The Pants Protest

By: Robin J Engel

When I was in 6th grade, I had Mrs. Sherwin: the meanest, loudest teacher in the school. She wore fishnet stockings over her regular stockings, she was the stereotypical, old-fashioned school marm – stoic and stern.  Back in those days there were blackboards and we used chalk. There were no dry erase boards or fancy electronic Smart boards. When Mrs. Sherwin called you up to the blackboard, to work out a math problem, if you didn’t get it right, she chastised you and you went away with your head tucked into your chest. Nobody actually volunteered to go to the board, but if she called on you, you could not refuse. 

We were all afraid of her. Mrs. Sherwin’s voice and demeanor was so intimidating that she took over for the principal when he was absent. I just remember her yelling alot. We prayed for him to be gone so we could have a substitute. 

The year was 1969 and the United States was involved in a war in Viet Nam. The climate in the country was tense. Protests about everything abounded, about the war, about women’s rights, about civil liberties. And…protest fever made its way into my 6th grade classroom that year. 

You see, it was cold outside in the winter in Brooklyn, New York, and girls were required to wear skirts or dresses to school. Sometimes, we wore snow pants under our dresses, but usually, we’d stand at the bus stop in our skirts with only knee socks and penny loafers on our bare legs, red with cold. Penny loafers were flat, leather shoes that you actually put a penny in We’d jump up and down while waiting for the bus so we could get warm.

One day, one of my friends had an idea. “Let’s protest! Let’s all wear pants to school!” 

“I don’t think so,” said another. “Mrs. Sherwin would kill us. She’d flip out! We’d all be in detention for the rest of the year!”

“Come on!,” said the protest organizer. “ Don’t be such wusses. There’s strength in numbers. We all get together and wear pants the day after the Xmas break. Pass the word.” 

We had all been together since kindergarten. We had the same classes, played stick ball in the same neighborhood, rode on the same bus. So, all the girls jumped on this bandwagon. Suddenly, we felt empowered. We decided to do it.

In those days, dungarees, or jeans, were all the rage. I don’t actually remember what everyone wore that first day back to school, but nobody bailed – every girl in the class was in pants. Apprehensively, we took our seats. Mrs. Sherwin said nothing. Nothing!! Not a word. After a bit, we let out our collective sighs of relief and settled into the day. 

I always knew Mrs. Sherwin was clever, but I didn’t realize how cunning she really was. When we let down our guard, thinking that we’d not just gotten away with something, but made our statement on the world and won, Mrs. Sherwin came in for the kill. She was giving some direction or another, facing the board, and suddenly stopped for a long pause. Without putting down the chalk, she turned to face us with a mean scowl, enunciating every syllable. “WHAT? ARE YOU DOING In Those PANTS??!!! She bellowed. 

Every student froze. Apparently, she had noticed our pants. Apparently, she was not happy. We sat motionless and mortified. 

She continued her outrage. “Girls do NOT wear pants. They wear dresses like good, young ladies! Do you understand that you will NEVER get a job if you wear pants!”

For some reason, although she went on for quite some time,                      I distinctly remember her rant about not getting a job if we didn’t wear a dress. I remember thinking how utterly absurd that was and lost some respect for her right then and there. She seemed like a silly old fool. 

Needless to say, we gals had to come to school for the rest of the year in dresses. Sure enough, the very next year, the rule or maybe the law was changed and girls were allowed to come to school in pants. Protests and rallies continued to sweep the country. The black Power Movement and the Chicano movement fought against racism. Protest fever was sweeping the nation, and it did not miss my 6th grade class. In our own little way, we were fighting for our rights and declaring our voices. 

A few years later, at only 13 years old, I would go to my first anti-war protest in Washington Square Park in Manhattan. Mrs. Sherwin’s class was the first place I learned about the power of people  coming together. 

Since then, I have gone to many activist marches and protests. I marched for peace after war broke out in Iraq,  Most recently, I went to the march for science, the women’s march, and 4 marches attempting to bring Monsanto to their knees.  I participated in the 99% spring by leading trainings. Last spring, I spent days at the capitol in Phoenix with fellow teachers in the Red for Ed assembly, where thousands of us showed up in the grueling heat, setting up shade tents, bringing food and water. I felt such a sense of solidarity. 

Does anyone remembers the “War of the Worlds” by H.G. Wells?  The thing that brought everyone together was the aliens that landed and threatened humanity. 

I understand the paradox here, because it is the conflict that brings us together. So, on some level, we are constantly playing out the divine stories. Remember, without conflict, there is no story. So, ironically, the thing that often brings us together is the very thing that we want to eradicate or avoid. For that reason, and only for that reason, I must give a shout out to the present leader of the free world, whose name I cannot bear to utter, because he represents a common enemy. It is because of him, that we were able to galvanize voters across America and create a blue wave and a rainbow wave, which is gaining more and more momentum with every harsh, ridiculous comment that comes out of his mouth. Finally, logic is prevailing. Finally, we are coming together. Rationale, compassionate, people of America are uniting. We are coming together!!


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