Chances are you have had a seemingly random encounter or two in your life that you long remember. Someone, sometimes even a stranger, makes a random comment that strikes a nerve and stays with you. I had such an encounter back in 1970.
I was an awkward, restless sophomore in high school, trying hard to be “cool” and trying to find my place in small town, Midwestern teenage wasteland. Somehow, one fall afternoon I ended up in an empty school hallway while classes were in session with one other person, one of the truly popular girls. We had a brief conversation that stayed with me over 50 years. In her mini skirt and groovy sweater with her amazing long dark hair looking like she had just stepped out of a shampoo commercial, Barb could have graced the front cover of Teen Magazine. She was a senior and the epitome of cool in my eyes. That day Barb shared that she was on her way to deliver a note declining the Letterman Club’s nomination for homecoming queen. She felt a little weird turning them down and didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but she didn’t believe in beauty contests. I couldn’t believe my ears! Had she lost her mind??? How could she not want to be paraded out in front of the student body on the arm of a letterman? How could she not want the sash, the flowers, the crown??? At least that is how I remember it…
Fifty years later, I came across Barb’s name on a Facebook group from our old stomping grounds, Rolling Prairie, Indiana. I decided to send her a message and thank her for our encounter that day which planted a seed of feminism in me. She quickly responded and we commenced on a fascinating exchange that I will long treasure.
Barb doesn’t remember our interaction, but she does remember going to deliver that message to the Letterman Club. She suspects she didn’t refer to beauty contests, but to popularity contests, because of something niggling at her. During her junior year, her mother had initiated a conversation with her about popularity, with her mother going so far as to inquire, “Why don’t you let somebody else have a chance to be a cheerleader?” Barb had been a varsity cheerleader since her freshman year. That had put her on the “popular” track, and in a small town like ours, it became part of your definition. In addition to the status that came with cheerleading, she loved the athleticism and choreography. Our country was on cusp of Title IX, but it would be years before young women in small town Indiana had many choices. Her mother’s words stuck with her and she opted out of cheering her senior year. However, that didn’t stop the Letterman Club from nominating her for homecoming queen, the nomination that she declined. By the way, the Letterman simply nominated another girl in Barb’s place and that young woman went on to be crowned homecoming queen. Oh, the power of the Letterman Club!
Much like Barb’s discussion with her mother planted a seed that stayed with her, Barb’s words and deed that fateful day planted a seed in me. It broadened my viewpoint and raised my conciseness a level or two. I will always be grateful. Through our exchanges following my initial contact, Barb shared that she thought her rejection of popularity contests was more of a justice issue than a feminism issue, but we decided that justice is feminism and feminism is justice!
During a particularly reflective moment, we may wonder if our life has touched or influenced anyone else’s. Reminiscing about this long-ago encounter reminded me that even the briefest of exchanges may be meaningful to someone else. Chances are we will never know if we have made an impression on someone. So, it’s pretty darn cool when you can let them know and thank them – even if it is fifty years later.
C’est la vie.