Thursday, February 25, 2016

quit telling me it's because I'm smart

I appreciate that you would compliment me. I understand why you'd say I'm smart. "Genius" is something all physics majors are; at least, when they're women.

I have one particular memory from when I was about 4, and it's probably my earliest. I went with my mom to Franklin Elementary, where she volunteered for my brother's second-grade class once a week or so. I don't remember how we got there, but we were in a supply room, and a teacher or someone had me reading words aloud from a cardboard book. I was so smart; I was pronouncing every word correctly. Then we came to a particular word that I was entirely unfamiliar with: "sofa". I can see the illustrated couch ("couch" was what they were always called in my home, hence the unfamiliarity) and the word in large lower-case letters printed at the bottom. I tried my best to sound it out, and I don't remember how I said it, but I got it wrong.

This was the first of many times in the years to follow, most of which I remember, in which I was at risk of being found out. I was putting my "smart badge" in jeopardy. I could never let anyone know that I was capable of mistakes, because then, I wouldn't be smart anymore, and smart was really all I had.

When I was in 1st grade, I was in a special group of 3-4 kids that were pulled aside to read chapter books during class. In 3rd grade, I was first to win the "math wizard" by doing all my times tables and other 3rd grade math functions (it's been a while and a couple of math classes since then so it's hard to remember what was involved). I was the district 4th grade spelling bee champion. In 6th grade, I fought to be in the advanced math group. I missed being in the gifted kids program and was furiously jealous of the real smart kids who got to build robots. In 8th grade, I was in the special geometry class. I entered high school in algebra II. I took AP calculus and got a 5 on the BC exam. I was in AP  physics and AP chemistry and I lived my whole academic life in fear of being found out and being average and losing the name "smart".

Being told over and over and over and over that I was smart ruined me. I couldn't ask a question in class because it would show that I didn't know something. I couldn't answer a question in class because if I got it wrong I would be discovered. I had to endure recovery from anxiety once I hit college. I wasn't just smart, I was a girl. I had to represent my whole gender and prove that we belong in STEM classes just as much as any guy.

Since college and since I came up to Rexburg, I've been pulling at the threads of this tapestry woven tight over 18 years. I've been trying to convince myself to get rid of what psychologists call a fixed mindset and I have tried to ask more questions and get more help. I'm not a physics major because I'm smart. Maybe I am smart, but that's completely irrelevant. What matters is that I'm passionate and I'm determined and I don't give up and I keep working hard.

All of this was brought to my attention when I attended a Women in Physics meeting for us BYU-I female physicists. Two or three of the women in charge had gone to a conference in Oregon for women in physics. They talked about the implicit bias we have when it comes to men, women, and the subjects we study, and they shared a clip from one of the conference's speakers. She had shared a story about a woman who had just started working at a particle accelerator and was one of three women employed: herself, a computer scientist, and a secretary. She was stopped in the hallway by a man early in her time there. He said hello, pointed out that she must have been one of the new women employed, things like that. Then he asked her this: "So, are you a secretary, or are you a genius?"

Those are my options as a woman when it comes to science. I'm either a secretary or a genius. If I'm a scientist, I'd darn well better be a great one. I'd better win some Nobel prizes and get PhDs from MIT. There is no place for me as an okay physicist. I can't just be pretty decent. I'm either a secretary, or I'm a genius.

Also, I don't think I could ever be a good secretary. Hard job. But notice how nobody thinks of it that way. It's woman's work, and it's easier than working a particle accelerator... right?

Is your daughter smart? Don't tell her. Praise her for how hard she works, how well she does her homework, how determined she is to succeed, how much she loves other people, how good of a friend she is, how she's always asking questions and trying to learn, and anything else that has to do with what really matters. Don't confine her to the smart box; she will spend her life afraid that someone will kick her out as soon as she messes up. Tell her she can be anything and do anything if she's willing to work hard for it.

And when I argue with you when you tell me I'm smart, don't take it personally. It has less to do with your choice of words and way more to do with trying to fix what I see when I look in the mirror.

5th grade autobiography report/presentation on Sally Ride during my astronaut phase.

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