A rising tide
Thirty years ago, my parents packed up our house in Philadelphia and moved west. They landed in the far northwestern corner of Colorado, in a town that was different from Philadelphia in almost every conceivable way. At that time, Steamboat Springs was tiny and beautiful, a combination ranching and ski town, nestled in a valley thousands of feet above sea level. It was accessible by windy mountain passes and an “airline” from Denver called Rocky Mountain Airways, which we immediately and not-very-affectionately nicknamed Rotten Mountain Scareways and, more to the point, The Vomit Comet.
Sure, growing up in Steamboat was great in a lot of ways. It was the kind of safe you can understand if you’ve lived in a very small town; I remember the day someone stole the ski rack off a car parked in front of the house and we sadly realized we were going to have to start locking our car doors and maybe even the house too. To this day, Steamboat lasts in my memory as home to some of the most beautiful landscapes, both intimate and grand, I have seen in my life. In my memories, to say Steamboat is spectacular* is at times to recognize the limitations of language.
Of course, Steamboat had plenty of downsides too. If you’ve ever lived in paradise, you know there’s no such thing as paradise - or more to the point, you know that people who move to paradise find when they get there they have nowhere else to go, so they go a little crazy. Steamboat seemed to have an inordinate number of tragedies, deaths, murders, and scandals, either because of that dark side of paradise, or because when you live in a small town, everyone knows everyone’s business, and it’s not that it’s more, it’s just that it’s more obvious.
But part of the problem with life in a town focused primarily on the outdoors was that the more academically-minded were at a disadvantage. The school system was good, maybe even better than a lot of schools nowadays, but the schools were small. They served a small town of only about 5,000 or 6,000 people and a surrounding community that wasn’t much larger, after all. The needs of the community had to be met with the resources at hand. Some people went above and beyond: I had some amazing teachers, people I’ve never forgotten. These are the people who taught me to be a good writer, a Spanish speaker, even a metalworker (arc and acetylene welding, plus foundry).
Some of these people went the other way. Like my science teacher.
Mr. R was not the only science teacher in my school. There was also the physiology teacher, a dearly beloved man and a wonderful teacher, as well as the biology teacher of whom I have only vague memories. But everything else, every other class, that was all Mr. R: Intro to Physical Science, Chemistry, Physics, all the AP classes. In the video game of high school academics, science level, Mr. R was the ultimate final boss.
I was young when I went to high school. I had skipped second grade and the school system had wanted to skip me ahead again but my parents had said no, once was enough. They had also, however, spent a lot of time at school board meetings, asking about gifted and talented** classes and programs, and what the school district planned to offer for students like me.
Mr. R was on the school board and had been for a long time. He’d liked my older brother, who had struggled with math and science. Something about my parents lobbying for more challenging classes had angered him. His classes were better than good: They were the toughest in the school (except for Mrs. C’s senior English class). These newcomers couldn’t walk in to his town and tell him how he was Doing It Wrong. This meant only one thing: SHOWDOWN AT THE OK CORRAL!
I don’t know what exactly happened, but I do know this. After a meeting, he walked up to my parents and, knowing I was about to enter high school, said to them:
"I’m going to prove your daughter isn’t as smart as you think she is."
Whatever you may think about gifted and talented programs, and dividing students by ability and how it affects not only students at the bottom and top levels of aptitude but also in the middle, maybe you can agree with me on one thing: For a man and an educator in his 50s to declare war on an unsuspecting 13-year-old is wrong. Dead wrong.
So in I walked, that unsuspecting 13-year-old, into Mr. R’s IPS class. I had loved science, had always been good at it. I’d replicated an elaborate science experiment in junior high to determine whether a rat or a gerbil was smarter. I was excited about science.
Mr. R destroyed that. He went out of his way, in every class I had with him - and I had him every year, for at least one class - to make my experience miserable. To undermine my sense of confidence. He made me think I wasn’t good at science, when what I really wasn’t good at was fighting a battle I didn’t know I was fighting with a man who was probably four decades my senior.
Twenty some odd years later, I have my Ph.D. I am deeply proud of it. No, I didn’t make my way back to physics but I did make my way to the social sciences, which some people call “soft” sciences and which I think is obnoxious. I got it in part because I was lucky to have other people in my life who told me I was smart and capable, and I made my way back around to believing that, even if that crazy old bastard was dead set on ruining not just science but my sense of self.
But I do wonder: What would have happened and where might I have gone if Mr. R hadn’t made it his mission to get even with some parents by ruining a girl’s confidence? I don’t want anyone, girl or boy, to ever be made to feel they’re not capable or competent. I don’t want anyone to believe in someone else’s image of them. I want girls to have a place where they can go and find someone who will support and mentor them. I was lucky to have that. Not everyone is.
If you haven’t seen yet, the super awesome Colleen Wainwright is raising money in support of an organization called WriteGirl that does this sort of thing. I mean empowering girls - and really empowering them, all the way to college and beyond - through writing. She asked me to do an interview for the 50-for-50 blog, and I’ll link to that when it’s up. But I wanted to write this today because I want to ask you to please think about what it would be like to not have anyone at all to support or mentor you. To not feel confident in your ability to express yourself. To want to write and to not feel you have the tools at your disposal to do so. To have a world full of people like Mr. R staring you down and not have anyone in your corner helping you fight back.
To hell with that. Let’s hear it for rewriting that story, one girl at a time.
*or at least was - I haven’t seen it in more than 10 years, and I hear developers have been busy
**I went to gifted and talented camp too. IT WAS GREAT.