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I Wonder What Would Have Happened If I Sucked at Math

On the front page of the Los Angeles Times today was a story about three of the middle schools in Los Angeles serving the highest proportion of students in poverty. My daughter, “The Perfect Jennifer”, did her student teaching at one of the three and teaches at a second.

She said to me today,

Mom, the beginning of your story is very common among the students I teach. The families don’t have a lot of money, they have problems at home, the dad isn’t always around, they end up in foster care, have problems with the police, go to juvenile hall. Usually, these stories don’t end with – And she got a Ph.D., became a statistical consultant, runs her own company and lives by the beach in Santa Monica. You do know that’s not the way these stories usually play out, don’t you?”

The reverb10 prompt for yesterday was what you wondered in 2010. I know that was yesterday but I tend to live by my own rules and time lines as much as the law and the necessity to make a living will allow. It’s also Computer Science Education Week where we are treated to videos of real live computer scientists telling us how great it is to be in computer science. After watching one, the house’s resident rocket scientist commented,

“The first mistake they made in producing this video was allowing those people to dress themselves.”

What I wonder about is what would have happened to me if I had sucked at math. I think back to when I was young and, in most ways, less promising than the students my daughter has today. My family didn’t have money or connections in this country. I was female, short, chubby, near-sighted, Latina – in a time when it was still legal to advertise jobs for men only and people thought it was okay to say things like,

“You shouldn’t be offended by comments about Hispanics. No one thinks of you as Hispanic because you are so intelligent.”

I was somewhat less sweetness and light back then than I am now and my most likely reaction to comments like that was either to say, “What the fuck?” or punch the speaker in the face (hence the acquaintance between myself, the foster care system and the juvenile authorities).

So, what happened?

Well, I had a sixth grade math teacher named Sister Marion who thought I should make A’s, and I knew better than to argue with a nun. In middle school, I had an Algebra teacher named Mr. Cartwright who just assumed I should excel in Algebra and demanded to know what my problem was any time I got less than an A on a test. I went to an alternative school, Logos High School, back when it was in the inner city, before they decided to move the school to the rich suburbs and do well instead of doing good. There, I had a math teacher named Chris, who was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War and another math teacher named Phyllis who taught matrix algebra. We were just getting the chance to program computers when I was in high school, through an arrangement with St. Louis University, down the street.

I took the SATs, did well, got admitted to Washington University in St. Louis and took some classes on programming  – BASIC and FORTRAN – just because. I took Calculus and Statistics because I thought these might be useful some day, but, if not, they were kind of interesting courses. I took regional economics and urban economics and learned about actual applications of matrices where you had the sales from region A to other people in region A, then their sales to region B in the next cell, their sales to region C — and it all started to make sense.  I did not ace all of my courses in college. In fact, I pretty much majored in parties (don’t tell my mom) and I worked full-time.

BUT … and I think it goes back to Sister Marion … I always assumed there wasn’t any subject I couldn’t learn if I put my mind to it. When I was at General Dynamics and nine months pregnant, the managers were really freaked out about having a very, very pregnant woman engineer climbing around on the machines. One manager said to me that it was a liability because I could fall down. I told him that I had been walking since I was a year old and that I hadn’t fallen down since. I know the reason they sent me to that SAS programming class was to get me out of the factory.

I didn’t start out with looks, money, connections or even good behavior. By the time I was an engineer, I still didn’t have the sense not to be a smart ass to upper management. What I did have going for me was that I was good at math and learned to program a computer very well. There were not enough people that could say that, so I was tolerated and helped until I learned to dress myself and shut the hell up on occasion.

One of the few poems I remember ever learning was from Robert Frost and it ended

A path forked in the woods and I

I took the one less traveled by

And that has made all of the difference.

If I had studied poetry instead of math and computer programming, I don’t know where I’d be but I don’t think it would be here.

Bring in the Flamingos

I wonder, if I had sucked at math, would I still be able to take trips to Tunisia, Costa Rica, Beijing and Athens just because I felt like it.

I wonder if I would have been able to go to the Bahamas and seen the marching flamingos at the Bahama Zoo. I really wonder who the hell sits around  a zoo and suddenly says,

“You know what we should do, today? We should try to teach the flamingos to march.”

Seriously, how does that ever enter your brain? I REALLY wonder about that.

Trivial pursuit answer of the day: The flamingo is the national bird of the Bahamas.

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