"All I knew about electricity . . . was that there was a current somewhere. I learned how electricity is generated, how to build a circuit board and how to read and write engineering and scientific notation," said Margaret Reed, who this week became one of the first 30 graduates of a Washington program called Single Parent Employability and Educational Development (Speed).
Saturday, Reed will begin working as an electromechanic helper at D.C. General Hospital, learning to repair lifesaving equipment.
The 16-week Speed course, offering electromechanic training and basic employment skills, is run by Wider Opportunities for Women, an employment resource center at 1325 G St. NW.
The job-training classes are for single mothers in minority groups. They come from the District and four Virginia and Maryland jurisdictions. It is one of six such programs nationwide funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. Ten of the 30 women who graduated Monday already have been placed in jobs.
"Single minority women are the most impoverished and the most eager to work," said Elaine Libit of the Wider Opportunities program.
Reed said that mastering her new vocation was not easy. She said she received a practical nurse's license after her divorce about 15 years ago, but has worked mainly as a laundry presser.
In one of her first electromechanic classes, she said, she kept staring at an assignment and thinking, "My eyeglasses must be on crooked." She was required to trace an electrical current through six mazes and find at least one way out of each maze. Finally, she found two solutions for each maze.
"I told myself I wasn't going to let this whip me. The ol' girl was determined," said Reed, who is the mother of a 21-year-old Georgetown University senior and has another son, 5.
"I love to build things," Reed said. "In mechanics class we tore away machines, down to the bolts and screws, and we put them together again. It was beautiful. I had a ball doing that." But more than anything, she said, she has always wanted to save lives, whether with a kind word or a poem or as a nurse.
Reed said she never felt she was making a difference until she entered Speed.
Among the other program graduates is 20-year-old Burbadean Taylor, who quit her job as a clerk-typist at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to give birth and then couldn't find another job.
Taylor, whose son, Shawn Pierre Taylor, is now 10 months old, joined the program not knowing whether she would like electronics. But she was bored with secretarial work.
"I wanted more than a job," Taylor explained. "I wanted a career. I wanted a challenge. This Speed is a once-in-a-lifetime thing."
Her inspiration came from her mother, who went through a CETA program when she was 33 so she could enter the job market, and her father, a construction worker who did odd plumbing jobs to take care of his family, which includes six children.
Although she does not have a job yet, Taylor is optimistic.
"I know this training won't get me a $60,000-a-year job, but I'm ready to concentrate on one thing, one career, and I'm willing to go to school to learn more," she said.
Graduate Glovia V. Scott, 31, also was dissatisfied with her job, having worked 10 years as a Government Printing Office clerk-typist.
"I didn't want to sit behind a desk anymore," said Scott. "I wasn't making any real money, I wasn't advancing and I didn't feel worthy." On Monday Scott will begin working as a service technician for Sears Roebuck in Gaithersburg, where she will train for a year before starting to repair washers and dryers.
"To tell the truth, I haven't felt like this since I graduated from high school," said Scott, mother of 8-year-old Alicia. "It's like a new beginning."
Reed, who knows a poem for every occasion or mood, recited a favorite entitled, "It Can Be Done."
"I think that's the theme of our graduation," she said, recalling that initially she had to contend with 10 doubting brothers who told her, 'You can't do this, girl. Electricity is for men.' "
"If someone says that you can't do something, you try," Reed said. "You can do it."