In 1959, when Jean Harper was in the third grade, her teacher gave the class an assignment to write a report on what they wanted to be when they grew up.
Jean’s father was a crop duster pilot in the little farming community in Northern California where she was raised, and Jean was totally captivated by airplanes and flying. She poured her heart into her report and included all of her dreams; she wanted to crop dust, make parachute jumps, seed clouds and be an airline pilot. Her paper came back with an “F” on it. The teacher told her it was a “fairy tale” and that none of the occupations she listed were women’s jobs. Jean was crushed and humiliated.
She showed her father the paper, and he told her that of course she could become a pilot. “Look at Amelia Earhart,” he said. “That teacher doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”
But as the years went by, Jean was beaten down by the discouragement and negativity she encountered whenever she talked about her career-“Girls can’t become airline pilots; never have, never will. You’re not smart enough, you’re crazy. That’s impossible. “-until finally Jean gave up.
In her senior year of high school, her English teacher was a Mrs. Dorothy Slaton. Mrs. Slaton was an uncompromising, demanding teacher with high standards and a low tolerance for excuses. She refused to treat her students like children, instead expecting them to behave like the responsible adults they would have to be to succeed in the real world after graduation. Jean was scared of her at first but grew to respect her firmness and fairness.
One day Mrs. Slaton gave the class an assignment. “What do you think you’ll be doing 10 years from now?” Jean thought about the assignment. Pilot? No way. Flight attendant? I’m not pretty enough-they’d never accept me. Wife? What guy would want me? Waitress? I could do that. That felt safe, so she wrote it down.
Mrs. Slaton collected the papers and nothing more was said. Two weeks later, the teacher handed back the assignments, face down on each desk, and asked this question: “If you had unlimited finances, unlimited access to the finest schools, unlimited talents and abilities, what would you do?”
Jean felt a rush of the old enthusiasm, and with excitement she wrote down all her old dreams. When the students stopped writing, the teacher asked, “How many students wrote the same thing on both sides of the paper?” Not one hand went up.
The next thing that Mrs. Slaton said changed the course of Jean’s life. The teacher leaned forward over her desk and said, “I have a little secret for you all. You do have unlimited abilities and talents. You do have access to the finest schools, and you can arrange unlimited finances if you want something badly enough. This is it! When you leave school, if you don’t go for your dreams, no one will do it for you. You can have what you want if you want it enough.”
The hurt and fear of years of discouragement crumbled in the face of the truth of what Mrs. Slaton had said. Jean felt exhilarated and a little scared. She stayed after class and went up to the teacher’s desk. Jean thanked Mrs. Slaton and told her about her dream of becoming a pilot. Mrs. Slaton half rose and slapped the desk top. “Then do it!” she said.
So Jean did. It didn’t happen overnight. It took l0 years of hard work, facing opposition that ranged from quiet skepticism to outright hostility. It wasn’t in Jean’s nature to stand up for herself when someone refused or humiliated her; instead, she would quietly try to find another way.
She became a private pilot and then got the necessary ratings to fly air freight and even commuter planes, but always as a copilot. Her employers were openly hesitant about promoting her-because she was a woman. Even her father advised her to try something else. “It’s impossible,” he said. “Stop banging your head against the wall!”
But Jean answered, “Dad, I disagree. I believe that things are going to change, and I want to be at the head of the pack when they do.”
Jean went on to do everything her third-grade teacher said Was a fairy tale-she did some crop dusting, made a few hundred parachute jumps and even seeded clouds for a summer Season as a weather modification pilot. In 1978, she became one of the first three female pilot trainees ever accepted by United Airlines and one of only 50 women airline pilots in the nation at the time. Today, Jean Harper is a Boeing 737 captain for United.
It was the power of one well-placed positive word, one spark of encouragement from a woman Jean respected, that gave that uncertain young girl the strength and faith to pursue her dream.