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Friday, January 24, 2014

Lies My Mother Told Me

****This is intended to be the first in a many part series regarding the lies of the world that I grew up believing. The inspiration came to me through another topic which I'm not yet ready to discuss, but that in no way belies the importance of this one.

The first lie I'd like to discuss may be purely generational. With all the campaigns I see to get females into math and engineering, this one may not be quite so prevalent as it once was. Then again, maybe those campaigns exist because the lie still does.****

Lie #1: Math is Hard.

As a young girl, I was given to understand that math was hard. My first encounters with math were at the hands of my older brother. He's five years older than I am and was therefore five grades ahead of me in school. Like any child who is excited to learn and has a younger sibling, my brother often came home from school and shared his new knowledges with me. Being a small child, I was eager to learn whatever he had to teach and I learned it easily.

Then came the day.

My brother, as was typical of males in the 80's, was into cars and airplanes. He decided when he was thirteen he wanted to work on and/or design airplanes. The official term for this is an aerospace engineer. When he decided he wanted to be an aerospace engineer, like any good younger sibling, I was immediately enamored of the idea of learning engineering. I did not share my brother's fascination with cars or airplanes, but I already knew quite a bit about them anyway because he knew quite a bit about them.

When I eagerly announced to my mother that I wanted to learn engineering like my big brother, she said, "I don't think you should do that, honey."

"Why not?"

"Well, math is harder for girls than it is for boys. Actually, I'm not sure it really is, but that's how people will treat you. So if it is hard for you, your teachers aren't likely to help you understand because you're a girl."

"But that's not right."

"No, it's not, but it's just how things are."

Now, I understand some children would feel utterly defiant at this point and go on to prove their mother and the world wrong, just because they could. But that was not me. Primarily because the love of cars and airplanes was not mine. My personal fascinations were with writing and music and so I decided I would stick with those, since I wouldn't run into any opposition.

Unfortunately, that Math is Hard stuck with me. Beginning the following school year, I started to struggle in math class. Initially, I was placed into the gifted track (my school had three tracks for math and english-gifted, needs assistance, and everyone else) and for the first six weeks or so, I thrived. Then for some reason, I started struggling. To the best of my recollection, one of my peers convinced me that math was too hard in general. By the third six weeks I had fallen into the needs assistance category. There, I became a trouble maker because the subject material being covered was what I had learned from my brother years before.

The "math is hard, engineering is hard, computers are hard, etc," continued to follow me throughout my school career. I tried to fight it, but it was useless, it was already ingrained in me. I feared Algebra and flunked it the first semester I took it. The second semester I got a B and from there on out, I decided Algebra was easy and just kept repeating it for my math requirements, getting an A each subsequent semester for a total of three full year's worth of credits.

Once I got to college, just as my mother had said would happen (as had happened to her), I had "forgotten" all of the math I learned in high school. I was placed in remedial classes which I had to complete before I could take College Algebra.


The same thing happened with computers and computer science. My brother got our first home computer in the late 80's, it was a Commodore 64. He was so excited about learning to program on it. He taught me what he learned and before long, I was writing songs on the computer. When Commodore 64's showed up in my classroom in 1991, I decided it would be fun to run a continuous program on all the machines just to perplex the teacher. It was a simple six line program that wrote the words, "Computers Rock!" across the screen unendingly. When the teacher became frustrated and called another teacher to the room, who also couldn't figure out what was wrong, I suggested they try pressing pause/break. Yeah, I went to the principal's office for that one.

I took a web design class in high school, with the fire for technology burning ever bright in my little mind. There were only six students in the class, of which I was the only female. One boy absolutely balked that a female would be allowed in the class and the teacher said, "Hey, if she can learn it, she stays." Between a couple of missed classes, the merciless taunting from what eventually became all five boys (including one who was my best friend) and lack of assistance from the teacher, "Well, Pepper, you shouldn't have missed class, you'll have to figure it out on your own," I once more heeded the call of Math is Hard and dropped the class.

When the tech boom hit, I was frustrated that I had dropped, but assured that since I was female, I simply wasn't capable of participating in so much glorious creation of new technologies.

Fast forward almost fifteen years from that day. I've looked repeatedly at programming as an avocation over and over and over again. I keep coming back to it. The idea of creating new technologies, of being on the very ground floor of something new just intrigues me in a way nothing else can. I have intentionally learned nothing about computer science, though. Whenever I date a guy and he says he does something in computers, I say, "Oh so you work in tech. It's all the same to me. If you'd like to try to explain what you do, go ahead, but I'm unlikely to really get it."

What a way to sell myself short.

And now. I revisited the concept of programming again and realized I could take this skill and apply it to other things I'm committed to. Most notably (the one that actually was the deciding factor) was seeing an open source wrist band for health tracking wherein the inventor invites people to write their own apps for it, the possibilities are endless.

Shit, I'm sold!

And so as I prepared to embark on my journey to get a two-year degree in programming (the degree is to assure my hire-ability and give me a jumping off point for delving into something new), I was scared, nervous, and excited. I said many times that this would be challenging. In my last post here on my blog, I emphasized how much I was buckling down for the challenge of learning programming.

Classes started Tuesday. I got into my programming class (online classes) and started looking through the materials. I freaked out. The old Math is Hard started playing in my head. This time was different, though. This time I AM RESOLVED, I want to learn something new.

I took out my text book and read the first chapter tonight in preparation for my first assignment, due next Wednesday.

Guess what?

It makes complete and total sense

The feeling of foreign-ness I was expecting isn't there. I thought learning to program would be like learning Chinese or something. But it just makes sense. I get it.

So, sometime between now and Wednesday, I get to write my first program. For those of you in the know, that'll be "Hello World," of course.

I expect I'll breeze right through this class, just like I will with College Algebra this semester and Calculus and Physics in my final semesters.

Because honestly, math isn't hard at all.

What's hard is getting over one's pre-conceived notions about any given topic and just delving into it with an open mind.

Disclaimer: Not all lies were told to me by my actual mother (though a fair amount were), it's simply a catchy title.

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