Friday, July 15, 2011

How I Learned to Love the "F" Word ...

I know the precise moment when I became a feminist - now a term frequently employed as a dirty word or, quite often, used with disdain. I was eleven. Oh, please, you scoff - how could that be so? But I recognized immediately that rules that applied only to females were ridiculous rules.

Here is a section from my novella Made Up Of Arias (Blaurock Press, 2008) in which I describe what roughly happened, in a fictionalized form, to me when I was eleven, a practising Catholic and enrolled at a grade school called Holy Name of Jesus on Belmont Avenue in Hamilton ...
Each Thursday morning a Catholic mass was held in the center of this open concept classroom and every Wednesday evening the chairs would be set in a semi-circle around the “portable” wooden altar on wheels. Traditionally, there was a core group of six or seven boys who set up the chairs and also acted as the altar boys. The girls' responsibility was to care for the linen and upkeep of the altar itself. We proceeded in a comfortable state of ignorance until the day that some of the girls volunteered to set up the chairs on that fateful Wednesday evening.

On a nondescript Wednesday afternoon in the fall, Mr. Ward asked for volunteers and the usual boys raised their hands. I got an inclination, a premonition of things to come; I raised my hand too.

“Very good. Ralph, Tommy, Andrew. Tony. David and ... Lilla,” said Mr. Ward with some satisfaction, counting off the hands and making a note in a small black notebook that he always carried. All heads turned towards me, boys and girls alike.

“She can't do it,” Ralph objected. His blonde spiky hair stood up on end, even more that usual, which gave him a vaguely Nazi-like air. His red windbreaker and neatly pressed jeans lent him more than his usual air of confidence.

“And why not, sir?” Mr. Ward asked, his Irish lilt became more pronounced when he was angry or bemused. In this case he was bemused.

“ 'Cause she's a girl,” Ralph said, as if explaining the obvious to a simpleton.


“And ... and girls don't set up the chairs for mass!” came the indignant reply echoed by a chorus of masculine Yeahs which echoed through the classroom.

“They don't? Well, heavens, why not?” Mr. Ward leaned forward on his desk, eager to hear the response as if witnessing some strange relic of Canadian culture he was unfamiliar with.

“They just don't sir,” Ralph said, more to the group of muttering boys, attempting to bolster his faltering position, than to the teacher.

“That's right sir!” The boys were yelling. This immediately galvanized the girls, even the ones who couldn't care less, which was most of them. They stopped inspecting the ends of their hair or picking scabs off their knees and were yelling too. Mr. Ward passed a hand over his dark, curly hair obviously relishing the turmoil.

“If I want to help—why can't I?” I burst out angrily.

“ 'Cause the chairs are too ... heavy,” offered one budding male chauvinist. “Chauvinist” was a word I'd heard on TV but had never used until that day. (“But why are they burning their bras?” Mama asked in a puzzled fashion, “Don't they know how much we need them?”)

“They are not!” yelled my friend Teresa. “We carry them every day in class. What's the difference if we set them up for mass too?”


“But girls never do the chairs!” whined Ralph and one of his cohorts in unison.

“Because a thing has never been done doesn't mean it can't or shouldn't be done,” said Mr. Ward as he turned to erase the blackboard behind him. As he said this it felt like the proverbial light bulb had turned on above my head.

“If some of the girls want to help, so be it. There's more than enough work to be done and it will save time for all concerned. Isn't that fair?”

“No! No!” yelled the boys while the girls cheered. Some danced an impromptu jig in the aisles, raising their clasped fists like champions, jeering at the boys.

“Well, I don't see why not,” said Mr. Ward laughing at the whole crew of us and the volcanic eruptions that had sprung from his innocent request.

“Well, I won't do it with a bunch of stinkin' girls,” Ralph cried.

“I won't either,” trumpeted Tony behind him.

“Aaahh you babies,” the girls hooted.

“No, I won't,” Ralph reasserted again emphatically.

“Fine Mr. Puzzo. I will take your name off the list and Mr. Tacchino's. I know Father McKenna will be a little disappointed but that's the price of living in a democracy. I won't compel you, gentlemen.”

But a further thought intruded. Father McKenna usually took the boys to Tim Horton's once a month to thank them for their help. It was, by all accounts, a veritable donut orgy, or such was the rumour. Ralph and Tony suddenly were reminded of this, when they overheard the other boys' whispered question “What about the donuts?” which made the rounds of the room.

“Yeah, what about the donuts?” Tony asked.

“Never mind that crap,” Ralph fumed as the girls danced around the room. As it stood, half of the eight boys had dropped out. They were replaced by Lianna and two of my friends Teresa and Anna Maria. That we thought, was the end of that.


saffron said...

up with that kind of feminism! and down with tow-headed, neo-nazi misogynists in the making.

Cheryl said...

I like Mr. Ward!
I had a similar moment at church, only it was about raking leaves!!!

Michelle said...

He was a wonderful man - I wonder if he is still with us.