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#284 Fighting for the right to learn

Take a bow you aircraft maintenance engineers, Centennial College, class of 1982. Your harassment and abuse nearly ruined the life of one would-be apprentice. Times have changed.

I feel like a dinosaur—a happy dinosaur, but a dinosaur nonetheless. Why? I still work on my own bike. It seems a lifetime ago that I got my first bike, used hard and barely running, which is when I first felt a deep sense of vulnerability, seasoned with frustration. I was completely alone with a beat up Triumph that would run for an hour or two at best. I pushed that bike back to my rented garage enough times that I learned not to ride further than I could walk. My ignorance fueled me, and turned into years of intense study.
I recently stumbled upon some papers while reorganizing. I found my first articles ever published, which were in the Centennial College student paper, encouraging other women to try the trades, which paid so much more than secretarial work. I also found a copy of a Toronto Star article about sexual harassment at the campus, that I instigated back in February of 1982.
The results were fascinating. The college made a sudden decision and told the press they were preparing a policy against sexual harassment. It was no surprise to me that it didn’t happen—not for another two years, when another woman reached her breaking point.
It was hard enough studying with the harassment I already endured, but things got worse the day The Star article appeared. The dean invited me into his office and told me that if I didn’t get at least 85 per cent on every test or if I was one minute late for class that they would kick me out of school. By then it was February and I’d had a chance to catch up to the men in the class, some of whom were licenced auto mechanics. So I made sure to exceed that goal.
We were studying to be aircraft maintenance engineers, a fancy term for mechanic. But I was studying to learn basic mechanics in the best course available for someone who was never going to be hired as a motorcycle mechanic apprentice, because no one hired women mechanics in those days. And I desperately needed to learn if I was going to be an independent rider. The only woman, I was ostracized in class. And I walked a gauntlet down school halls, enduring catcalls from men my age and older. Week after week, the stress consumed me. I found myself crying on the way to school. The 1981-82 school year wasn’t pleasant for me.
In the new year, I made it on to the student council and found myself standing before an audience of 750 young men starting short term automotive apprenticeship classes. Alone on a stage, I asked them to consider their girlfriends, mothers and sisters when they met women in the hall or in class. I asked and answered questions. I was terrified. But the effect was dramatic. The new group of men was a much better mix than the outgoing one. Unfortunately the men in my class did not change, nor did the attitude of the instructors who stood silently by and watched the hallway abuse. I was stressed and afraid for my safety. One day I simply stopped going to class. Now I joke that I studied politics and journalism as minors while majoring in mechanics.
I continued my study privately and created my own apprenticeship program. I was fortunate to make friends with some lovely men who spent quality time with me in their private workshops or mine. And I braved going back to Centennial College for the night school machine shop course. The instructor treated me well and the students followed his lead. By the time 1987 rolled around I had rebuilt two British motorcycle engines, replaced two clutches, had one gear box apart, rebuilt forks, greased wheel bearings, replaced brakes, trouble shot electrical problems, honed cylinders, replaced valve, seats, guides, and more. As far as I was concerned, I had reached the intermediate level. I was no longer afraid of being stranded at the side of the road. And then my life changed. The brand new BMW didn’t help me maintain my skills because so little went wrong! But eventually, mileage took its toll. I was grateful for my basic skills when I headed off alone to explore the world. I wonder how far the bullies at school got.
I don’t really know how many kilometres my BMW endure (Casper) and I have traveled, but I’ve done almost everything at least once. I just completed a list of tasks that included replacing leaking pushrod seals. That required removing the exhaust system and carburetors and pulling the cylinders from the crankcase. The carbs needed cleaning. My heated handgrip switch was faulty and is now replaced. I needed a new throttle cable. I’ve changed all the fluids and put in new sparkplugs. I re-torqued the heads and adjusted the valves. Casper also needed a thorough cleaning because oil from those seals had traveled everywhere! I did all that myself, paying only for parts. Soon I will change the tires. Hardly anyone works on their own bike any more. When I first started riding it seemed everyone had to!
I popped into the Scarborough-area motorcycle service shop 109 Cycle to ask if they still have a female mechanic wrenching for them. I got a sad “No, she moved north.” But that they have hired another woman!
I mentioned my experience at Centennial College, and a young apprentice told me there were only four women when he was last there. But he added that when they start their classes they gather in the assembly room and are told that if there is one catcall or inappropriate move, they will be kicked out of class without refund. It seems sexual harassment is no longer tolerated. This made me proud.
It’s been 30 years since I went to school, clueless as to how an engine worked or what made a motorcycle run. It was hard at the time, but I am grateful for the support of my friends, bikers who I met at vintage rallies and bike shows. I learned a lot at school. But they helped me to be the backyard mechanic that I am today.
And now I get to help others, because that is the way.


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