White sparks sailed as embers landed on the weathered work boots of young shielded students. The sun started to fade as welding instructor Darlene Thompson worked her way down the rows as she observed her students from a distance with calculated and warm eyes.
Originally from Chicago, Thompson and her family moved to California in 1984 where she attended Mount Vernon Junior High, Dorsey High School and graduated from Crenshaw High. Thompson would continue her education half-heartedly for a couple of years.
It’s a sharp contrast to Thompson’s life 10 years ago, when she took on the role as a student after returning to college. With a little encouragement and a great deal of faith she earned her bachelor’s degree in about a year at California State University, Los Angeles and United Association Local Union 250.
Certified by the American Welding Society (AWS), Thompson demonstrates her knowledge by teaching her students a variety of skills in Oxygen Acetylene Welding (OAW), Shielded Metal Arc Welding (SMAW), Tungsten Inert Gas (TIG) Welding and Flux Cored Arc Welding (FCAW).
Thompson admitted the journey was never smooth, as it originated from childhood health problems.
“As a child growing up I was never told I was smart,” Thompson said. “People would call me dumb or stupid. I had childhood epilepsy syndrome. I never applied myself after that.”
Gender stereotypes plagued her as the daughter of a preacher where she played down her love of automotive to not bring shame to her family for not being girly enough.
“Growing up as a preacher’s child was tough. Girls shouldn’t work on cars. That’s something boys do,” Thompson said. “So for years I distanced myself away from cars, but I still loved going to races, car shows and hanging in friends’ car shops, just watching them put cars together.”
Elizabeth Cheung, an assistant professor of engineering and computer-aided design, recalled her initial impression of Thompson, her first hire since becoming the Industrial Technology Department chair in July.
“She was such a warm and energetic person,” Cheung said. “I’m glad I was part of the hiring process.”
Thompson credits her Los Angeles Trade Technical College welding professor Lisa Legohn for kickstarting her return to education.
“It was a paper I had done for her class,” recalled Thompson with a smile. “When she told me I was smart I believed her. At that point I started to go home to study and read. I found myself getting all A’s.”
Lisa Legohn, an associate professor of welding at Los Angeles Trade Technical College, has been teaching for more than 23 years. Legohn remembers Thompson always being well organized, knowledgeable and a friendly student.
“Darlene was a paid student worker for the Welding Department here at Trade Tech,” Legohn said. “She received an Associate of Science Degree and a certificate of completion in both gas and electric welding and auto collision repair and painting.”
Thompson discussed frequently with Legohn about her passion to teach others and that returning to school had brought back her love for learning. While she loved auto collision repair and painting Thompson decided to explore the world of welding.
She sheepishly admits her turn to welding was due to miscommunication.
“I accidentally cut a car in half,” Thompson said.
While taking a class on auto collision and repair, she was working on a car and placed it on the chief — where they straighten the cars out — when she went to inform her instructor that she was finished.
“He was making this slashing hand gesture,” Thompson said. “He was really busy on the phone and computer. So I’m thinking he wants me to cut the car. So I go back and cut the car in half. What he was actually telling me was to cut the cost in half for the customer. I didn’t know, because I never spoke with the customers before.”
Thompson said her boss gave her two weeks to learn how to weld and fix the car.
“While I was learning how to weld, my instructor told me I was pretty good at it,” Thompson said. “She said I should take Structural Welding to work on buildings. She had told me so many fascinating stories about hanging off the edges of buildings, so I went back to take a few classes.”
Thompson had been told that if she majored in automotive technology, the county would help pay for her books. This wasn’t the case went she arrived at their office.
“They told me ‘no, we don’t pay for women pursuing nontraditional occupations. If you want us to pay for your schooling you can sign up for real-estate, cosmetology, culinary and fashion,’” Thompson said. “I told them that’s not what I wanted to do. They said those were the only careers they would help me pay for.”
She felt discouraged, but the county set her up for another appointment, accidentally sending Thompson to their Beverly Hills office.
While waiting in the lobby, feeling hopeless, a lady approached Thompson and she told her she hoped the county could help her. Thompson said she began to show the woman her portfolio as they both stepped into the elevator.
“I’m flipping through pictures of what I do. She was really interested in it,” Thompson said.
Thompson explained to the woman that she was hoping the county would be able to help pay for her classes.
“While I was talking to my worker the same woman from the elevator came over to us,” Thompson said. “I was thinking to myself I had just said goodbye to her what does she want. She tells my worker to ‘Give Mrs. Thompson whatever she wants.’ I had no idea I was talking to the head supervisor in that elevator.”
While the county believed at the time that women would just drop out of typically male dominated classes, Thompson knew it wasn’t fair to the women who enjoy plumbing and automotive. She remembers the small number of female classmates she had at Trade Tech and CSULA.
“When I first started college I had about five female classmates. Then they started to dwindle down,” Thompson said. “By the time I had graduated it was just another girl and me in a room of over 60 men.”
Thompson admits that welding and industrial technology are not typically female heavy classes or majors.
Cheung recalled being the only female teacher at Pierce in her department when she was first hired in 2010, saying the mixture of teachers in the department currently is great as each individual brings a different perspective and knowledge to the field.
“I only have one female student in my class at Pierce, and when I was at Trade Tech I had maybe three in a class of 40,” Thompson said.
With each birthday, Thompson believes she has grown more accustomed to teaching her students rather when her original hands on approach by doing it herself. She helps and teaches her daughter and her friends about cars and how to fix them.
“I teach because I want to give back to students what was given back to me,” Thompson said. “My teachers prayed for me and pushed me to do better, to try harder. ”
Thompson believes that there are some students that just don’t believe in themselves. Students who were told somewhere along the way that they just weren’t worth the effort to help.
“I want to let my students know that’s not true and that they are worthy. By teaching all of them I’m getting through to one of them,” Thompson said. “Someone in the crowd needs you. I enjoy teaching because I want to uplift them and let them know they’re in a safe place. I’m right there with them.”
“It’s something I tell my students, even when you’re down keep getting up,” Thompson said. “There are people in higher places that see you. Someday someone will come and give you a hand.”