I started to speak out in class. It suddenly seemed completely ridiculous that girls were not allowed to wear pants to school—even in winter, when we had to navigate snowdrifts in dresses and rubber boots. We weren’t allowed to wear panty hose either. What was this nonsense? I asked the principal, Mr. Toole.
Mr. Toole, with his big, square, black-rimmed glasses that looked like twin TV sets, said, “Janice, if you can get the majority of the girls in your class to sign a petition, I will allow you and them to wear pants.” He said this to me then smiled. I thought, This is too easy. You are a
fool, Mr. Toole! This thing will be knocked out by the end of week
. I was in fifth grade.
That night, with the help of my dad, I created a petition. It simply said, “We, the undersigned, wish to be granted the right to wear pants to school.” I thought there couldn’t be a simpler thing. All the girls wanted to wear pants. All the girls complained about having to wear dresses. All I had to do to change that was round up a posse and have them sign their names.
I was about to get my first lesson in reality.
Mr. Toole had the benefit of wisdom and cynicism on his side. He watched with a bemused grin as I was rejected, one after another, by every girl in my class. I was at once outraged, perplexed, and crushed that no one would support what I thought was a group cause.
“But don’t you want to wear pants to school?” I pleaded with Joan White.
“Of course I do,” she answered, “but I’ll get in trouble if I sign that thing.” Girls weren’t supposed to assert themselves back then or get involved in any sort of “controversy,” which apparently my pants petition was. Some girls wouldn’t speak to me at all that day. I went home defeated.
“Don’t give up,” Dad told me. “Go back and try a different approach.” I thought about what had
worked with Rocky. The next day I approached the girls in my class.
“Sign this,” I told them, brandishing the pen like a whip, “or you don’t want to even think
about what will happen.” The whip proved once again victorious, and with the majority of the girls’ names on my petition, I knocked on Mr. Toole’s door.
“Here it is,” I told him when he ushered me inside. “We will start wearing pants tomorrow.”
“Janice,” he said, tossing the petition into the garbage without giving it a glance, “you can
come to school in a bathing suit, you can come to school naked, but you will never, ever
come to school in pants.”
“But what about . . . ?” I pleaded, pointing at the wastebasket.
“I repeat,” he said, bringing his big, fat face close to mine. He paused for effect and I watched my reflection in his glasses, my face turning a furious red. “You will never
come to school in pants.”
I staggered out of his office and stood in the hallway. What just happened? I’d followed the rules, but it was all a trick. The injustice! There was no going back to class now, only to admit to failure. Were adults really so treacherous and full of deceit? Was I completely naive? I’d done everything I was supposed to do, and therefore, the fair thing was that I should have won this
It was only because I was a child and powerless that I was about to be humiliated and shamed into submission. The next day, careful not to reveal my plan to my mother, I wore a bathing suit under my dress, and when I arrived at school I disrobed. The principal was summoned to our class and, gasping, ordered me to “put some clothes on, for God’s sake!” My mother
was called to Mr. Toole’s office on “an emergency basis,” and after he related my “insubordination,” I was placed on suspension. In his office, in front of my mother, I confronted him.
“But you told me I could come to school in a bathing suit or naked.”
“I said no such thing,” he bellowed.
“Mr. Toole,” I said, “you’re lying.”
It was a while before I saw the inside of my classroom again. Two years later Mr. Toole was transferred, and girls were finally allowed to wear pants.
Excerpted from Only Pack What You Can Carry by Janice Holly Booth. Copyright © 2011 by Janice Holly Booth. Excerpted by permission of National Geographic, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.