Recently, I got to spend some time at the STEAHM camp held annually at Corning Community College. It's a week-long program for middle school aged girls who are interested in science/engineering. I was asked to present a lesson on empowerment, so I decided to talk to them about positive self-talk (we made affirmation jars too). And as an example of how positive self-talk can empower you, I talked about math.
In second grade, I had trouble with subtraction. I understood how to do it - and I could successfully subtract when I had items to do so with - but when I saw the numbers on the page, I could not figure it out. I remember making these flashcards the teacher called "subtraction soldiers" but that was just to memorize the basics. That I could do. It was the actual subtraction equation that baffled me. But you know what the teacher told me? Not to worry about it too much because girls aren't good at math. I actually remember that phrase exactly: "girls aren't good at math."
When I told this story to the kids at camp this morning, they audibly gasped at the teacher's words. Then one of them said, "I bet that teacher was a man," and at least three others nodded their agreement.
Newsflash: she was right.
Mr. Morehouse was a funny teacher. I remember he was 29 because he used to make a joke about our classroom number, which was B-11: "I can't be 11, I'm 29!" Twenty-nine is young, and this was the late '80s. I'd like to think that now he'd be ashamed of what he once said to an eight-year-old, because times are different. Public education is different. Back then, we had to write letters to professional sports teams to practice penmanship. I chose sports teams with bird mascots: Eagles, Cardinals, Blue Jays...
for years in math. I always needed extra help, which was super
embarrassing as I got a little older. I dreaded math tests. I often could do the
work of the equation but if I got stumped before finding the answer, I would just quit.
My teachers were confused because I clearly understood things, but I
seemed blinded by my own anxiety. In college, they let me take Intro to
Logic because my math placement scores were so terrible. (The reasoning
there was more along the lines of "you're too creative for math" which
tbh, I appreciated at the time.)
When I think about his words now, I feel angry. But for years, I felt shame. I was an adult before I ever mentioned it to my parents. My mother - a retired educator herself - rolled her eyes and made a comment about how she wishes she was surprised.
I told the campers my story about math to provide an example of just how strongly negative self-talk can influence us, and how if we can learn to change it to positive self-talk, we can succeed at things we might find challenging. That man's sexist assumption became an unwilling self-fulfilling
prophecy for me because it changed how I felt about myself and my abilities. However, when I took two math classes as an adult about ten years ago, I did incredibly well. Turns out I'm pretty good at math! That being said, I went in to those classes with more knowledge and the ability to talk myself up. I had more confidence overall, and my adult mindset allowed me to accept that failure is ok if/when it happens. Young people don't see things that way. Yes, they are partially overwhelmed because their brain development tells them to be, but we also don't give them adequate tools to succeed no matter where their mind is at.
This lesson on empowerment also means I spent a few hours talking positively about myself. For example: I'm an excellent speller. I'm a skilled equestrian. I have great hair. All of these things are true (#sorrynotsorry). I say them unabashedly. However, some of the girls struggled when I asked them to write down five things they like about themselves, or think they are good at. Getting them to think of how their best friend might describe them helped, but it's not ideal.
Knowing and naming your strengths isn't vanity; it's confidence, and it's vital for empowerment, especially for our young people who come from systemically oppressed populations.
If someone had made an affirmation jar with me when I was in middle school, I would not have included "I'm good at math" in mine. Now I would, because I know that I am, despite one teacher's sexist garbage. I'm an excellent speller, I'm a skilled equestrian, and I have great hair. And I'm not sorry for saying any of it.
That's second grade me in the giant glasses, with my sister who apparently loved Minnie Mouse more than I recall.
Posted August 7th at 8:49pm