Reflecting on my own math journey after Maryam Mirzakhani’s Fields Medal
By Tara Haelle
It was a woman who sabotaged my relationship with math, who took a subject I excelled in and delighted in and broke it into pieces. It was a fracture that took years to heal and which left me with permanent scars, despite the fact that today I tutor students in math for standardized tests and even write articles about its idiosyncrasies. And it was a man whose class contributed most to the healing process, helping me remember five years later why math is just so darned cool.
When I read that Maryam Mirzakhani, the Harvard-educated Iranian who teaches at Stanford, just became the first woman to win the Fields Medal, I was excited, but I was also surprised. I hadn’t realized no women had previously received the “Nobel Prize” of math. Since the awards began in 1936, a total of 56 have been awarded to young mathematicians. Why did it take so long?
And then I thought back on my own math education. Math was fun when I was younger. I used to dig out the extra worksheets teachers tossed in the trash after a lesson: I used half to play “school” with the neighborhood kids (which I realize now might have been cruel for some of them), and I did the others myself for fun. I remember counting out the ones, tens and hundreds with Base Ten blocks. I remember circling three sets of four ducklings or five pairs of turtles as I learned division. I can actually visualize where I sat in Mrs. Pyle’s first grade classroom, Mrs. Carter’s second grade classroom, Mrs. Caldwell’s third grade classroom and Mrs. Van Zandt’s fourth grade classroom – all wonderful math teachers.
By the time I reached seventh grade, I was in the “highest” math section in a gifted program, so I had the opportunity to take Algebra I. We were one small class – not many students were solving for x in seventh grade – but we had fun graphing linear equations and solving time-rate-distance problems about racing trains and overflowing bathtubs. That’s right: we had fun.
And then I moved. My dad transferred from Pennsylvania to Texas, where the school system was completely different. Seventh graders didn’t take algebra at my new school. And that meant eighth graders didn’t take geometry, the course I would have taken in Pennsylvania. I was told it “wasn’t allowed,” primarily because it was too logistically difficult: if I took geometry in eighth grade, then I’d need to take Algebra II in ninth grade and then how would I get to the high school for precalculus the following year when I was still taking courses at the junior high. For school officials, crossing that bridge when we came to it didn’t appear to be an option.
Still, I begged to take geometry. So my counselor called a meeting with herself, my parents, me and the algebra teacher. The math teacher was tall, stern and curly-haired. I know her name but won’t share it. She began asking me questions, and I realized I was unexpectedly on trial. After spending the past three months moving across the country, dealing with the arrival of my first period and settling into a new home during the most cruel era of a person’s life, I was undergoing an impromptu oral final exam of my previous year’s math class to see if I could hack it.
I don’t remember everything she asked me – did I know how to do x and did I know how to do y – because one question dominates my memory: “Do you know how to use a scientific calculator?” I looked at her blankly. “I’m not sure.” She looked smug as a cat. “Well, we use scientific calculators a lot in the class. If you don’t know how to use one, you’ll be lost. You may not be prepared for this class.”
It had been clear from the start that she thought I could not possibly, as an entering eighth grader, know algebra anyway. Despite my previous year’s As, she was convinced I had not been taught “real” algebra. Seventh graders didn’t take “real” algebra, so I must have been in a pre-algebra class and – silly me – didn’t realize it. Then she produced a scientific calculator. I immediately recognized the machine. “Oh yea, we used those all the time,” I said. I just didn’t know it was called that. Or maybe I forgot. It was summertime.
But it was too late. Despite all my other correct answers, my failure to recognize the scientific calculator determined that I wasn’t ready for geometry. My choices were to take her Algebra I class or choose an elective. I chose art. I enjoyed art, and my art teacher adored me, but it didn’t last long. By six weeks into school, I started to worry. What would it mean to go without any math for a whole year? What if I forgot too much and then fell behind? I figured the safest route was just to take algebra again.
I transferred into curly-haired’s class. For the next eight months, I earned 97s and 98s and 99s and 100s on every assignment, every quiz, every test. But a funny thing happened. Every time it was a 97 or a 98 or a 99 instead of a 100, curly-haired would give me a look that said “See? You didn’t know everything.” No, I wasn’t imagining it because she actually said so on a couple occasions. Despite appreciating that I was a good math student, she seemed to delight in the fact that I did not get perfect scores on everything I did. And she made sure I knew that. Clearly, I had needed her instruction.
The next year was much better. My geometry teacher, Mrs. Varner, was wonderful. I even earned a perfect 100 average during one grading term. But the damage had been done. Math was fun-ish, sometimes, but curly-haired had mostly killed it. Clearly, I wasn’t THAT good, or I would have gotten straight 100s.
I learned years later about the phenomenon by which girls are socialized early to believe they are “good” at some things and “not so good” at other things – often math – rather than learning that extra effort and resilience can lead to developing skills for the “hard” things. When I did, I recognized myself immediately, as others have. After Mrs. Varner was Mrs. Lambert’s Algebra II class and then Mrs. Stringham’s precalculus class. Mrs. Stringham was one of the best math teachers – one of the best teachers period – I ever had, but that was when math just started to get a little hard, even as I continued to make As. The next year, calculus, it was suddenly hard. The teacher’s style and attitude turned me off, and she was a poor teacher. I got an A the first six weeks, a B the second six weeks and a C the third six weeks. I had been taking it pass/fail, so I cut my losses and didn’t stick around for second semester.
Fortunately, for the most part, I had a string of great math teachers. And then in my freshman year of college at the University of Texas, I had a phenomenal one. Michael Starbird rekindled my actual love for math in a unique theoretical calculus class. He reminded me that it could be fun, and his energy made it a little easier to make the 9 am class. I actually looked forward to the final requirement of a 10-page paper, for which I described the process of encryption and decryption using prime numbers. But it was too little too late. That was still the last math class I ever took. I had internalized that math wasn’t for me, and honestly, despite the valiant and successful efforts of all those teachers – Pyle, Carter, Caldwell, Van Zandt, McNerney, Black, Stewart, Varner, Lambert, Stringham, Starbird – it only took one, early enough on, to derail me.
I’m not proposing that, if not for curly-haired, I would have gone on to major in math and earn a Fields medal. I’ve been writing as long as I could form letters, and it was likely always my destiny to become a journalist (though I certainly would not have expected to find myself writing about math and science). But the kind of social gaslighting I experienced in eighth grade is not dissimilar to the type I’ve written about before, as an adult. (Though some take issue with use of this mental health term for social justice concepts, I’ve yet to come across a more appropriate term.) And the foundation for that experience as an adult was laid throughout my youth with experiences like the one in my eighth grade counselor’s office.
What stung most, however, was the part of this story I left out. When I arrived in Mrs. Lambert’s 10th grade Algebra II class, several ninth graders were among my classmates. They were traveling from the other feeder junior high to the high school for that one class because they had taken geometry in eighth grade and algebra in seventh grade. Only two were girls, but there were too few of them to draw conclusions about the gender ratio. Still, I wonder if curly-haired would have questioned my skills and math readiness so intensely had I been a boy. She sent me a clear message that I wasn’t good enough to take the next math class in sequence despite being ahead of my peers. And I’ve never forgotten the bitterness of discovering, two years later, that others apparently were.