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Part 2: In which algebra drives me to tears.

Just to catch you up: I learned to program when I was eleven. I loved it.

And yet, once that section of the class had ended and we moved on to another unit, I stopped programming, though I still enjoyed computers and would sit up until all hours playing video games or toying with silly novelty programs, like the one with the parrot who would repeat anything you said into a microphone … BUT IN A PARROT VOICE! (It … it seemed worthwhile at the time.)

These days, learning about something is as easy as Googling it, but any given little girl who could potentially learn to code is still fighting tough odds unless several resourceful adults make a point of empowering her. This was 1991. I didn’t have access to a computer set up for programming, nor did I have learning materials or, apparently, the ability to articulate my desire for them.

Besides — or maybe I should say “quite relevantly to this discussion about young girls” — I wasn’t thinking about my potential. I was thinking about surviving junior high.

Above all else, I desperately wanted to be pretty and well-liked. I was from a very poor neighborhood, and sixth grade was the year that several elementary schools fed into one bigger school. I encountered middle-income children for the first time, and I felt ashamed of my background for the first time. Technically, thanks to my parents’ recent years of success, I was technically middle-income myself, but that didn’t seem to matter when the only kids I knew were the ones who couldn’t afford brand-name clothes. The kids from my neighborhood were the ones who smoked or at the very least reeked of it due to circumstances beyond their control. They were the ones who got pregnant (yes, even in sixth grade, which is mind-boggling to contemplate now).

They were the ones I had grown up around, and while I didn’t fit in with them at all, I also didn’t know how to converse with the other kids, the ones who went to Florida or Mexico in the summer and had gone to camps and parties together since they were toddlers. I alternated between praying these strange creatures would befriend me and resenting them for how blissfully ignorant they got to be about everything.

Had a genie popped up out of my locker one day after a particularly soul-crushing social encounter, I would have wished for beauty and popularity without hesitation. We will pretend I would have devoted the third wish to world peace.

Mumble boyfriend mumble cough.

Sure, I thought programming was great. But in that era of my young, dumb life, a lot of things had seemed and would seem great, from crimping my hair in the most seamless pattern possible to sneaking a glass of champagne at a wedding. The year before, I had realized at a slumber party that most girls my age had already kissed at least one boy. It didn’t occur to me that they might be lying, and it most definitely didn’t occur to me that such accomplishments might not even be important in the scheme of things.

Even as a completely asexual late bloomer who still secretly adored stuffed animals and bath toys, I was afraid of falling behind in developing the sort of skills a boy might want me to have. Most of my goals and aspirations boiled down to some kind of attempt to reckon with aching insecurity.

I’m not trying to sell you a sob story. I don’t think my life was any harder than anyone else’s. Quite the opposite: I lived with two invested parents who made good money and cared about my future. Plenty of kids were up against a greater struggle than I was. The childhood I’m describing to you is normal, if not downright privileged, and it still seems to have taken place on a tightrope in gale-force winds.

It sickens me a little to remember how badly I needed to be liked, and how desperately I wanted to be seen as perfect and desirable. Young girls endured such an enormous amount of pressure back then, and that was before Bratz dolls smirked their way into our hearts and Candy Land got all sexy and people started marketing thong panties to kindergartners. I can only imagine what they cope with now. God help thirteen-year-old-girls everywhere.

The situation did not improve in high school. You don’t seem surprised.

Thanks in part to then-undiagnosed ADD, I had begun to struggle in math even before I was assigned to the same math teacher for three years. He made admiring comments about his female students’ short skirts and once described an equation as “so easy a girl could do it,” a line too obnoxious even for satire. (Even now, I want to believe he thought he was being … ironically funny … somehow?) I was terrified of him and preferred that he not even look at me, much less attempt to assist me with my homework. I hadn’t seen any indication that he would think much of me, a gangly boobless girl who looked and felt as if she were going to vomit every time she was expected to finish a geometry proof.

I would write the first step and the last step of those proofs, and then stare at all the blanks in between while panic spread from my heart to the tips of my fingers. Every damn time.

Through it all, I woke up at 5 a.m. just to hot-roller my hair. I shaved my legs every day because the boy who sat behind me in French class had somehow, do not even ask me how, encountered and become fascinated by my silky skin. It made me somewhat uncomfortable, yet I was unwilling to disappoint him, which just about sums it up for high school.

I finally got away from my math teacher, only to move on to my physics teacher … who had a confidential conference with my mother and then, the next day, told our class all about his interesting talk with my mother the day before. He then recounted the embarrassing things she had said about me: I was bad at math, and I often didn’t pay attention in class. I went home humiliated.

My mother marched furiously back into the school, and I wound up quietly excused from physics and reassigned to a completely unrelated subject for that period.

For obvious reasons, I came to associate math with an awful feeling in the pit of my stomach. I was otherwise a pretty good student, but my arguments with my well-meaning parents over my math grades would leave me sobbing in the bathroom, wringing tissue after tissue into damp twists. By the time I was applying to colleges, I had gone to extra tutoring for years.

I did briefly consider it, and my conclusion was not without a pang of regret. But majoring in computer science was out of the question.


  1. Theresa wrote:

    Still loving this series! I almost didn’t pursue computer science in college because of math. My family moved to an entirely new state in the middle of the school year in 8th grade, which entirely screwed up my math education. I ended up learning the same things twice in Algebra that year… which means I missed an entire half year of Algebra lessons. I had no idea until I got to Algebra 2 / Geometry and everyone seemed to know all about graphing things but I had no idea what they were talking about. I had guidance counselors tell me not to even consider computer science because my math grades (Bs and Cs) weren’t good enough. Fortunately for me, I’m extremely stubborn and I found a good liberal arts college that required very little math to complete their CS program.

    Monday, May 27, 2013 at 4:54 am | Permalink
  2. Jim wrote:

    Wow, you had some colossally bad breaks. I mean, even the teenage boys in that era had their angst. It is common to the age. But you were dealt some bad cards in the form of those two teachers.

    I taught myself to code at age 14, which was in 1982. I had the same math teacher for two years, and when he heard that I had gotten our primitive Apple IIs to draw any regular polygon on the screen, he became very excited and asked me to demonstrate my program to our class. That went so well he said, “You should go to college, study computer science, and do this for a living.”

    Wait. What? People *do this for a living*? I had no idea.

    I’ve been making software professionally for 24 years now.

    Monday, May 27, 2013 at 5:33 am | Permalink
  3. Em wrote:

    Wow, I could have written a lot of this myself.

    I was obsessed with quantum physics as a girl (starting around age 10 or so). I got books out from the library, I copied extensive notes. I was obsessed with it. And then I had zero encouragement. My parents laughed it off and I had similar issues at school.

    I’m 34 now and I just got myself the grade 10 – 12 physics lessons and am working my way through them. I am happy in my totally unrelated profession but I have such a longing for that part of me that died off.

    I note that any ‘girly’ thing I was interested in was immediately reinforced. Around the same time I was obsessed with physics and no one was taking me seriously I wanted to be a cheerleader too. Well… there was certainly a lot of help then! To be entirely self-directed at a such a young age is practically impossible. I’m going to make sure I never underestimate my kids.

    Monday, May 27, 2013 at 1:18 pm | Permalink
  4. Elena wrote:

    Hooray, you’re back! Missed your vivid, poignant stories, and these don’t disappoint.

    Monday, May 27, 2013 at 11:29 pm | Permalink
  5. Tracy Bryant wrote:

    I suppose I was blessed in that I experienced no discouragement in math until junior college. There I had a plane geometry instructor whose hearing suddenly went bad when one of the six girls in the class asked a question. “How do you graph a parabola?” would become “You want to grab a tarantula??” I learned to get the guy behind me to ask the question so there would be an intelligent reply. At least I got in some trigonometry before I gave up on math, so I could write some useful computer algorithms.

    Monday, May 27, 2013 at 11:40 pm | Permalink

    I remember like it was yesterday when I found out a popular (read: wealthy) boy said that my house could fit in his garage.

    The best thing that ever happened to me was getting away from the “rich” high school and being zoned for the “poor” one across town.

    Suddenly I felt okay about me again.

    Wednesday, May 29, 2013 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    I remember like it was yesterday when I found out a popular (read: wealthy) boy said that my house could fit in his garage.

    The best thing that ever happened to me was getting away from the “rich” high school and being bussed to the “poor” one across town.

    Suddenly I felt okay about me again.

    Wednesday, May 29, 2013 at 6:04 pm | Permalink