For the boys next door:
So, this showed up in my Facebook feed yesterday.
I feel this deeply.
No, I don’t regret that I got a BSW – a social work degree. It’s what I’m good at. I wanted that. I don’t regret that I chose to add a license to teach Language Arts and work at a school for at-risk student later on. I did it well.
But, my journey is not unusual for a woman…unfortunately.
As a girl, I didn’t sketch flowers and hearts; I penciled out floor plans and home elevations. I never learned until my late twenties that I might have been good at architecture because I have a knack for design. Nobody bothered to encourage that. I did give it a moment’s thought after I left the Navy and wanted to go back to school. Ann Arbor has a wonderful architecture school, and it wasn’t too far away.
But I didn’t go. I hate math.
Let me explain.
I knew early on that I wasn’t moving as fast as the class in our math lessons by 4th grade. I was good in music, loved spelling and reading, but math…. Why wouldn’t those numbers stay in place on the page? One minute it was this, the next, something else. It made me frustrated to hear I was wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong again.
By that summer I was riding my bike into town for math tutoring. I remember the look on Mr. Bundy’s face in 5th grade. I knew he was already ticked he had to teach me math. My heart withered whenever he looked at me. I was struggling but trying very hard. He told the others that he would “allow” them to read Snowbound when they finished this certain section. I never got to read it. I felt left out and became more discouraged.
I still don’t like Mr. Bundy.
I managed to get through to 8th or 9th grade when THE lone teacher that ever gave a damn about whether I learned math or not became my teacher. Mr. Smith made it seem fun. He was encouraging. He created teams where we competed with a partner. I’m guessing as a teacher he partnered us up with other students that weren’t too far out of our talent range. Because that’s how Rowena Edwards, the dear girl, became one of my best friends. I think I made ground that year. I even considered that Biology might be within my intellectual reach.
Then there was Geometry. God help me! That was also the year, my boyfriend gave me mono. The teacher had decided just to move me on. I’m not sure he ever answered my questions, nor did I think he tried to wake me when mono hit the hardest. So that class was a bust.
Somehow, I managed to pass my SAT and go on to college. I didn’t need a lot of math for my BSW and squeaked by my classes with C’s. The teacher in my finite math class forced me to sit in front because he said most women were just too dumb to sit anywhere else in his class. In his opinion, I should stay home and make babies. I seethed.
Here’s what I learned. I was too dumb for math, and likely not bright enough for much. Maybe that guy was right. I should just find a husband and be done with it. Except I didn’t want that. I wasn’t interested in babies. I didn’t want to stay at home – I wanted to see the world! I ached to do something interesting and fulfilling. I wanted to be busy and fruitful.
I joined the Navy when I realized during my senior year that, at least in central Missouri, nobody was hiring social workers to work with middle schoolers in small groups and in individual counseling, or to work with parents. Silly me – I was ahead of my times.
After 2 ½ years in Seattle, I was offered a “path to Captain” if I would step into Space Operations. As a woman in the early 80’s, opportunities weren’t plentiful for something like that so I jumped at the chance. My detailer wrote me orders to school in Colorado, then on to Naval Space Surveillance in Dahlgren, Virginia. I was pretty excited. School went well. (Not the least of which included a new love interest who lasted another 36 years!). The work in Virginia was interesting.
I got a call from my detailer not long after I arrived in Virginia. She said that she had been reviewing my college transcript and in order for me to go to the Space Operations School in Monterey, I would have to have 2 5-hour classes in calculus and a physics class. My heart sank.
Instant fear set in. I held my breath throughout the rest of the phone call and when she hung up, I burst into tears. When I held that diploma in my hand, I thought I was safely away from having to mess with math ever again.
I was sick to my stomach. I gave into the feelings and reeled for a day or so. The following Monday, I drove over to the local junior college and told her my story. I told the nice lady that I was starting over. She needed to treat me like I’d never met a number a day in my life. She was so terribly kind. I had no idea how I was going to do this crazy thing, but I just didn’t feel like I had a choice.
I wasn’t going home.
She loaded me up with 5 or 6 math workbooks and sent me out the door with a hug and good luck. Lady, you have no idea how much this kid’s gonna need it.
I cleared a space in one of my spare rooms in the town house I lived in. Set up a good light, lots of sharp pencils and BIG erasers. I treated it like a second job. I arose an hour early every morning Monday through Friday, put on the coffee pot and worked on math until I had to shower and get out the door for work. The first book went pretty well. It was familiar stuff and it made me feel good to reinforce the basics. The second book began to get a little harder. Clearly this was information that I kept missing as I grew older and as I avoided classes, or I just didn’t understand it and the teacher just simply moved on. But, I persisted until I understood each lesson.
Occasionally, I would spend Saturday’s reviewing the week’s work and noting where there were weak spots. Then came the third book, really diving into Algebra. Things began to grind down and I knew I needed some outside help. The advantage of working for a space agency is that it is crawling with engineers, so I mustered up my courage, swallowed my pride and sashayed down to the coffee mess where I walked up to a crowd of engineers and said, “I need a math tutor. Anybody interested?” That bunch of guys was like talking to a dozen different Einstein’s all at once. Smart, funny, but so big-hearted! When I would get stuck on a lesson, I’d head down to the mess with my workbooks. They would ask me to tell them what I was doing, like I was teaching them. When I got stuck, they would ask questions that would help me see where in the procedure I had gone wrong. Mostly, they went my pace. And, critically, they were patient and encouraging. I think they wanted me to succeed as badly as I wanted this!
I had about 5 months to prepare for the first Calculus class. It was challenging, but I never felt completely over my head. Somehow, when I got confused, I would stick with it until I figured it out. I got an A.
And, I got an A on the 2nd of the Calculus classes as well!
I ended up leaving the Navy before I could go on to the Physics class, but I’m absolutely sure that I would have been fine. I truly believe that even now.
If you’ve stuck with me this far, you are probably someone who feels the same way about math – or maybe it’s words that cause you trouble. Either way, if you’ve read this far, you want to know the secrets.
- In looking back, what people tell you, what you believe about those words, and finally, what you believe about yourself matters. I had come to believe that I was too stupid for numbers and math procedures. I had come to believe that I wouldn’t amount to much because of it. Just a dumb girl. If you are a teacher, be careful what you say, and be careful what your non-verbs speak to your tender charges. If you are the one who believes these things, you MUST learn to speak kindly to yourself – especially if no one else will.
- I had something to motivate me. A career option was a strong motivator. Motivation matters. Someone whose self-image and self-esteem are damaged will not be motivated. I was also a bit prideful – early on that hurt me because I refused to ask questions when I needed to go slower than others. Later, it motivated me because I was not going home in shame.
- I treated learning like a second job. I was religious about my schoolwork and refused to let things distract me from it.
- I learned to ask for help from people whom I knew had the skill to help me.
- I worked hard to make it happen. I had to go slow, but I never quit.
Persistence, humility, utilizing resources, taking opportunities as they came, staying focused on the goal and understanding what doors would open by accomplishing the goal all helped.
Fast forward three and half decades, I was chatting with my brother who is an engineer. I told him a little bit of this story. He just kept looking at me, his head cocked and a knowing grin. He told me that he had trouble with math.
Our dad had trouble with math.
I sat blinking the swell of tears in my eyes. All three of us are dyslexic. I think I always knew. Even letters get messed up for me, but numbers create instant anxiety.
I asked him how either of them made it through school. How did either of them make it so successfully in their starting engineering business?
6. Here’s the last secret: go slow and check numbers multiple times.
In retrospect, I admit that I’m still angry that it was just assumed I should just stay home and make babies. What a bunch of lies perpetrated on generations of women. It’s called gender bias. But still, I can look back on a life well-lived. I believe that I’ve lived my life purposefully. So, no regrets. As a teacher and a mother, I believe my story will help others who feel confused, intimated and embarrassed.
I hope my story gives you hope. And, in the meantime, here’s a <hug>!