When Sarah Jane Smith was upset, the whole town knew it. She certainly left a trail of evidence in her wake, which her Aunt Lavinia spotted the moment she got out of her car. An uprooted weed lay on the walk, a size 3 trough in the dirt where it had previously flourished. The flowerpot by the door lay on its side, the soil and cosmos spilling out over the brick. Lavinia knelt to right the pot, making a mental note to replant the flowers later in the evening. She obviously had more important matters to attend to at the moment.
Lavinia had no sooner stepped into the house and closed the door behind her when the housekeeper poked her head out of the kitchen. “Oh, Miss. Smith!” she called. “You’re home. Had a fine day, I hope?”
“Much the same as usual, Bess,” Lavinia replied as she opened the closet door to put her coat away. Sarah Jane’s hung neatly on a hanger, another clue as to the girl’s state of mind. Normally she didn’t take the time to put it away properly, tossing it on the hook on the inside of the door instead. For it to end up on a hanger, she must have left it on the floor in her haste to retreat to her bedroom, and Bess had taken care of it. “I take it Sarah Jane’s throwing a tantrum again?”
“Oh, you always know, don’t you?” Bess cooed. “Cleverer than a mother, you are. She come home from school, stormin’ about, but wouldn’t say two words to me. Been hidin’ in her room, hours now.”
“That’s our Sarah Jane, isn’t it now?” Lavinia sighed. The girl was stubborn and willful, but what made it worse was that she was clever. She was already a handful and it didn’t bode well for her fast-approaching teenage years. “I suppose I shall have to sort it. Thank you, Bess.”
At the top of the stairs, Lavinia listened for a moment at Sarah Jane’s closed door and, hearing no movement inside the room, knocked softly. “Sarah Jane?” she called, making a special effort to sound gentle and concerned. She knew she often came across as serious and severe, which would alienate the girl before she’d had a chance to calm her down.
Yes, still upset. Lavinia tried again, a shade sterner. “Sarah Jane, may I come in?”
There was silence for a few seconds, then an exasperated groan. “It’s your house,” came the petulant reply.
Pushing the door open, Lavinia stepped halfway into the room. The girl sat on her bed, hugging her pillow and brooding. She didn’t bother to look up at her aunt. “It may be my house, but this is your room,” stated Lavinia. “Your domain and your privacy, if that’s what you want.”
“You say it’s my room, but you make me clean it,” Sarah Jane grumped.
Lavinia entered fully and stood with her back against the jamb. “That is true. The one rule I insist upon in this house, even in your domain, is that you keep it tidy.”
With a pout that she would no doubt be mortified to know was adorable, Sarah Jane rubbed her nose into the pillow. “You can come in,” she mumbled.
Crossing the room, Lavinia sat down on the edge of the bed and placed a consoling hand on her niece’s arm. “Sarah, dear, what’s wrong? What happened at school?”
The girl buried her face deeper into her pillow. “I quit the band,” she finally admitted.
“You did what?” Lavinia wasn’t quite sure she’d heard correctly. Sarah Jane had had her heart set on joining the school band for years, ever since she’d learnt that her father - God rest his soul - had played in both his school band and his village’s brass band. She’d been looking forward to school all summer just for the chance to join up. Something dire must have happened to make her decide to quit on just one day’s events.
“I quit the band,” Sarah Jane repeated. “It’s stupid.”
“It is not ‘stupid’, young lady,” Lavinia admonished her. “Express yourself completely and thoughtfully, or don’t speak at all.”
“Yes, ma’am,” the girl moaned. She took a moment to compose herself, then, with a sigh, began her tale. “I went to join, and the teacher, Mr. Johnson, he asked us if we knew what instrument we wanted to play. He said he’d have to consider what we wanted and what he needed, and we might have to change if we were better at something else. So I told him I wanted to play trombone, just like Dad.”
“Very good, Sarah,” Lavinia commended her. “Always make sure to speak your mind.”
“He said I couldn’t play a trombone.” Sarah Jane snuggled into her pillow again.
“Well, perhaps he thought your arms aren’t long enough for trombone yet.” It was a plausible explanation: Sarah Jane’s father had been a small boy and had had trouble with the instrument until he’d grown some. Sarah Jane would not have known that nor appreciated how large a trombone actually was, compared to her tiny frame. “Did you ask for any other instruments?”
“Yes, but he still said no.”
“Did he say why?”
“He said,” and Sarah Jane mimicked the teacher, dropping her jaw to lower her voice, ‘Girls can’t play that. That’s not lady-like.’ He said the same thing for trumpet and drums.”
Lavinia bristled, unconsciously straightening her shoulders. “Did he now? And what did he say was a lady-like instrument, then?”
“He wanted me to play flute or clarinet. All the girls ended up with those, except Jane Reynolds, because she said she’d rather go for orchestra.”
“Well, that’s nonsense, that is,” declared Lavinia. “You can play whatever musical instrument you like. ‘Feminine’ is whatever a female does, and you’re female, so if you choose to play trombone, then playing trombone is feminine.”
“No one else thinks like that. Everyone was laughing at me for choosing trombone.”
“That’s because they, like your Mr. Johnson, are stuck in their medieval attitudes. But we can do anything we set our minds to. There were plenty of people laughing at me for taking science classes at university, but I didn’t let that stop me. That was twenty years ago, and look where I am now.”
“Twenty years and it’s all still the same.”
“That’s not true. There are far more women scientists now, as well as businesswomen, politicians, even musicians.” Lavinia took Sarah Jane’s hand in both of hers and, with a gentle squeeze, caught her attention. “People and attitudes do change, but very slowly. It’s up to us to drive that change. It’s not an easy road, and there’ll always be those who’ll tell you that you can’t. Don’t pay those people any mind. Don’t you ever think that being female makes you incapable of doing something you want to do.”
With a sharp nod, Sarah puffed out her chest and clenched her fists in determination. “Then I’ll go back to Mr. Johnson and demand to play what I want. I won’t let him stop me.”
Leaning back, Lavinia crossed her arms. Sarah Jane’s fire would serve her well in life, but she had not yet learned balance and caution. “Well, now, that’s a different matter altogether. He has a lot more to consider for his decision, not the least of which is whether he needs another trombone in his band. You’re going to be going up against a lot more than just one man’s preconceptions. Is that a fight that’s worth your time? You need to weigh how much you really want to play trombone against how difficult it will be to get Mr. Johnson to change his mind.”
“I am capable of anything I want to do,” Sarah Jane declared, echoing her aunt’s earlier words.
Lavinia nodded, her smile proud. “Admirable resolve, my girl. But I advise you to think again. How much do you want this? Only you can be the judge of that, but if I may say so, you’re a clever and driven young lady, and I think you could do considerably more good applying your talents elsewhere.”
Doubt flickered through Sarah Jane’s eyes, though not doubt of herself, but doubt of purpose. She deflated. “I really want to play trombone,” she pouted.
“Do you really? Do you like the sound of the instrument and the kinds of music it excels at?” When Sarah Jane glanced away, trying to hide her expression from her aunt, Lavinia smirked. “Do you know what a trombone sounds like at all?”
Sarah Jane’s “No” was almost too soft to hear.
Placing a comforting hand on her back, Lavinia leant in close. “It is honourable that you want to pay tribute to your father,” she said, her voice gentle, “but I think he would be much more pleased if you found what you really want to do and you threw your heart and soul into pursuing it. I don’t think that it’s music, is it?”
“No,” the girl admitted with a sheepish grin.
Lavinia drew back, snorting imperiously. “Well, there’s no point in being embarrassed about it, girl. You’re young. You’ve not had the chance to see what’s out there. Your school offers a lot of opportunity, and there is plenty more beyond that. You just need to try things out, see what fits. Don’t be shy.”
“Yes, Aunt Lavinia.” Sarah Jane picked at the hem of her skirt. “Mary Mortenson asked me if I wanted to join the school newspaper with her. Maybe I’ll try that.”
“That is an excellent idea, if I may say so.” Lavinia patted her sharply on the thigh. “You’ve always excelled at writing, and I believe you’ll enjoy doing research and conducting interviews.”
Heartened, Sarah smiled slyly at her aunt. “Maybe I’ll write about how the girls in the band didn’t get to pick the instruments they wanted. I know I wasn’t the only one there who got told no. I could talk to them.”
“Very good, Sarah Jane. Very insightful. An expose like that might nudge Mr. Johnson and others like him in the right direction. It will at least bring attention to the issue.” Lavinia prodded Sarah Jane’s leg with a sharp poke. “Now, you see, that’s the way you can bring about positive change for the next set of girls.”
Throwing her pillow aside, Sarah Jane reached for the notebook and pen on the nightstand. Flipping it open to a blank page, she began scribbling a list of names. “I think I remember all the girls that were there. A few of them are in maths with me, and Jean Rogers is in English. Though I'll have to catch them when none of the teachers are watching...”
Lavinia looked on as Sarah Jane mumbled to herself, noting important band members, brainstorming ideas about interviewing older students and asking them for recommendations of teachers who might be sympathetic to her cause, and jotting down a note to research professional female musicians. When she set her mind to it, when she focused all that energy and perception, Sarah Jane could be a juggernaut, mowing down all opposition in her path. She just needed a measure of temperance and wisdom, and that would come with time. One day, she was going to be a force to be reckoned with.
“I believe I shall leave you to it,” Lavinia declared as she climbed to her feet. “The revolution looks to be in good hands.”
Sarah Jane reached a worried hand toward her retreating aunt. “Will you help me write the article once I’ve done the research?” she asked.
“Will I please,” Lavinia barked. “I shall, if you wish, but I doubt you will need any assistance.” Pursing her lips in stern reprimand, Lavinia stalked out of the room. She never saw Sarah Jane’s fond, thankful smile.
. _ . _ . _ . _ .
Today, Rani lay almost horizontal in the armchair, her head drooped to her chest and her hands clutching at the armrests. Perched on the couch near her, Luke wrung his hands, frowning with concern for his friend. Clyde fiddled with a figurine from the mantle and bit his lip as he tried to think of a funny story with which to distract her.
Sarah Jane dropped her bag by the hall table and strode into the lounge, her arms swinging. “All right, you three. Out with it. What happened at school?”
As usual, Clyde was the first to speak up. “Rani’s in a snit because Mr. Adams wouldn’t let her write the article she wanted. I say she should just forget about it. It’s nothing at all compared to battling alien menaces, which she’s done loads of times.”
“Well,” Sarah Jane snapped, setting her fists on her hips as she glared at Clyde, “there doesn’t happen to be any alien menaces looming at the moment, so perhaps you’ll let Rani tell me herself about what’s bothering her.”
“Sorry, Sarah Jane.” With a sheepish grimace, Clyde hopped up from his chair and put the figurine back on the mantle.
“Well, Rani,” Sarah Jane prodded with a gentle smile as she walked to Clyde and moved the figurine to its correct spot, “what happened?”
“Mr. Adams gave the article about the rugby club proposal to Joe Arnold. He knew I wanted that one.” Rani’s chin, pressed to her chest, muffled her grumble.
“What’s so special about that article? And please sit up so I can hear you.”
Rani hoisted herself up and smoothed her skirt down before she spoke. “There’s a bunch of kids at school who want to set up a rugby club. You know Park Vale has never had one. But there’s a lot of kids who don’t want it, and they don’t have much say in anything. I thought it would be a good idea to find out why they don’t want it and present both sides in the article.”
Sarah Jane nodded with approval. “Excellent unbiased journalism, Rani.”
“Maybe,” Rani pouted. “It might have been, but, Mr. Adams chose Joe for it. Joe wants the rugby club, so you know that’s what his article’s going to be.”
Sarah Jane shrugged. “Well, that isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, but that happens. Even in reputable news organisations, sometimes editors decide what spin they want to put on a topic and select the reporter that will put it there. That’s a fact of reality that you’ll have to get used to and learn to oppose when it’s important to you.”
“But that’s not it.” Rani leant forward, elbows on her knees. “Mr. Adams said he gave the article to Joe because he didn’t think I could understand the issues.”
Storm clouds formed over Sarah Jane’s brow. “You don’t mean…?”
“He meant it’s because she’s a girl,” explained Clyde.
“He didn’t!” hissed Sarah Jane, drawing herself up with an angry glare.
“He did,” Rani confirmed. “He said, ‘Rugby is a boys’ sport. You’ll take too long to get to know it well enough to cover it.’”
“I don’t understand,” Luke interjected. “I read the rules of rugby before Clyde took me to that match last year and they never mentioned any gender restrictions. Girls do play rugby, so how is it a boys’ sport?”
“You see, Luke,” Sarah Jane explained to her son, “the bias doesn’t exist in the sport itself. It exists in Mr. Adams’ head. He’s seen that it’s mostly boys who plays rugby and he’s decided that means that girls aren’t interested in it and aren’t good at it. And that’s rubbish.”
“And I’m not asking to cover an actual game of rugby,” Rani added. “I could see the argument for that. I don’t know the sport very well so I’d be a bad choice for reporting on it.”
“That’s not a gender issue either,” Sarah Jane pointed out. “You shouldn’t report on rugby because you don’t have the background. I’m sure you'd do a fine job with a bit of preparation and research, but that goes for any topic.”
“I could teach you anything you wanted to know about rugby,” offered Clyde.
“You don’t get it, Clyde,” Rani scolded. “This isn’t about the sport. This is about a school issue. It just happens to be sports-related.” She flopped back in the chair. “I don’t know why I’m brooding over this. There’s nothing I can do about it.”
“Nothing you can do?” repeated Sarah Jane. She stepped in front of Rani, her petite frame towering over the prone teen, and set her fists on her hips. “Nonsense. There’s plenty you can do.”
“He’s already given the assignment to Joe. I can’t change that.”
“There’s a difference between ‘impossible’ and ‘difficult to do’. Most people would say that the work we do here is impossible, that a woman, a group of teenagers, and a robot dog couldn’t fight off alien invasions, but we’ve shown it’s simply difficult and that we’ve been successful in spite of that.” Sarah Jane plopped down into the seat next to Luke. “It’s not going to be easy, but it’s possible. You need to weigh how badly you want this assignment and how much you’re willing to do to get it.”
Rani pursed her lips. “I’d do anything to get this assignment, but what can I do? I can’t just write the article and make him print it.”
Sarah Jane smirked. “Why not? I think that’s exactly what you should do.” Frowning, Rani shook her head, unable to understand her mentor’s suggestion. “You are a young woman of considerable talent. I think you need to show Mr. Adams that such a woman is capable of writing a good piece of journalism about the issues surrounding this debate. Do the research, talk to both sides of the issue, and write the article. Then, give it to Mr. Adams and let him decide which treatment is superior. He won’t change his mind if you don’t convince him to yourself.”
A sly grin curved Rani’s lips. “Oh, I can do that. I know I can. And I know just where to start.” She jumped out of her chair and grabbed her bookbag. “Tom Huston’s the head of the opposition, and he’ll be coming out of choir practice about now. I should be able to catch him.”
“One more thing, Rani,” called Sarah Jane. “When you’re done with that, take Clyde up on that offer to teach you about rugby. It would help to learn about what they’re fighting over.”
Clyde brightened. “Oh yeah! I can run you through all the rules, and we can go to a match this weekend, if you like.”
Rani appeared dubious about the suggestion for a moment, then nodded. “Yeah, you’re probably right. I’ll be back in a couple of hours, and then we’ll go over the sport. Don’t know about the match, though. Gotta run!” With a wave, she dashed out.
“Do you really think that Mr. Adams will choose Rani’s article?” asked Luke.
“Oh, it’s always possible he won’t,” Sarah Jane admitted, “but Rani knows what she’s doing and she’ll work even harder because she has something to prove. If Mr. Adams is fair and honest, he’ll have to select the better article, and my bet is on Rani’s.”
“And maybe he’ll stop making assumptions about her work just because she’s a girl,” added Luke.
“One can hope,” smiled Sarah Jane. “That is really what it’s all about, changing the world, one person at a time. It’s a slow process, but we’re getting there.”