Monday, April 9, 2018

I'm Just a Girl in the World ...

...That's All That You'll Let Me Be

I've seen a lot of talk lately about the trouble with keeping women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) careers, first of all, why there are so few to begin with, why they drop out, and why they quit the work they love in an industry they should be thriving in.  A lot of people argue that getting in the door isn't the problem, it's staying in the room once you're there.  But, pretending that sexism only occurs, or is recognizable once the woman is inside the industry is not helpful, or honest.  Many women, and young girls experienced sexism (especially casual-sexism), and discrimination as students.  It might be a little bit different for the generation coming up behind me, but I can't imagine it's changed all that much for all females across the board, in every classroom in America.  The ones lucky enough to have incredible, and fair teachers and professors who encouraged and supported all students equally were riding for a hard fall when the reality of how women are treated in these fields finally presented itself.  I was aware of it well before it happened to me, but even when it did finally happen, I was still only a child of thirteen.
Let's not get it twisted, I was never a genius at mathematics, but I could at least hold my own, and in seventh grade with a midterm GPA of 3.9 I certainly didn't feel like anything in the Junior High curriculum was completely beyond my grasp.
That's why I was surprised at the end of the year when I was called to the front of the classroom to receive my recommendation for which class to take the following year, I heard that I would not be recommended to move on to the advanced Algebra class being offered for Junior High students, with the majority of my friends.  Instead I was told that another year of basic math would best suit someone in my situation.  Unsure of what exactly that situation was, I stood there as he reassured me in a friendly tone (that still confuses me today), that if my parents, and I disagreed with his recommendation that we were welcome to take it up with the school's guidance counselor, and that I would be placed in the class I preferred.  I said, "okay" and quietly made my way back to my seat wading through a sea of muffled snickering, and taunts of "stupid girl" and other hilarious insults thrown my way by some of the worst-performing male students in the class, all the while wondering what was so terribly wrong with my B+ that it should keep me from qualifying to get into Algebra.  Adding insult to injury, one of the boys who carried a C-average for the duration of the school year, and having failed more than one test was actually recommended for the very class I wanted to be in!  Was he just a closeted prodigy who wasn't applying himself?  Hardly.  That's when it started to become clear what was going on.  Only the female students who earned damn near perfect A's were being recommended for the advanced class, while most of the male students regardless of grades (with very few exceptions) were being waved through with flying colors. 

When my mother took our concerns to the guidance counselor, the math teacher was actually at the meeting to present a case against my advancement.  Yes, the same man who reiterated the school's policy that if anyone was unhappy with his recommendation, they would be allowed to still move on to their preferred class with no obstruction.  Let's be honest, it's not like he was saying that one more year of basic math would make me an unstoppable math-monster going forward.  Every time my mother expressed that it was her wish for me to have the opportunity to take the classes I wanted and was capable of taking available to me, he had a retort or an excuse that had nothing to do with my academic ability.  He literally said, "she'll never keep up, she's too sickly," even though I hadn't missed over the allotted absences in the year as per school requirements, and continued to do the actual work.  His final attempt was a pathetic "... Well, she'll never get an A"  (this guy wasn't trying to derail me, he was doing his best to keep me out of the train station altogether!).  Like getting a B in math was some kind of terror, or trauma my little lady-brain could never cope with.  I give him credit, because it DID work on some of my girl friends from other class periods.  One was so obsessed with getting a 4.0 from 7th - 12th grade I don't think she ever enjoyed a day of school in her life!  She refused to push the advancement issue, because she and her parents decided that settling for the easier class would guarantee her an A with less pressure ...  

A lot of good that did! 

All I had ever really wanted was the option to be able to graduate with Physics under my belt if that's what I desired when the time came.  I knew that the sooner I started checking off my math requirements, the more electives I could choose later in high school, and I wanted an eclectic educational experience.  I was also aware that something as subtle as what classes you leave high school having completed at the time dictated which college placement exams you were allowed to take, and just simply asking for and completing an advanced math test meant you were automatically placed in a higher math level class at the university I was eye-balling than those who took the regular test, even if you didn't ace it.  This meant you could complete your math requirements faster, without having to waste your time drudging through prerequisites that wouldn't count toward anything really, and in turn frees up your schedule to take other, more interesting classes in areas you actually want to study.  That's a hell of a decision to put on a 7th grader's shoulders -- something that can potentially effect my future self as a senior in college?  All I knew is that I was going to university, and I wanted to pave a smooth road to get there, and I wanted to have a cool experience once I was there, and here was this dude with legendarily atomic coffee-breath trying to dictate what my academic life would look like long after I'd left the hellhole we were forced to inhabit at the same moment in time?   

I don't think so.

By the end of the meeting, the counselor was not impressed with what my teacher had done.  Honestly though, he never gave me the impression that he was overly enthusiastic about how most teachers at my school conducted the business of teaching, and after he reviewed my grades, and couldn't find any reason why I shouldn't be welcome to at least try the class, I was allowed to go forward with my plan.  The thing is, if I couldn't hack, I could always drop the class, and slip into the one I had been recommended for, but no matter how well anyone did in their second year of basic math no one was ever suddenly ushered into the higher class via red carpets.  The door was only open once, and if you didn't get the chance to go through, it closed, and that was it.  And that was my mother's battle cry on my behalf, "she's worked for, earned, and deserves the chance to go for it!"

Of course it didn't end there.  The teacher's attitude toward me completely changed after he found out my mother and I weren't the type of women to be bulldozed over.  His icy, and dismissive behavior toward me continued until the end of the year, and I think it's important to remember that how adults act often dictates the behavior of children in their presence, so the environment in my math class was hardly a welcoming one, or one that encouraged my enthusiastic participation.  By the time Algebra started the next fall, some kids remembered that I hadn't been recommended, and liked to remind me that I didn't belong there -- The Whiner who had stolen someone else's (read: another male's) spot, and so it was from the moment I had been given my recommendation in front of the class in 7th grade I was treated like an outsider, and almost tourist inside my own education.

It's pretty ridiculous and lazy, but all too often summed up as:
male + nerd = sexist pig

First of all, it's been my experience that men who are truly excellent in subjects stereotypically reserved for "nerds" are the men who are NOT the problem.  These individuals seem to have actually developed as a fully functioning adult human beings with a grasp on their actual emotions, and understanding.  Problems I've witnessed have always come from those who are mediocre with very little drive, and a rather magnificent chip on their shoulder, and severely arrested emotional development who overestimate their own intelligence. However, I've often seen the conversation reduced to exactly this, countless times.  The truth remains, that sexism, and discrimination do not happen in a vacuum.  People are taught these things, both overtly and covertly.  In time, they learn if they push hard enough, and behave badly enough other people will be forced to change the course of their lives around them, and the idea of children learning that kind of power-manipulation is absolutely repulsive to me.  But learn it they do, and the very same children who'd taken it upon themselves to be my personal (un)wecoming committee in math, were the ones also sexually harassing me in band, but instead of making them mind, the (male) teacher tried everything he could to make me switch instruments from the one my parents had shelled out serious cash for only 2-3 years before.  Now it was up to me to scrap my plans, and learn something else all because some men, and boys refuse to learn how to behave in society side-by-side with women?
Why on earth must it fall on women, and girls to completely reconfigure our lives to suit this bullshit?   
In the end, I did finally get an A in math (three years later) in Trigonometry, the first A I'd had in the subject since third grade ... My B's were certainly nothing I was ever ashamed of, especially because I had earned them completely on my own, unlike the kids whose parents would do their homework for them, and make the children copy the assignments in their own handwriting in order to keep their grades up in case they performed terribly on any tests. I may not have ended up a complete math scholar, or even going into STEM fields, but I can look back on my experience and be proud of not only how I conducted myself, and advocated for myself, but how I earned my grades myself thanks to the support of a mother who refused to let me give up on myself. 

P.S. I held on to my spot in the trumpet section in band as well, and I haven't stopped making noise since!