Tuesday, July 14, 2015

That Time A Maxi Pad Commercial Made Me Cry...

"The vast majority of us imagine ourselves as like literature people or math people. But the truth is that the massive processor known as the human brain is neither a literature organ nor a math organ. It is both and more." - John Green

I decided to go back to school at the age of 35 for a lot of reasons. The main one: I'm tired of struggling financially.

I did a lot of research over a few years and eventually decided nursing was the way to go. The ratio of time, energy, and money spent versus income potential, job growth, and opportunities for advancement is highly favorable. It's one of the few careers where you can make a comfortable living with an Associate's Degree, an even more comfortable living with a Bachelor's, and if you're willing to go to grad school for an MSN or DNP, you can make six figures easy.

I was nervous to go back to school. It's been many years, and last time I was in I flunked out. Just like I flunked out of a lot of classes in high school.

Why? Because I have below average intelligence? To the contrary: I was considered gifted from as early as I can remember, was put in gifted classes, and told by teachers and other adults from the time I was in kindergarten that I was talented, highly intelligent, destined for great things.

So why did I find myself 35 and hovering somewhere around the poverty line doing a menial job for crappy money?

Part of it is classic Gifted Kid Syndrome. We're used to things being easy, and when they're not, instead of buckling down, we just get bored and do something else.

I didn't make a B until I was in the 8th grade, and I was shocked by it. No, I hadn't tried to make a good grade, but that had never kept the As from rolling in before.

By high school, I was in IB History, English, and Theatre, and regular Math and Science. I made As in the IB courses, and Ds and Fs in the "easy" math and science courses. My vice principal told me my report card was "schizophrenic."

I didn't do well because I didn't try. At all. If I wasn't good at it right away, oh well. I would rather fail on purpose than risk all the complicated negative emotions inherent in trying and then failing.
I managed to graduate high school with a respectable GPA somehow. I auditioned for and won a full scholarship to a state school as a theatre major. I turned it down. For a little while I went to community college, but I was too busy smoking pot and hanging out with my boyfriend and acting in plays and writing and editing the school paper to learn anything new. I stuck to what I was naturally good at. Everything else remained untried.

Eventually I left school without bothering to withdraw from my classes, leaving several Fs on my transcript, behind a string of Ws.

And now here I am, age 35, broke and tired, finally understanding a whole host of things I should have understood 15 years ago:

1.     That no one on earth - NO ONE - is good at everything they try.

2.     That no one on earth - NO ONE - is always good at things right away.

3.     That not all college degrees are created equal. Theatre is beautiful. So is writing. I have a lot of passion for those things. But those are not the most practical avenues to a life free of constant financial stress, which is my current goal.

4.     That just because I was told by every standardized test and every teacher from the age of five that I was "verbally gifted" does not mean I'm not mathematically capable, too. (In fact, it occurs to me that all those standardized tests on which I scored in the 97th to 99th percentile for reading comprehension, language skills, etc. - I also scored well above average in math and science. But no one ever made much of that.)

So I went back to school. I started last semester with Biology for Science Majors. Wanting to hurry the hell up and get my pre-requisites for nursing school done, I dared to take it in a five-week summer course. While working full time.

My last experience with lab science was in high school, when, having flunked out of Chemistry (I slept through, skipped, or utterly ignored every lecture and lab) I was demoted to "regulars" Physical Science, which I found conceptually fascinating but quite annoying in practice as my lab partners consisted of gum-popping cretins constantly sneaking away to make out by the water fountain.
I started my Bio course nervous, still mired in the lie that a human being can only be verbal or mathematical, and never the twain shall meet in any one individual.

Biology, to be fair, is not a particularly math-heavy science. But it is science. And this course was a LOT of science, all up in my face, at breakneck speed.

For those five weeks, I had no life outside of work and school. When I wasn't at work (and sometimes when I was) I was studying.

And when I saw a 91 written on the first exam, I literally asked my teacher if that number was my grade. She laughed and said it was.

That was the lowest exam grade I made all semester. My combined average for lecture and lab was a 97. Other students came and asked me questions before quizzes and tests.


One of my lab partners was a 19-year-old Asian-American girl majoring in Chemical Engineering. She didn't need to make higher than a C, so she floated her way through class, coming alive only to cram and text me questions the night before exams.

Towards the end of the semester, she told me I needed to consider engineering. I asked her why, and she told me I was obviously capable of it so why not make the money?

I immediately balked. I'm still balking. Because I can't do that level of math, right? Linear Algebra? Physics? Me?! In high school, I skipped my Algebra I final to drop acid and go skinny dipping. True story. Can I honestly see myself doing calculus? Designing objects that do complicated things?

I've been thinking about this for a few days, and while at work today I found a Nova documentary about nanotechnology on YouTube. I've been fascinated with nanotech since I read Neal Stephenson's novel The Diamond Age. Nanobiotech is an exploding field in bioengineering, and since my lab partner planted the seed of engineering in my mind, I've been watering it a little, here and there, to see if it grows.

And as I was sitting at my desk, stapling papers and half-watching a super-stoked MIT physicist explain the unique properties of graphene, the video was interrupted by an Always ad. Yeah, the maxi pads. I reached for the mouse to click "Skip Ad," but something made me stop and watch.

A group of girls of various ages and races were interviewed, one by one, about the things they'd been told they couldn't do or be because they are girls. It was pretty cheesy, but I found myself tearing up when a beautiful little indian girl said, "We're not supposed to get to rescue people."

I teared up because I've always wanted to rescue people, too.

A teenager talked about how she stopped trying at things because she wasn't supposed to be good at them.

Girls with markers wrote on big white boxes all the things they'd been told they couldn't do. The one I remember so clearly said: "Be brave."

And words across the screen reminded me what I already knew from my own experience: that the confidence of girls takes a nose-dive during puberty.

Because that is when we become sexual objects, and once we are, that's all we're really supposed to be. Or, at least, we're not supposed to be anything that threatens that.

Suddenly I thought to myself: "If I were a dude, would I be questioning my ability to do an engineering degree?"

And I remembered my other lab partner, a strapping ex-combat-medic contemplating either nursing or bioengineering. He didn't do nearly as well in the Bio class as I did, partly because he was going through family drama, but still. I never heard him question his ability, and I know I'm at least as smart as he is.

If I were a dude, and I decided biomed is what I wanted to do, I would probably just do it.
But I'm a woman, so I assume I can't? What the hell is that all about?

I texted my lab partner for advice. She told me to try Calculus. "It's the litmus test," she said. So my goal for the next few weeks is to spend all my free time on Khan Academy, working my way up through Algebra to Calculus.

Can I do it?

Inside me, there are so many instinctive responses to that question, ranging from "hell no" to "I don't know."

But the one that feels truest to me, right now, is:

If I decide I can, then of course I can.

The damage that is done to people when we tell them they belong in a certain category they can't change is life-long, whether it's telling a verbally gifted person she can't do math, or telling a girl she can't be strong or brave or heroic.

It's all lies. Every last word of it.

No one is capable of everything - that's true. But almost all of us are capable of more than we give ourselves credit for.

Especially the broken, used, and lied-to girls inside us who became tentative, self-defeating women.


Post by Kristen Hatten

No comments:

Post a Comment