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  • Sam Darling

Girls of physics

There were certain points in my education when my natural interest in science fiction veered into interest in actual science. There were even times when I toyed with the idea of a job in genetics or virology. But at all those same points I was dissuaded from pursuing my interest by fear. A fear of math, in fact.

I was surprised in a conversation with a friend who makes their living as a scientist that she struggled with the physics requirement class. That’s a topic heavy in calculus that I never would have attempted. It surprised me that she was able to overcome the topic and enjoy her current career. Certain job avenues simply felt closed off to me because my brain wasn’t capable of understanding foundational concepts. Over time I’ve realized that my intellect wasn’t even the biggest obstacle.

At a certain point we all hit a knowledge wall, some area our brains are not naturally “good” at grasping. Remembering the many times I’d hit these walls as a kid it was almost always due to math. And instead of getting me a tutor or a teacher recognizing that I needed extra help, I was shamed for my poor grades. I was also angry about how difficult it was for me and I lashed out at instructors. These instructors were always men for whom the skills came easily. Their lack of emotional intelligence was the major obstacle to my ability to focus on this topic long enough to overcome my personal limitations.

As I was raised by a creative woman with meager math skills, she was of little help in this arena. I had no choice but to turn to the people at school who were ostensibly there to help me gain the skills that we lacked at home. Instead of finding support and understanding, they shamed me with their impatience and I grew angrier and avoided math more. By the time I reached the critical stage at the end of high school where we choose paths for future study, all higher levels of math and physics — and therefore science — felt closed off to me.

So now as an adult when I spotted similar tendencies in my kid I responded by getting them a math tutor. My eldest has been working with the most patient of all possible tutors — new immigrants to our neighborhood from countries like Zimbabwe and Iran. They work through her emotional block until her brain is able to absorb new info and it becomes habitual. Perhaps as a result of the tutoring, math is not her least favorite class and this shocks me. She hates English and Social Studies more, and that doubly shocks me because she’s actually really good at those.

Which leads me to reflect on how people complain that schools here today spend too much time on soft skills and not enough time on the hard knowledge of facts and figures. But of course, there’s a good reason schools have learned that the social-emotional skills are key for growing resilient students. They’ve understood that hard skills can’t be learned until the emotional self regulation is in place.

The emotional limitation in myself might have been overcome with the right mentors. Now, I take comfort in my early fail that at least it helps me recognize an “old-fashioned teacher” and I can explain why they rub my kid the wrong way. I can calmly tell her she will do her future self no favors if she rejects the topic merely because the older man who is trying to teach it to her is emotionally immature. “Think about what your tutor would say in this situation instead,” a soft-voiced young woman from Tehran who can talk my kid through her panic long enough to teach her a few new skills each week.

All of this came flooding back during pandemic as I received dozens of emails from the high school and the mere tone of the older male teachers freaked me out. Now. As a fully-grown mature adult! I can only imagine how irritating this tone would be to a young person having a rough day. I’m over here dealing with our relatively-chill pandemic situation and just two of their emails can send me into a tizzy like nothing else has done that week. But then these are veteran teachers with nearly thirty years of experience in high schools. I shouldn’t expect them to be good at emotional labor the way women are good at emotional labor. I do wish they’d learned these skills at some point. Or maybe someone tried to teach it to them and they rejected it the way I rejected math? It shouldn’t even matter as the rest of the school year is a write off but yet it triggered me.

Keep going, baby.

And by a twist of fate I did end up in jobs where I worked with science folks, though I was merely a support system for their work. The physics department was notorious for sexism and lack of emotional intelligence. I learned they can scare away even the most ardent and naturally-gifted female scientist. It’s heartbreaking to see so many young people with huge potential get drummed out by the lack of support from mentors and fellow academics. I hope the situation is improving with every subsequent generation but this recent batch of teacher emails did not fill me with hope.

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