My husband was driving our seven year-old home from school this past week and she rolled down her window, sticking her head out like a dog. Spring has come late this year and it was a glorious day. She was giggling and putting her hands up, lost in abandon.
“I love the wind,” she exclaimed. “It blows you away to a wonderland city.”
Sometimes her innate sense of poetry just makes me ache.
This is a child who slithers around the house in a mermaid tail. Talks to herself in a variety of characters and voices. She must be pried out of her fantasy world for dinner, to make the bus, to get dressed, brush her teeth or pay attention in school.
I can’t blame her. When I was a student my own fantasy world was far richer and more absorbing than learning long division and my math grades reflected that. Sadly, so do hers.
Our ten year-old is no less dreamy, even if a hot competitive streak does tend to keep her more engaged in school and extracurriculars. She writes stories and songs, loves drama class, paints portraits, makes “art” movies that include long pauses, sparse dialogue and heavy doses of ennui, and has great comedic timing, which she puts on full display at her elementary school talent show every year. Unlike her younger sister, she is nearly a straight A student.
I say nearly.
Now let me share with you a conversation I had with her a few weeks ago:
Me: “We need to look up what course levels you were placed in for Middle School.”
Her: “Why? It doesn’t matter.”
Me: “What do you mean?”
Her: “I’m not smart.”
Her: “I’m in the average math group and I get mostly Bs on my math tests.”
Me: “OK, so math is not your strong suit, but it wasn’t mine either. Or your dad’s. Doesn’t make us idiots. I mean, I dunno, I think we’ve done ok.”
Her: “Yeah, but you’re writers. Nobody cares about writing anymore, mom. Or anything else. It’s only math. If you’re not great at math or into science, you’re dumb. That’s the way it is now.”
I guess we could have run out and gotten her a math tutor, pumping up her grade to an A and possibly qualifying her for the “Honors” math she would need to ace in order to get into the more competitive schools later on. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) is where it’s at as far as our current educational industrial complex is concerned.
But we didn’t do that.
It’s not because we didn’t want to invest the money or the time in order to give our daughter every possible advantage. Our monthly output for enrichment activities alone is like a mortgage payment. When push came to shove, our decision not to press our rising middle schooler harder was actually quite practical.
Math is simply not her strength.
If she was getting a poor grade, then certainly we would do something about it – but a B+?
Already, she’s gotten the impression that any career outside of STEM is risky, unwise and unneeded. My husband and I have kibitzed ad nauseum with each other and fellow parents about our children being under far more academic pressure than we ever were – and at a much earlier age. So, finally, we decided to put actions behind our objections and resist reinforcing the pressure at home.
Don’t get me wrong, going against this massive tide is exhausting and feels self-defeating at times – and we’re just at the beginning stages. The compulsion to help our kids achieve, achieve and achieve is great. We’ve gone back and forth about how to approach our children’s respective educations and by no means do we claim to have the right answers.
In our case, we just felt that if we sang along with the STEM chorus, my husband and I might be playing a role in pushing our daughter into a career where she might do fine but never truly shine or feel the level of satisfaction that we feel everyday when we sit down at our desks. A belief that we’re doing what we’re best at, what we are meant to do, has nurtured a zeal for our work that has helped us remain faithful during economic downturns. It has enabled us to shake off disappointments and defeats that might have prompted others to throw in the towel.
As we looked soberly at our daughter, it occurred to us that her energy might be better spent on becoming great at the subjects she excels at and loves rather than merely good at the courses that feel like a dentist appointment to her.
Don’t get me wrong, we don’t have a damn thing against STEM. Our son, our eldest, fits like a glove into this STEM oriented system. This is a kid who orders owl pellets off Amazon at his own expense and dissects them for fun, plucking out the animal bones and reconstructing a full skeleton of the varmint the owl had for supper.
More power to him!
And we’re well aware that historically, girls have gotten the short end of the stick when it comes to STEM.
But a lot of that has changed dramatically over the past generation. Several of our daughter’s close girlfriends are tracking into STEM, so I doubt she’s lagging in the subject because of gender bias at school.
Math just doesn’t appear to be where either of our girls’ heads are at, or their passions for that matter. And we would no sooner push them to marry a man they don’t love because he seems like a “good provider,” than we would try to force them into disciplines or careers that feel closer to tasks than callings.
Life is too short and professions require too many hours for that.
And if our girls’ interests change – fantastic! We’ll switch up their summer schedules to include Calculus Camp in place of the art camp they beg us to enroll them in year after year. We’ll break out the dusty chemistry sets they got from my dad for Christmas a couple of years ago and let them blow up the kitchen. We’ll even rip down their posters of the Eiffel Tower and Ariana Grande and replace them with ones of MIT and Stephen Hawking.
Until then, we’re ok if they prefer wearing mermaid tails in Wonderland City to white coats in laboratories. HG Wells, after all, inspired generations of scientists and inventors with just a pen and an imagination.
And maybe math wasn’t his strong suit either.