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Inspired Living: Complaining or changing?

by Roxanne Henke


I came of age during a time of protests, so the current tension our nation is facing, while upsetting, isn’t new. Our news sources weren’t as constant and immediate as they are now, but we heard enough to know change was needed. It’s hard to believe that was 50 years ago and so little has changed.

When I was 16, I got a lesson in how to enact change in my little world.

The late 1960s and early 1970s, when I was a teenager, were the days of mini-skirts and wide, bell-bottomed pants, neither of which we could wear to school.

The litmus test for the length of our skirts was to kneel down on the school floor at the base of the staircase. If your skirt wasn’t below the top edge of that first step, you got sent home to change clothes.

Oh, we high school girls had our methods of circumventing the rules. If made to kneel (this sounds SO archaic now), we’d pull in our (mostly nonexistent) tummies and push our skirt down as far as we possibly could to pass the step test. The alternative was to wear a longer skirt to school and roll up the waistband as much as we dared. If questioned, all we had to do was unroll and kneel – test passed.

Getting back to the bell-bottomed pants – we weren’t allowed to wear those to school at all. Even to basketball games after school, it was skirts and dresses only.

Keep in mind, it was the 1960s. We were used to seeing riots on the nightly news. People complaining – loudly – about all sorts of injustice. And so, too, did my high school friends and I complain about having to wear skirts and dresses to school. Every. Single. Day.

Not only did I complain with my friends, I also complained at home. Having to wear dresses every day was stupid! What was wrong with wearing bell-bottoms? They covered a lot more than a mini-skirt. The rule was dumb! Senseless! Then my dad spoke words I will never forget. “If you don’t like it, do something to change it.”

He didn’t suggest a student walkout. He didn’t suggest a protest. He advised a logical, methodical and professional way to go about it. He proposed I gather my classmates and write a petition to allow girls to wear slacks to school. Once that was done, we should go door-to-door and gather signatures. And then, take our petition and plea to the school board.

Gulp. That was the moment I learned complaining is easier than doing. But, “do” I did. I wrote a one-paragraph summary of what we hoped to accomplish, typed it onto mimeograph paper, drew lines with a ruler for signatures, and made copies in the basement of the school. I can still smell that pungent ink – the smell of tests, pop quizzes, and now, a plan of action.

A half-dozen classmates volunteered to canvass the town – guys and gals. We divided the streets amongst us and knocked on doors all through town. Not one person refused to sign our proposal. In the end, we had close to 600 signatures.

One hurdle was jumped, but the highest one was before us: presenting the petitions to the school board. My heart was pounding as a handful of us walked into that room. The board, all men, seemed to stare right through us. As far as I knew, this was the first time students had led an initiative to get a rule changed. As the innovator of this plan, it was up to me to make our case. I opened my mouth and only a whisper came out. I was petrified. My voice quavered as if I might cry, but I went on. Another classmate spoke up with more confidence than me.

We turned over the bulky pages of signatures to the board, proof that the people of our community were on our side. And then we were done, except for the verdict. What we’d done hadn’t been easy. It had taken planning, cooperation, coordination and tons of time. We nervously waited and then we were told the vote was “yes!” Our efforts had done it! (I wore bell-bottoms to school the next day!)

And that is when I learned my valuable lesson. Complaining brings attention to an issue, but then you either quit your bellyaching (as my dad used to say), or you DO something to change the situation.

It’s hard to find the right thing to do anywhere, but especially from rural North Dakota. What can I do? To start, some of the women in my family have started a “Best Family Book Club.” Our plan is to read about and discuss societal issues facing us. We range in age from 30-something to 66 (moi). We come from all spectrums of beliefs, both spiritual and political. Our goal is to find ways to build bridges, and to gain understanding and insight into differing viewpoints. We may not change the world, or even many minds, but maybe what we discover can help change hearts. And changing hearts can lead to much bigger changes than an outdated school policy. Let’s hope this time the protests turn into positive action to bring about lasting change.

What will you do?

Roxanne (Roxy) Henke lives, reads and discusses issues from her home in rural North Dakota. You can contact her at roxannehenke@gmail.com.