No Scientist, I

“When I see this image, I realize I will never be alone again. I also think about all the young females in science who can stand on our shoulders, because we will be providing a ladder for them — not pulling it up as so many before us have done.” –Laura Boykin

I just came across this article on Medium yesterday and it’s really made me think a lot about the choices I made in my early life, choices that, unknown to me, have limited my options ever since.  I’ve been doing a lot of that lately, as my daughters move upward through the school system.   Watching my older daughter do calculus when I never got past beginning Trig is really strange.  My girls are doing all kinds of things I didn’t know I could do, without even questioning their right to do so.

It’s not like I couldn’t have done some of the same things if I’d really wanted to.  It’s more like no one really encouraged me or told me I should try — or even seemed to believe I could.  And, teenage laziness being a natural thing, I chose the path of least resistance.  I found Trig hard, and assumed I’d reached my limit in math.  If I’d had someone else around who knew math, I might have been amazed to find that Trig is just shitty for everyone, or at least shitty unless you have an amazing teacher.  And I would have gone on to Geometry (oh God, geometry, my passion now) and probably thence onward from there.  And who knows what could have happened?

I look at my daughters and admire their utter dedication to geekdom.  When I was in high school, I had geeky friends, but didn’t quite know what to do with them.  They all belonged to the chess club, so I did too — but I didn’t like playing chess, because I didn’t understand the strategies and was impatient with learning them, since everyone was so much better than I was.  But more importantly, my geeky friends knew what classes to take, while I just took what sounded good.  So while they were all taking AP and honors classes, I was taking Creative Writing and bonehead Algebra and any history I could get my hands on.  Because I didn’t know that those other classes were full of smart people talking about interesting things!  And I didn’t understand that I was up to it, that it was worth the work, that there was a whole world of learning that was passing me by.

As a result, I became more and more alone over the course of my schooling.  I didn’t fit in with the “normal” kids, but I wasn’t in any of the classes that my nerdy friends were taking (except maybe history).

I had dreams of being a scientist when I was young, and I actually took Advanced Biology and Physics in high school in an effort to pursue that goal.  But here again chance intervened.  I spent my last year of high school at a small boarding school where the teachers were very intimate with us.  I didn’t really learn that much because, in Physics at least, there were two boys who argued so much with the teacher that I got lost along the way.  Interestingly, it was the presence of people like these arguers that made me see that I could take these harder classes; but then he who giveth, taketh away, I suppose.

Here’s the thing: I never identified as geek because in those days geek was a bad thing, a stereotype that no one wanted to embody.  Even my nerdy friends struggled with this.  There was none of the joy of being dorky and smart and different that my daughters get to experience.  These were the days before Title IX, too, so no sports other than tennis and softball, all full of supercompetitive pretty-girls.  It was an era when having long blonde hair meant you weren’t very smart, and I wasn’t good at pushing away the image that people set on me.  There were no computer classes in my provincial high school either, or at least nothing that a latent geek girl with a lack of belief in her own abilities would have recognized as something she could do (I believe there was a FORTRAN thing you could do with the university, but WTF??).  I was a person lost, trying to find my tribe and failing, through lack of common cultural reference, no guidance, and an inability to see through my friends’ general dorkiness.

So call me a late bloomer.  And thank the Gods for the new culture of difference that my daughters get to enjoy, all the movies about intelligent misfits and the Internet and Star Trek and Dr. Who.  Because now everyone can know who they are by seeing it embodied outside themselves by role models that are fun, interesting, and palatable.  Nowadays you can own your dorkiness, and it is good.  You don’t have to wait until nearly forty, like I did, to suddenly look around and say hey, wait!  This is who I am, and this is who I want to be.  Like coming out, but from the toolshed, not the closet.  And although I might not have grown up to do the exciting science I love reading about, at least my daughters have the support to do so.

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