Missing the Wrong Day
Storyteller: Valerie (she/her/hers), 29, California
“What stands out to me most when I think about STEM subjects is math class in elementary school.
My whole life, I've had this idea in my mind that I'm bad at math. It feels like, maybe in third or fourth grade, I just missed a day that was really important, and I wasn't able to bounce back from that or make up for that missed day. It felt like I was just missing a piece of information, and I never got it back. So, probably when we got to -- I think it was fourth grade when we were doing long division -- I remember being so confused and didn't know what my teacher was talking about. I went home and told my mom and asked her to help me, but she had gone to school in Mexico, so she had learned a completely different system of how to do long division, and how to multiply, even. So the way that she explained it didn't make sense and it didn't help me understand the teachers expectations, either.
Now that I'm a teacher for students all over the world, I understand that different countries look at math differently and different programs look at math differently, but at the time it just felt like there was no way that I was going to understand it. Even so, I blundered through math -- oftentimes honors math -- all the way up until high school. And then I made it all the way up to regular Calculus, and I remember being really fascinated by the concepts and the graphs and just all of the theory in Calculus, and that was true also of Physics. I really loved Physics because of the theory and the ideas, but my mistakes were always like basic addition or basic subtraction that never let me get the right answer within the equations that were required for these subjects. So, I just didn't look at them as a future that I could pursue, because I had it in my mind that I was bad at math, and that even if I understood larger ideas, I would never get the little things, and so those little things are what held me back from even considering a future in any of the STEM subjects. So, somewhere I adopted the idea that math was too hard or that I just wasn't good at math, I internalized it, and I just stayed away from it. Academically, I became an English major, and later on an ESL teacher.
Now that I teach ESL classes, I try to create fun examples about math and how it can be an exciting challenge, or how if you're bad at it you just have to be persistent...but I think I'm mostly doing that for me, because I didn't believe that at all when I was a kid, and it was too hard for me to figure out what I didn't know -- you know, they talk about not knowing what you don't know, and therefore not being able to know who or how to ask for help.”