Posted by mouthyb | Posted in gender , science , waste of talent | Posted on 10:55 AM
Before Christmas, sometimes, my father would take us to Toys R' Us and tell us to give him an idea of what we wanted. He walked me to the ubiquitously pink Barbie aisles, or to the stuffed animals, and tell me to pick one. The minute his back was turned, I'd slip around the corner and head for the science toys, in the blue section of the store. He found me staring longingly at the microscopes, the long boxes for telescopes in gray and blue with stars emblazoned across the corners of the box.
"Why in the world would you want that? What do you think you could do with it?" He genuinely sounded confused.
"I want one. I want a microscope." My fingers started to wring, pressure whitening my joints.
"Yes, but what could you do with it?" His hands drifted to his hips. "What would a girl want with that sort of thing?"
"I don't care. I want one anyway." My lower lip started a slow slide out, less intentional than in the fear that this was trouble, that I was about to be punished again for something I didn't quite understand.
"Why don't we go over here, to the makeup. You'll like the makeup."
"I want a microscope."
"Did you want a Christmas gift?"
"Then let's go look at these toys."
I dragged my feet back to the Barbies, a situation which repeated for three years before finally, under the tree, a thicker box. I made a habit of getting up at 3 am the day after the presents appeared and carefully peeling the tape open slowly to avoid tearing the wrapping paper, to see what I was getting for Christmas. I also opened my brother's gifts and told him what they were, out of the mistaken assumption that he disliked surprises as much as I did.
Under the holly wrapping paper, the pebbled gray corner of a box I recognized instantly. They had gotten it, the kit with a microscope and slides, a scalpel and a tiny vial of solution to 'fix' the slides. The other box under the tree contained a starter chemistry kit.
I couldn't sleep the rest of the night, wriggling with excitement.
When I was allowed to open the gifts, I was giddy with the desire to dissect everything in the yard. I threw on pants and promptly gathered samples from the trees, the roses, the grass, the holly bushes under my window, bits of cloth from dish towels, samples of cat hair, my own hair, a scab from my skinned knees, and then, a tiny cut to see the bowl shape of my blood cells.
With the chemistry set, I promptly exploded a test tube and permanently dyed my carpet, ceiling and walls a violently turquoise color. I lost the chemistry set that day.
I lost the microscope as a punishment. It makes a sort of sense: if a child is being punished, remove something they love.
I never got it back, a theft less of the object than of curiosity and desire. The science toys were replaced by more Barbies, by makeup and my mother dragging me to Mary Kay sessions so I could discover my colors and to etiquette classes to learn to be more lady like, set up as the real goal of my life, in opposition to a 'childish' desire for the microscope, to explore.
When I entered college, I poured longingly over the degree plans for computer science, for engineering and finally, longingly, for math. After all, I was only a woman, not manly enough to be able to do these things I love. Only men could learn about science, could be allowed the microscope, the computer, to tinker with engines and parts. I sat in front of one of the ponds on campus, catalog in hand, and stared at the water. I knew I what I wanted to become, that I wanted a graduate degree.
But I thought it was obvious: the only field I could do anything in was English, or the Arts.
After all, I was a girl.