I was one of those insufferable children who adore school. As the youngest in my family by five years, in school I competed only with my peers. I have always been a quick study, and the rewards at school were easy and plentiful. By 9th grade, I was taking honors classes, Geometry, Biology, honors English. I loved the spatial predictability of geometry, the way it explained the world. I was lucky to have an English teacher who introduced me to poetry I would never have found on my own and a Biology teacher who introduced me to the scientific method of exploring the world. I loved it all. Socially, I struggled. I was unavoidably a teacher’s pet and my sartorial skills had not been honed by being dressed for years in my brothers’ hand-me-downs and my mother’s occasional lightning shopping expeditions. But I had a group of friends, and I even tried out for the cheerleading team.
At the same time, I was encouraged to compete in the annual science fair. My biology teacher, Mr. Davis, suggested an experiment with Triboleum Confusum, the common flour beetle. When populations of this beetle reach a certain density, they stop reproducing. He suggested I use jars of flour and beetles to test if the PH of the flour changes with the density of the population; the crowded beetles might emit some acidity-changing substance that affects their ability to reproduce. Although my mother wasn’t thrilled with inviting flour beetles into her kitchen, she wasn’t one to stand in the way of a budding scientist, and for months a corner of the kitchen was taken up with jars, flour, beetles, strips of litmus paper and my science notebook.
I was entranced by the process of the experiment, and dutiful about checking the various environments every day. I still remember the thrill when the litmus paper began to change color. Now I imagine that Mr Davis knew the result before suggesting the experiment; he must have sensed how the drama of seeing and documenting a real scientific event unfold would motivate me.
As the weeks went by, and my I began making the poster-board charts that explained my process and results, I was called back for the cheerleading finals, even though I definitely wasn’t in the cheerleading clique. I traded some English paper editing for some cheerleader coaching, and practiced the routines, smiles, and flourishes as diligently as I recorded the slightly morphing colors of my litmus strips. I also got some unsolicited clothing advice; I began choosing my own clothes.
Perhaps because of my new relationship with the in crowd, I also acquired my first boyfriend, Ronnie Osachs. I went with him to the amusement park, the bowling alley, had hamburgers at the diner and my first kiss. Ronnie was a smart but uneven student, excelling in what interested him, but just getting by in other subjects. He was working on a science project too–building a rocket.
The day of the Science Fair arrived, and we set up our tables in the school gym. My mother was thrilled to see jars of beetles leaving her kitchen. Mr. Davis helped me arrange my posters. Ronnie’s rocket looked impressive and he had done a great job showing the stages of the process. Ronnie and I left the gym arm and arm to hang around with his crowd of friends who were beginning to be my friends. The next night the whole school was in the gym, looking at the projects, waiting to hear about the prizes. This was the year we had all watched a black and white TV suspended from the ceiling of the same room as Ranger 4 landed on the moon, matching the earlier moon landing by Russia. As yet no one had set foot on the moon, but Kennedy had committed our country to doing just that–a feat that seemed barely possible. Science was big.
As it happened, my flour beetle experiment won first prize. Ronnie’s rocket came in second. The look he gave me as we stood to receive our ribbons, mine blue, his red, made it clear that our romance was over. I ended up sobbing in the girls’ bathroom. I didn’t go on to compete at the state competition, despite Mr. Davis’ encouragement.
To everyone’s surprise, I actually made the cheerleading team. I remember overhearing someone on the squad say something like, “I guess they wanted a different type.” But I had already been accepted at the boarding school where I would spend the next three years. I remember my friends’ astonishment that I would abandon public school now that I’d made the cheerleading team. No one seemed surprised in the least that I’d abandoned my brief career as a research scientist. Just as there was no censure for my love of words–literature was perfectly acceptable for girls. And because my new high school had “new math,” I was forced to repeat geometry. The oppressive boredom of that year scuttled my infatuation with math. I became, for better or worse, a fuzzy, not a techie. I never took another science course, opting for Geology to fill my science requirement in college. Looking back, I see that until my teens, it could have gone either way; I had the aptitude and curiosity for either path.
If you wonder at the paucity of women of my generation in science and math, I’m sure you would find countless variations on this theme. Or perhaps some young woman is out there counting them for a dissertation in social science. I hope today’s science fair winners experience a different social environment–but I wonder.