Sunday, September 14, 2014

Girls Are No Good At Science (by Nancy Ohlin)


Growing up, I had bad teachers all over the place.  Like:

*Miss Scott, my fourth-grade teacher, who asked me and the two other “foreigners” in our class—this was a super-long time ago in a super-small Midwestern town—to pose in "traditional costume" for a local newspaper article.  Me in a kimono, the Italian American girl in a grandmotherly peasant dress, the Guatemalan American boy in a poncho and enormous straw hat—we all felt like freaks, and Miss Scott seemed oblivious to the teasing we got from the other students. 

*Mr. Hunt, my advanced chemistry teacher in high school, who told me that “girls are no good at science,” which led me to drop out of that class and join the regular chemistry class. 

*Mr. Parker, the regular chemistry teacher, who was unfortunately no better than Mr. Hunt.  One day in class, he called on me and asked me why I’d missed a week of school.  I replied that I’d had pneumonia.  His reply: “Ah, yes, pneumonia … a great disease of the chest.”  He said this while leering at my boobs and clearly enjoying the laughter his comment elicited from the other students.  
           
There were other bad teachers, too, whose pedagogical crimes were less extreme; their badness consisted simply of sucking the love of learning right out of me.   They somehow managed to turn what should have been thrilling and inspiring—Shakespeare plays, Faulkner novels, American history—into dry, boring sound bytes and Stuff I Had to Memorize.

So by the time I got to college, I’d pretty much decided that school was a place to coast through quickly and with my head down.  Get in, get out, no one gets hurt.  I’d long given up on the idea that I could actually gain something from an education.  As far as I was concerned, teachers were ineffectual at best and pervs/sexists/racists at worst.   On top of which …  I was smart enough that I could get A’s without trying very hard.   Therefore, my plan for college was to phone it in for four years, graduate with a solid GPA, and get a job doing whatever.   Not very exciting, but not very risky, either. 

You know where this story is going, right?  In college, I discovered good teachers.  Amazing teachers.  They whipped my cynical attitude into submission and made me believe.  There was the creative writing teacher who encouraged me to be a writer.  The Irish lit teacher who introduced me to Yeats and Joyce.  The gender studies teacher who sparked my interest in politics and social change.  The Japanese language teacher who made me remember what was so awesome about being Japanese American.

In the decades since, my life has been likewise filled with wonderful teachers, including many friends and also my husband.  The teachers I meet at book festivals care so, so much about their students that they make me weep.   (I carry a lot of Kleenex at these events.)  And I can’t say enough about my son’s high school teachers, who fostered such an enlightened, supportive culture—of kindness, tolerance, courage, and stepping up—that he decided to come out at a morning assembly there, in front of hundreds of people.

Oh, and, hey, Mr. Hunt?  If you’re reading this, I want you to know that my daughter eats science for breakfast.

8 comments:

  1. Oh Nancy! Reading this totally ticks me off first thing in the morning. I hate that you had to deal with such crap teachers. I say this as a member of that profession. Some people simply should not be allowed anywhere near kids.

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    1. Jody, I wish you could time travel back to the past and be my teacher! I'm sure you are amazing, and your students are lucky to have you. Fortunately, my story has a happy ending, bad teachers and all.

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    1. Aww, thanks, Holly! Her favorite book these days (she's six) is "Field Guide to the Devonian Fossils of New York." So she's definitely a budding scientist!

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  3. I'm happy you didn't get completely turned off to the idea of college by those idiots you had the misfortune of encountering in elementary and high school. I'd like to punch Mr. Parker.

    And yay for your son's teachers and for your daughter being a science girl. I love science girls!!

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    1. Thank you, Jen! I need to put Mr. Parker et al in a novel and subject them to terrible fates. :) And I'm so glad you love science girls! My daughter delights and astonishes me daily with her passion for all things science (especially paleontology, biology, and time travel).

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  4. I'm sorry to read about the bad experiences, but it's wonderful that you were able to rise above them. :)

    Yvonne

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    1. Thank you, Yvonne! Yes, except for writing cranky blog posts about my early bad experiences, I've been pretty good about moving on. :) But seriously ... I feel so lucky that my children had, and continue to have, such great teachers. Great teachers are like rock stars in my book.

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