The Places You’ll Go
We have all seen and most likely heard them – those strong-willed, independent thinkers in small packages. Yep, I’m talking about children who have no understanding of the phrase “Children should be seen and not heard.” Moreover, they seem to think – that’s it, think, as in for themselves. These are the children that make a teacher want to change professions. These are the children no one really wants to sit next to on an airplane. We’ve all seen them and most probably, tried to avoid them. More often than not, especially in the first half of the twentieth century, such children were usually males, boy with way too much energy to properly behave.
For centuries, little girls were told to sit and be seen, not heard. They were expected to dress in layers of frills and lace and suppress any inkling they might have had of exploring nature. As women began to speak out and seek independence and recognition for being human beings capable of more than simply breeding, young girls joined the ranks of those horrid little boys who were considered problem children. Soon even little girls began to be a part of the group of children everyone wanted to avoid. And yet, these are the very children who grow up to become something no one ever imagined.
Bette Nesmith was a strong-willed child, a little girl who was not going to win the Best Citizenship Award in her school. A disciplinary problem for most of her public school career, Bette dropped out of school at age seventeen. She applied for a job as a secretary even though she couldn’t type. Her employers liked her spirit and spunk and hired her. They sent her to secretarial school to learn how to type and at night she earned her high school diploma. At age eighteen Bette married her high school sweetheart and gave birth soon after to a son named Michael. (Michael would grow up tall and lanky with a musical talent that led him to become part of the 60’s pop music phenomenon called “The Monkees”.)
Her marriage to her high school sweetheart only lasted three years but Bette remained a secretary and worked her way up to becoming an executive secretary at a large bank in Dallas, TX. Several years later the bank ordered new typewriters, electric ones with a new type of ribbon. Bette’s typing skills had not improved greatly over the years, however, and trying to correct a mistake with the new ribbons proved almost impossible.
Texans are not known for simply laying down and letting life roll over them. True to her home state, Bette used her brains to figure out an answer to her problem. In 1956 she created a substance that she could “paint” over the incorrectly typed letter, providing a new blank space upon which to type the correct letter. She called the liquid “Mistake Out” and soon other secretaries began asking for some. Bette had mixed white paint with water but consulted a chemistry teacher to improve on her original recipe, changing the name to Liquid Paper. She set up a mini factory in her garage for this part-time business with her son helping her. She was fired from her job at the bank when she mistakenly typed the name Liquid paper on a letter instead of the bank’s name.
The company that began because of her poor typing ability now became her sole paycheck. The company was not an instant hit but slowly it did gain popularity and the income increased. In 1964, Bette’s recipe for erasing typing mistakes was being produced in over five thousand bottle per week. Four years later they moved to an actual factory, sold more than one million bottles and made over one million dollars in profits.
By this time Bette had remarried and in 1975, the company built a headquarters office in Dallas. The little garage business that once produced five hundred bottles a week was now producing five hundred bottles per minute. In 1979 Bette Nesmith Graham sold her Liquid Paper company to the larger GIlette Corporation for forty-eight million dollars.
The strong-willful child who could never sit still or quietly in class used the royalties from her business to establish the Betty Claire McMurray Foundation and the Gihon Foundation. Both foundations support women’s welfare and women’s efforts in both business and the arts. Betty Claire McMurray was Bette Nesmith Graham’s maiden name. The Gihon Foundation has a think tank called the Council on Ideas in Santa Fe, New Mexico which is devoted to helping solve world problems.
Bette never apologized for being a free spirit or independent thinker nor was she limited by her gender. She firmly believed that women had a place in business and could offer a nurturing quality to the male-dominated business community. Her company headquarters featured a greenbelt as well as a fish pond, employee library, and child care center, something very rare in the early 1970’s.
We need to encourage thinking like Betty Claire McMurray Nesmith Graham. There is much to be said for good manners and as a former teacher, I fully understand the need for a classroom without disruption. We can, though, develop both the mind and environment in such a way that it encourages children instead of suppressing them. The willful artistic little girl who was not perfect embraced her imperfection as well as her brain and helped millions learn to type – myself included. Hopefully, we all will do embrace our imperfections and rise above them today and for all the tomorrows to come.