaning.

I remember coming home to my mother the day before, crying that my art project wasn’t any good because I couldn’t cut properly; the scissors hurt my hand. She couldn’t believe that, in 1996, my elementary school still didn’t have the necessary tools for children like me to succeed. She promptly went to a local craft store to purchase enough scissors for all the kids in art class, ensuring that us left-handed students were given the same chances to excel as our right-handed peers.

This is my first memory of my mother being an advocate for other people.

I got older, and I started to recognize that, yes, my mother was always loving and caring, but there was something beyond her ability to nurture. There was this inner power radiating from her in everything she did. Soon, I heard more and more stories about my mom from other relatives, and realized that hers was a life of being “the first.” Small feminist acts throughout her teen years had shaped her into the strong woman who raised me.

***

When my mother was a 14-year-old high school freshman in the small Midwestern town of Grandview, Missouri, girls had only just been granted permission to wear pants to school. That same year, my mom learned that the school curriculum included a home economics class for girls and a drafting class for boys. Her father (my grandfather) was a machinist and founded an airplane-parts manufacturing company. He often brought his work home with him, leaving blueprints around the kitchen table like place mats. This sparked my mother’s interests in mechanics and engineering, but she wasn’t allowed to enroll in drafting classes because of her gender.

When she told my grandfather about the policy, he was furious. He promptly called the school to tell them that their rule was unacceptable, then followed up with a letter.

That semester, my mom was the first and only girl in drafting class at Grandview High School in 1972.

My mother was a vocal student who sat in the front row with all of the boys, opening the door for other girls to sign up. In drafting class with a supportive and proud teacher, she learned that she could do whatever she wanted, regardless of gender expectations.

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My mother was a self-proclaimed nerd who loved school, but she also felt drawn to a particular hobby: flying. Thanks to her father’s machinist profession and her grandfather’s WWII-pilot past, airplanes were regularly discussed in her household. When she turned 16, my grandfather encouraged her to follow in the family footsteps and get her pilot’s license along with her driver’s license.

She became the first female person to get a pilot’s license at the small Kansas airport where she learned how to fly.

She often tells a specific story whenever she recalls her pilot training. She remembers doing a required activity called “touch and goes” — you take off, fly in a specific pattern, land, then take off to do it all over again. One day, while executing her “touch and goes,” the air traffic controller spoke in a condescending tone to her over the radio — a tone that was blatantly different from how he spoke to boy students. She continued on with her training, refusing to let it faze her though she couldn’t ignore it. Eventually, she saw her flight instructor — who could hear everything that she was being told — walk up into the air traffic control tower.

A few minutes later, the controller changed his demeanor. She felt that her instructor, like her drafting teacher, had advocated for her.

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Hearing these stories helped me realize that my mom is, to put it simply, a real badass. The barriers she broke at that small airport and in her high school classroom were not small feats, if you ask me. When I praise her actions, my mom tells me those moments didn’t teach her about herself — rather, they taught her that people advocated for her when she was still learning how to advocate for herself.

***

When my mom and I left the art classroom on that morning in 1996, she kneeled down to face me, ran her hand over my pulled-back hair, kissed me on the cheek, and told me that she loved me. My mother always did that, but it felt different that day.

By bringing a bag of left-handed scissors to my elementary school, she actually taught me to advocate for myself.

She also taught me that she will always be there to advocate for me when I am unable to — just like her father and instructors did for her. To this day, my mom still reminds me to stay tough and believe in myself, because no one know my capabilities better than I do.

My mom still insists that her teenage experiences are not newsworthy — “There are women saving lives in emergency rooms all over the world,” she says — but I think her individual actions had a bigger impact on her community than she knows. After all, it was my mom who told me, “When real change happens, it is because of the small stuff that helped build the change. It’s not the big stuff that gets it done, it’s the little steps toward equality every day that prompt progress.”

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