Choice—it’s that most precious of constructs, and sometimes it seems like nothing but an illusion. But I do know this—even small choices can matter. And the first time I realized how important that could be was in third grade.
This was back in the seventies, and although some changes had worked their way through our society, for a girl in grade school, it wasn’t that different from my mother’s childhood. My closet contained homemade dresses and hand-knit ponchos, we girls played jump rope and hopscotch at recess, and mothers were usually full-time homemakers. Things seemed traditional and stable, and mostly, I liked that.
That is, until the day my teacher announced that we were lucky enough to have several parents volunteer to help us with some practical lessons, like a primary school version of shop classes. One of the boy’s dads would help some of us make our own wooden boat. And during the same class time, several mothers had offered to give embroidery lessons.
And she didn’t say it out loud, but the temporal math wasn’t hard. We couldn’t do both.
Well, that was one of the easiest decisions I ever made. Being a well-brought-up young miss, I’d already poked my fingers many times trying to get my stitches just right. Embroidery needles provided instant, painful feedback on any errors made. And okay, I got past that, but we’d spent hours embroidering poinsettias on dishtowels, and for eleven months out of the year, no one would even look at them. On top of that, my satin stitch never rose above passable, no matter how hard I struggled. Trying to convince my mother to let me embroider lazy daisies instead was a losing proposition.
Still, I was a mostly obedient child, and I could accept all that. However, one final consideration was a complete deal-breaker. Mom’s family also gave embroidered dishtowels as presents, and we never used them. I literally bled and cried tears of frustration over the things, and they’d be looked at for maybe five minutes. Then they’d be packed away forever because they were too nice to get dirty.
Besides, I really wanted to make a sailboat. Looking back as an adult, they weren’t that impressive—a dowel glued into a hole drilled in a precut piece of wood. But this was a real, tangible thing that I could actually use. Seattle, where we lived, was riddled with lakes, and our neighborhood boasted a small one just around the corner from our house. I couldn’t wait to sail my very own little boat out among the ducks and lily pads.
I can still remember the look of surprise on my teacher’s face. To her credit, she didn’t want to force me to embroider—this was supposed to be fun—so she attempted to use sweet reason and persuasion instead. She pointed out how lovely embroidery could be, how useful a skill it was, and how handy it could be when making gifts.
Well, those words were a waste of breath. I was adamant—I wanted to make a boat. A red one, so I could see it when it floated out among the mother ducks with their flocks of brown-striped ducklings. I could picture the fluffy little things hopping on for a quick spin, which I would be more than happy to provide. I already fed the ducks table scraps whenever I could and spent way more time watching them than anyone I knew.
Apparently, my longing for a sailboat became quite the tempest-in-a-teapot. My mother was called, in the hopes that she’d set me straight. But Mom wasn’t up to much advanced parenting just then. She was very pregnant with my little brother, and our family was breaking apart, although I wasn’t aware of that last part yet. She basically told me not to get into trouble at school, and that was it.
Not a problem—I was a very well-behaved child. I always brought home report cards with good marks in academics and citizenship. I followed the rules and tried to be kind to everyone. I had no intention of starting any kind of student revolt at school. But I also had no intention of embroidering there, either.
At one point even the principal was called in. Not that I was sent to his office—that would have convinced even stubborn little me—but his opinion was sought, and in the end, bless them, they all decided, well, okay. If she wants to make a boat that badly, let her.
So, I sanded my wooden pieces until they were so smooth, they were slippery—just like silk. I still remember when I took my little prepared bits to the volunteer father in the classroom next door. He was the only one who didn’t seem surprised and awkward over the whole affair; I got the feeling he thought wanting to make a boat was just good sense. He drilled the hole in my little hull, and I proudly took my budding vessel back to my desk and glued the mast in.
Then I painted it fire-engine red. Once it dried, I threaded the sail onto the mast, tied a string to the eye screwed onto the front, and ta-da! A new sailboat was ready for its maiden voyage on our little lake.
We moved away shortly afterward, and I never got a chance to go back and thank everyone properly. But it was the first time I refused to simply accept something the way it had been planned out for me, and that refusal actually mattered. I was allowed to make a small decision about my life, and that decision stuck. What an absolutely marvelous gift.
It’s late, but I’d like to finally say: thanks.