Schooled in Math

Reading about Fields Medalist Maryam Mirzakhani’s early schooling, when a teacher told her she was not good at math, struck a nerve. I, too, was told that by a teacher who refused to waste his time in helping me understand concepts in algebra because I was a girl, and wouldn’t understand it anyway. The next year in school, Mirzakhani’s teacher told her she was great at math, which was a step towards earning a math degree. For me, during my second high school year, I took geometry. The teacher graciously told me I should have failed, but out of the goodness of his heart, he would give me a C so I wouldn’t have to repeat the class. The school councilor told me that I had a block against math, and advised me to focus on the humanities—a perfectly good girl’s area of study. I dreamed of being an archaeologist, but when I entered college and was told I needed Calc 3 to get a degree, I immediately dropped my dream because I knew I could never accomplish it. No amount of hard work would ever overcome a mind-block, right?

My freshman orientation advisor, a geo-engineer, was absolutely flabbergasted when I told him this. He told me women are just as good at math as men, and urged me to overcome my misgivings and attempt math again. I wish I had taken his advice—but at the time, I did not believe it. The “proof” lay in the classes and concepts I failed. His was one voice against many. It is only years later that I realize he was correct. I wish I could tell him that. You were right. I wish I had been strong enough to follow your lead.

When you’re young, teachers make impressions—sometimes very negative ones. I knew at the time that the men who taught me math thought women were the lesser gender due to their religion, but I still believed what they told me because they, as authority figures, were supposed to know what they talked about. It was not until years later that I realized these men had no clue how to teach math, and really, did not understand it themselves—they were football and basketball coaches. Math happened to be the subject assigned to them so they could remain coaches at the high school. They had not studied it, and that lead to terribly teaching it. They made excuses as to why they could not help their students, and it was because they did not understand the material themselves. This also explains why very little teaching took place in those classrooms, and why we were given worksheets and assignments to fill up class time rather than listening to lectures (and no, they were not participating in Moore-style education).

I now understand how ridiculous my beliefs were. Not only am I married to a mathematician who has helped relieve me of my past notions, I took math courses in college—not Calc 3, but I still had to take them—and I aced them. I got As. I wish that those successes had persuaded me much sooner to re-examine my dreams and go from there, but since I longed to be a fantasy/sci-fi author, English did not seem that terrible of a degree focus. I ended up in a library–a perfect example of the “good woman’s” job that, in many ways, haunts me. I write quite a lot (no fiction publications as of yet), but I wish I had followed my other dream as well.

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