Contributed by: Christy VanZandt, We Are Girls Houston Host Committee Member
My name is Christy. If you had gone to my elementary school you might have heard me called Christy-pisty, because back then we had no anti-bullying policies. Whatever rhymed with your name kinda stuck – like Kelly-belly. That’s just how it was. You hid the hurt, kept up a smile, and tried to stay out of trouble. It was the early 1980’s, many of our moms had jobs and we were latch key kids, home alone until our parents returned at dinnertime each day. My mom used to play “I am Woman” by Helen Reddy like it was our theme song and she taught me that if I worked hard enough, I could do anything. This was life, until the safety patrol election happened in 4th grade.
Our school had a safety patrol and two lucky kids got to be in charge of all of the other kids before and after school. The position gave you full school access. It came with a reflective orange sash and responsibilities. I had to have it! There were two power positions – Captain and Lieutenant. The winners were selected by student vote, which, seemed fair enough. I was going to do it.
I was going to make Captain! My campaigning was solid and the votes were adding up. Our classmates watched as the teachers tallied the glorious votes, 5, 10, 15… I was going to do it! And then the announcement – Congratulations to Jim, our new Captain, and to Christy, our Lieutenant. What?! This couldn’t be right! I rose to my feet and demanded an explanation. I exclaimed to the teacher that I had more votes! Apparently, however, there was a rule at my school that no one had told us about. Only boys could be Captain. It’s just the way it’s always been done, the teacher said. Nothing I can do. Well, this was unacceptable! The butterflies fluttered in my belly, my fingers dug into my palms, my arms flung me up and I marched right down the hall to the principal’s office seeking immediate change.
Now my school was not as old-fashioned as you might think. That very year we had a new principal who was, in fact, a woman. I had won that election fair-and-square, and I just knew the principal would be on my side. She would use her principal powers to make this right. By the time I was back to my desk, she would call my teacher and she would be informed of the change in the rules. So I marched right into that principal’s office. I placed my hands on my waist in my best Wonder Woman stance and laid out the facts. And did she change the rule? Was I the Captain? Nope. I cannot go to a school where boys are treated like they are better than girls, I proclaimed. How could she deny me? Well, she did. That’s just the way it is, she said. It’s how it’s always been. Even though I’m the principal I can’t just go changing rules whenever I want. I was appalled! How could she?! I simply could not go to a school that treated girls so unjustly, so I left. I walked straight home.
So why am I telling you about this? Because this had been the first time that I used my voice to stand up and fight for what was right. It was bigger than me. This was the first time I was brave enough to say I matter, girls matter, and I am going to make change happen! Sure, I wanted that Captain spot, but this was about all of us girls. I had to speak up. I had to rise up. So how does this make me feel empowered even though the principal didn’t change the rule because of my demand? Because I learned that some things get into your core and you just have to speak up. And change can take time, but someone has to start it. Sure my mom got the dreaded call from my school that night, but was I punished? No. My principal curiously did not punish me.
And what about my teacher? She had done nothing to stand up for us girls or to persuade the principal to listen. Did she think it was fair?!
Thanks to my mom’s insistence on the importance of an education, I returned to school the next morning. The woman who had raised me to be strong made me go back to my unfair school and accept the Lieutenant position. The world was so unfair.
And then things started to surprise me. When I got to my desk there was a book sitting on it with a note. To Christy, from Mrs. Star. It was a gift from my teacher. A collection of biographies about great American women. I read that book again and again. I read that book so much that I started seeing those ladies in my dreams. And I learned some things. Change worth fighting for rarely happens quickly. Patience and perseverance were what those famous women had. Change will come, just not necessarily as quickly as we would like. And though these great women were remembered individually, there were others that had helped them along their way. They stood for important issues, some loudly, some more softly, but they never gave up. So I decided to be the best Lieutenant I could be; to keep standing up for the girls that hadn’t found their voice; and to keep believing that things worth fighting for were worth the wait.
The next year, something happened. The person with the most votes was named Captain of the safety patrol and everyone knew that Kari, a girl, had won the position fair-and-square. It turned out my voice had made a difference. My teacher had supported me in her own way, and my principal turned out to be a pretty cool lady. So girls, your voice matters! Keep using it, keep believing, and with hard work anything is possible!
And to all of us girls who have grown to be women, when we have the chance to give a girl a book, to help them on their journey, to show them strength and lend them support, do it! Seize the moment! Share your story! Help us all shine a little brighter.
Christy VanZandt has more than eighteen years of experience in marketing and communications. This active mother of five is an accomplished athlete and an award-winning artist. An alum of Sam Houston State University, Christy studied advertising and graphic design, giving her a well-rounded base of analytical and creative communication skills. Since 2013, Christy has been with the Center for Houston’s Future, serving as Senior Manager of Marketing and Communications, and promoting strategic planning, business/civic leadership development, and community future awareness.