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It took me a long time to fall in love with equations. They were structured and temperamental- one switched plus or minus and they fell apart under your feet. I liked a bit of wiggle room, a bit of experimentation: if you didn’t try every path, how did you know your adventure was over? I thought I loved to learn, but worksheets felt less like learning and more like drilling. broken. formulas. into. your. forehead. until. you. knew what but not why not how not and. Numbers were clumsy, not like words; teachers forgot to stop by my table and explain the why and the how. Somehow they missed me.
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My sixth grade math and science teacher didn’t expect me to ask to enter algebra early. I was the only girl in the tutored group, a scrawny 11-year old surrounded by coders and math prodigies. I missed lunch and recess, the keys to any elementary schooler’s social life, to learn about equations which the other tutees never questioned. Somehow the extra practice, the worksheets slipped discreetly into folders and backpacks, missed me. The teacher ran out of copies every day, or left his coffee in the other room, or needed me to grab something from the attic real quick. The boys didn’t talk to me. I asked too many questions, I ruined their club. Only the smartest were welcome. I stumbled into conversations which suddenly became hushed, turned my head as the teacher discussed the all-male robotics club. I wanted to not care. I hid my voice, tried to be less present, less loud, less. But I still wanted in. Test day was approaching and my math scores were lifting. It came down to timing. Efficiency was key- I couldn’t meander my way through the problems. I had to prove something. Math was about proof. That was the way stories worked. Heroines had to prove something, prove worthy. I wanted to be worthy.
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The teacher towered over me, fiddling uncomfortably with his glasses. Adults fiddled often- it was an odd trick, a game of hide-and-seek. Watch my hands, not my eyes, not my grimace, not my words. Something that usually missed me. He crouched, settling on his haunches like a snuffling bear. “Nathalie.” A statement– no question there. The words were fragmented equations. It was my job to piece them together, like a puzzle or a test. “I don’t think, well, it’s not the actual math, you’re fine, well, more than fine, but I don’t think…” Pause. Pause. Pause. “I don’t think you have… the emotional maturity… to handle this class. Most people… don’t take algebra until ninth grade. You’ll be one of the only seventh graders in the class. I don’t want you to be too stressed… with the increased workload and… everything.” He would not recommend me. He wouldn’t- I couldn’t- I did not want to cry. That was his point, wasn’t it? I cried too much. Not enough emotional maturity. Don’t cry in front of the nice teacher. He’s doing his job. Do your job. Piece it together. I had to hide. I smiled and smiled and smiled. Hide-and-go-seek was harder with grown-ups. The tears were traitors, coursing down my pursed lips in thick streaks, but I managed to escape the room beforehand. No one told me when test day was.
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My siblings and I learned stubbornness at our mother’s side, and so it was now. After much begging and curmudgeoning I persuaded my mom to let me test. It was beyond desire to enter the class- I had to prove the teacher wrong. I no longer practiced math problems, but somehow on test day (discovered through a complex network of parent’s association spies and espionage) I was sitting in front of the local middle school’s gym, pencil in hand. The test slid down my throat like cherry cough syrup, a bit thick, a bit runny, a bit bitter, but with an aftertaste of factory-produced sweetness. Afterwards, my mom and I grabbed Baskin Robbins, rainbow sprinkles and chocolate kissed cones included. It didn’t melt for hours.
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I slumped outside the guidance counselor’s office, a book in one hand, a crumpled letter in the other. The first test had been easy. The score was bright and new and shiny: 97%. I had missed the 88% limit on the second test by a single point. Failure. When my mom left the office, winking out of the corner of her eye, it was with a contract in her hand and a there’s-going-to-be-hell-to-pay grin on her face. Not failure? I knew that look. That was the if-you-and-your-brother-fight-one-more-time look, the smirk that warned impending doom upon the unlucky victim. Not failure. The counselor had dismissed my mother as a helicopter parent, warning her I couldn’t possibly cope with the pressures of algebra class. My math grade would certainly drop to a C. My teacher hadn’t recommended me. I was unworthy. I asked my mom for the contract, mouthing the curlicues of that administrative stationary peculiar to middle schools. I, the undersigned, understand the school is not liable for… It didn’t matter. My mom’s face cracked into a wry smile- she had emerged from battle victorious. I would go to class.
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My much-feared algebra teacher was kind, warm, funny, and female. For the first time, math felt cohesive. She pushed me to look into science, to venture into the world of numbers, a subject I thought I was too stupid for. Math became like writing- a series of stories, but you had to struggle to reach happily ever after. By freshman year, I knew my way around puzzles. I began to explore astrophysics, which tumbled into more mathematics, which tumbled into an ever-nerdier spiral. I discovered a rhythm flitting between equations, something musical, almost like dance. There were rules to be obeyed, yes, but they had logic, reason, symmetry, purpose. Numbers made stars collapse and black holes spins and nautilus shells curve and I, I could finally read them.
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