It was 1966 and I was in my senior year of high school looking for a way out of regular PE class. In the fall semester, I took an elective tennis class and it turned out my teacher was the one who initiated the first track and field class for girls at my school, at Granada Hills High School. She recruited from her tennis class, and I volunteered readily to join her track class – partly to be in good favor for passing the current class, and in part to avoid the spring sport of softball. Besides, out of all the events in the Presidential Physical Fitness Test that President Kennedy implemented, I only liked the running part.
Here this Thanksgiving of 2011, NPR Story Corps program encourages us to thank a teacher who was influential in our lives and my thoughts immediately go to two high school teachers who changed my life in absolute terms. My English teacher, Paulette Jewell, and Dixie Griffin, my track coach. Thanks to Google searches, I made a little progress at cursory research. I’ve always credited both teachers throughout my life, but I must admit I’ve not tried to contact either one. More than once, Dixie’s name has come up when I’ve done public speaking. Both were on the occasion of National Girls and Women in Sports Day. The first time, as I was retelling my high school experience, a hand was raised, and the comment made “Be careful what you say, you never know who is here.” And there she was in the back of the room. I nearly fell off the podium. It was like that old show “This Is Your Life.” I was telling the part about how she did not take me to the City Meet (LA City Section of CIF Final Championships), and she said, heck I knew you weren’t a sprinter, I always knew you were a distance runner. That was her retort. (For the record, girls were only allowed to run distances up to 440-yards.)
In more recent years, maybe 5 years ago now, I spoke at another NGWS event, this time at Polytechnic High School in North Hollywood, to an audience of LAUSD coaches and athletes. In fact, had my parents not moved from North Hollywood to Granada Hills, that would have been my high school. I remember leaving my junior high school friends with tears, and felt it so unfair to move me to a school where I knew no one. What good fortune for me, however, as it turned out.
So, here I was, at Poly, giving the same history of my start in track and field, all thanks to a high school PE teacher who happened to be an Olympic Trials qualifier in the shot put. The important lesson I learned, as I told my audience, is that Dixie Griffin asked why there wasn’t a girl’s track team like the boys had, and she created one. It taught me to question why, and more importantly, why not?! I believe she instilled that in me, which if you read the rest of my history, you’ll know that single lesson played out well throughout my running life.
So, back to today. Here is what my search revealed about Dixie that I never knew before.
In 1956, she was the USA National Track & Field Champion in the Shot Put (8 lbs.) event with a record-breaking toss of 37 feet, 10 1/2 inches when she was 17-years-old. She went on to the USA Olympic Trials where she did not place in the shot put, but she was sixth in the javelin throw. Other record breakers, who followed her performance at that meet included Willye White of Tennessee State University in the “running broad jump with a leap of 18 feet, 6 inches…..and Wilma Rudolph, also of Tennessee, in the 75-yard dash with a time of :08.3 seconds, as well as the Tennessee’s 300-yard relay team’s winning performance in 32.4 seconds.” That’s impressive company. Dixie’s teammate, from the San Fernando Valley, Pamela Kurell, also 17-years, won the baseball throw, the javelin and the discus events.
Far from the facts of her competition, I was impressed by her interview, in the LA Times archives, three years later, as a student at San Fernando Valley State College. Here are direct quotations. Her words speak louder than, well, my words.
“Running is as basic to physical performance as learning to add is to mathematics. But what girl learns to run correctly?”
“The status quo in American public schools, she said, is not to include any track and field training or competition for girls in the Physical Education program. If a girl, she continued, wanted to go out for such events, perhaps with her eyes on an Olympic tryouts, she must find an individual coach somewhere who happens to be interested in training her.”
“Luckily for her, she said, a PE teacher at San Fernando Valley State College with a background in these sports taught her how to put the shot and throw the javelin. She and Gloria Griffin (no relation), a sprinter, are among those now working out on the college field in hopes to qualify for the Olympic playoffs this year. What should be done, she and others interested in promoting these sports believe, is to institute Track and Field for girls in elementary schools, and to have it consistently taught through junior and high school.”
“If this is done, she feels, US women athletes could compete on a par with other nations at the Olympics on the one end of the scale, and on the other end of the scale, girls would be better developed and more fit from the early training.”
Wow. I am more impressed with her than ever. I knew she impacted my life as an athlete, for giving me the opportunity to learn to run. Beyond that, I realize more than ever how much she influenced me to teach other children how to run. Like a mini-lab experiment in testament to her theory, I taught a group of children Track and Field events throughout their elementary school years, into their middle and high school, simply as a “mom” of one of those children. The high school coach told me that he loved when the children from my town arrived; they were well disciplined in our sport. They were like a small and unique lab experiment, having experienced Track & Field all their years.
Isn’t it interesting how sometimes it seems there really isn’t anything new under the sun? Dixie was a woman ahead of her time, as her words ring true even today. Perhaps part of the solution to some of the current problems facing our school-children could be helped with more Physical Education rather than cutting it from curriculum.