From Chicken Soup for the African American Soul

Over the Wall

Don’t be afraid to go out on a limb. That’s where the fruit is.

Janie Mines

I would not have been there except they had lowered the height requirement in the late 1970s to recruit more minorities and women—and I was both a “minority” and a “woman.” Their goal was to recruit Asian and Latino men, but it also opened the door for a “little” woman like me to get through. This was my chance—me, Linda Coleman— to become a deputy sheriff.

The day was young and overcast when I arrived at the police academy. But as far as I was concerned, the sun was shining. I’d made it.

It had been a long, grueling year getting to this point. I had taken a written test, a psychological exam and an oral interview, and I had passed all three. Then the background investigation began. They investigated everyone, from my grandmother in Texas, to my next-door neighbors, to the babysitter of my two small children. They knew everything about me from the day I was born.

As part of my qualification process I spent a day at a sheriff station with the captain. I was scrutinized, chastised and downright ostracized. It was no secret how he felt; he never missed an opportunity to tell me. “Women don’t belong on the department, all gays should be taken out and shot, where do ‘you people’ get off thinking you can do whatever you want nowadays?” If I heard one more story about the “good ole days” when women were women and men were men and “you people” knew your place, I think I would have puked.

But all that was behind me now. I was at the academy, and I was going to be a deputy sheriff. My excitement didn’t last long.

My first encounter was with a twenty-year career officer, a sergeant nicknamed “Goliath.” He was six-feet-four-inches tall, and 300 pounds of solid muscle, to my five-feet-three-inches and 118 pounds of woman. “Sgt. Goliath” let me know in no uncertain terms he was not happy I was there. Like others in the department, he believed this was a “men only” profession. And it would suit many of them just fine if it were “white men only.”

The sergeant never called me by name. It was always “little lady” or “little girl.” When he looked at me, he would stare as if he were looking right through me. It was apparent he was not going to make it easy. In fact, his job was to make it as difficult as possible for me to pass the physical agility test, and he did a darn good job.

I had to run the mile, climb through one window and out another, walk a balance beam five feet off the ground, pull a 150-pound mannequin thirty yards and push a police car twenty feet, all in record time. And as the sergeant said before I began, “Look here, Little Lady, if you can’t do all of these activities including pushing that police car over here until it touches my kneecaps, I’m gonna have the pleasure of sending you home.”

I completed each task, but every bone, muscle and fiber of my body ached. I could hardly catch my breath. Some of the recruits passed out and had to be carried off the course. My vision was blurred, my heart beat a mile a minute, and my ears hummed, but I didn’t pass out. In fact, I walked off the course on my own and felt pride welling up inside. I had completed that obstacle course, and I was going to be a deputy sheriff.

But the smirk on the sergeant’s face told me I was wrong. That’s when I discovered yet another challenge waiting for me. This time even I didn’t know if I would be able to make it. My head ached, my legs were as heavy as lead, and my arms felt as if someone had yanked them from their sockets.

The ultimate challenge? Climbing a six-foot, solid concrete wall. If somehow you were able to get through the physical agility test, this would separate the boys from the men—or girls from the women, as it were. Recruit after recruit, both men and women, tackled the six-foot wall only to fall to the ground in defeat. Most of them were taller and bigger than me. I could feel my heart sink and my confidence fade. I saw my career with the sheriff’s department slipping away.

Two more recruits, and then it would be my turn. I closed my eyes and tried to envision myself going over the wall. Suddenly, I remembered a song my grandmother used to sing in church, an old Negro spiritual. “I shall, I shall, I shall not be moved.” My nerves calmed. I heard my father’s voice, “You have to be twice as good and do twice as much just to compete.” And I thought, I have been twice as good and I have done twice as much and I have given it my all and now this. . . .

And then I swear I heard the words of my high school track coach. “A lady’s strength is in her legs, not in her arms.” I had watched the women try to tackle the wall by jumping up like the men and grabbing hold of the wall with their arms in an attempt to pull themselves atop the wall, straddle it and drop to the other side. It hadn’t worked for them, and I knew it wouldn’t work for me.

I shall not be moved. Be twice as good and do twice as much. A lady’s strength is in her legs. It was my turn. The six-foot, solid concrete wall loomed bigger than life—the only thing standing between me and my dream. I closed my eyes and imagined it was a track field.

I took off running as fast as I could, and when my feet hit the concrete I looked up to the heavens. And I ran up that wall! I shall not be moved. Twice as good. A lady’s strength. I straddled the top and dropped to the other side.

The whole camp was cheering—everyone, that is, except the sergeant. He never said a word. He turned his back and walked away. Several men made it over that day, but I was the only woman.

Since then, I have gone over a lot of walls, but I learned some valuable lessons at the academy that have helped me. What the Goliaths think is not nearly as important as what I think about myself. The Goliaths despise change and progress, but there are some things even they can’t control.

Linda Coleman-Willis

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