Sixth grade was the first time I was sorted.
They were two groups we were sorted into – Groups “A” and “S”. The rating decided your class for both Math and English; you couldn’t be “S” for one and “A” for the other. They didn’t tell us what those letters meant. We just knew “A” was better.
I, having a B- in Math and a solid A in English from last year, was sorted “S”.
This was horrifying. Forget Math – English was my turf. Kids would call me Jane Eyrehead for reading Bronte during recess. I entered and won writing competitions every chance I had – school-wide, state-wide, one even regional. I bested higher-graders as a matter of course. No one tried to tell me before that English wasn’t mine.
In a class of 27, there were ten of us. Three were boys, and seven girls. “S” doesn’t seem to mean “standard” in a room that small. Still, I wasn’t hopeless. There were two boys in “S” group who were only there (we were told) on account of being transfers. Our little Catholic school regarded the A’s and B’s of other institutions as suspect, so the two new guys would have to prove their salt if they wanted to advance. I saw no reason I couldn’t work, like them, to prove myself. I’d make them move me up.
Our first class began with a question.
“What’s the biggest number you can imagine?”
My hand shot up. “A googol!”
This was the highest number I knew with a name attached – a one followed by one hundred zeroes.
“Really?” Mr. Math asked me. “You can actually imagine, say, a googol of apples?”
I thought again. No, I couldn’t visualize that many of anything. I could picture, maybe, five apples at a time. I could push the apples in my head into rows of three or four, and see more of them that way. But not as many as a googol.
“Think in terms of decimals,” Mr. Math continued. “Hundreds, thousands – what do you think is the easiest type of number for people to manage?”
There was no way I could picture more than 15 apples. But I knew my mind would be judged by my answer, so I kept it safely vague and offered, “Tens.”
“Tens!” Mr. Math gave a little laugh.
“I meant high tens!” I protested quickly. “Like, 99 apples!”
“Hmm, ok,” he said, leaving the issue be.
One of the new kids raised his hand. “Billions,” he said, without a sliver of doubt – and I knew right away that he had it. Our teacher toyed around for more answers before conceding that New Kid was right. Billions were, in fact, the highest sort of number that people could imagine.
“Because there’s something we do visualize in the billions – money. Beyond billions, we all lose count.”
The rest of the class passed uneventfully. Conversation turned to sports, and I waited. Mr. Math was laid back, cracking easy jokes. No assignments were issued, no other questions asked. We went to lunch, and when we returned to our homeroom we were informed that New Kid had been promoted. He acted all surprised.
“Whatever you said in class today, New Kid, you must have really impressed!” Our everything-but-math-and-science teacher cooed. New Kid was her favorite already. (I was not. Prior to a church assembly where a handful of students were chosen to represent virtues, she once informed the class that I had been selected to represent Humility because to be humble meant considering the possibility that you could be wrong, and that was something I should work on. She then explained that New Kid was assigned Valiance because it meant being able to stand up for what you believe in, regardless of what other people think, and that was something he represented well.)
For years, I’ve thought on Mr. Math’s first question, and wondered. Was that just so much bull?
Was he asking about some secret mathematical concept I still don’t get, or did New Kid just guess right what he was thinking? Was is it even about math, or had he ripped the query from some Economist-type article illuminating the changing relationship of people to decimal places? It didn’t seem fair, even at the time.
But I wasn’t frail. I didn’t give up. I approached His Mathiness a few weeks later and asked how I could earn a promotion. The work in his class wasn’t hard, and the year was young. What would it take to get me into “A”?
He said the division was mainly due to English.
“That’s not what Mrs. English said.” She’d told us it was due to Math, and that there’d be no difference in what “S” and “A” studied in her room (a lie – by year’s end we’d have read three fewer books, and she’d tell us it was because “A” kids settled down more quickly when they came in from lunch).
He repeated, “It’s mainly due to English.”
I stood a second more at Mr. Math’s desk, trying to read his face. Behind his mustache and his glasses he seemed securely unperturbed. His eyes fixed on thin air beside me. Mr. Math would not be moved. I went back to my seat, aware of the other kids staring, and got to work looking for a bright side.
The class was easy; I could do all the homework in school during a five-minute snack break. I had more free time to think, and to write. I didn’t need “A” English, either. I’d started composing a novel on my Dad’s computer. I typed away my weekends. I asked for books at every holiday – anything Shakespeare, Moby Dick, Crime and Punishment (whatever I heard an adult mention as important) – and would cry and huff if anybody tried to buy me a crap abridged-specifically-for-kids version. So the year went on. I maintained A’s and B’s.
At the start of 7th grade, I learned that the other two boys had been advanced. “S” was now composed of girls. I didn’t believe in sexism back then, but I was aware of stereotypes. You hear tell in the land of anything Shakespeare, Moby Dick, or Crime and Punishment that women have the lesser minds, for doing lesser things. Looking around the all-girl S class, I knew I’d done nothing to contradict the notion and was filled with shame. How embarrassed the A-group girls must be at our existing.
Good old Mr. Math addressed our group’s changed composition right away. “It can be a positive thing,” he said. “To have a small class. As I learned last year with the 4 boys in my algebra group. You can literally go through an entire textbook.”
My opportunist ears were ringing. Yes! Take us through a textbook, Mr. Math. Let us start here, small in number and swaddled with shame. Let the A-groupers snicker while walking past our room. We could hit that book so hard, just the few of us, we’ll be even with those jerks in no time. By year’s end, we’ll overtake them. It’ll be too late to stop us when they realize we’re the underdogs. Soon we’ll be A, and they’ll be S.
I was not humble; I wouldn’t give up.
Of course, it wasn’t up to me to set our pace. Classes went the same as always – lecture, worksheets, tests every once in awhile. Mr. Math cracking jokes and reminiscing about old Catholic school. The A-groupers didn’t even use the same textbook. When they took back assignments with scores of 30%, they’d laugh. Their work was so advanced, they were getting used to it. I did homework on the bus and used the extra time to write.
It was somewhere in the middle of the year that one of our group – a nice, polite girl, who unlike me did not try to bond with our teacher by making fun of his bald spot – finished a test ten minutes early.
“Obviously someone’s not being challenged, here,” Mr. Math told us quietly. He left the room and came back minutes later, instructing our sister-S to join the A-kids in English.
I didn’t know before that you could advance in the middle of the year. Now I did. I pulled out all the stops; every worksheet was an Olympic-tier race. When I succeeded days later in completing an assignment far ahead of the rest of the class, and had sat looking at our teacher significantly for awhile, and not being acknowledged, I began loudly explaining the shortcut I’d discovered to the girls around me. “See, you don’t need to write out all this crap. You can do the whole thing in two steps.”
“Yes,” said our teacher when everyone was finished and were asking whether I was right. “I’m actually surprised more people didn’t figure out that shortcut.”
I may have glared. It didn’t matter; Mr. Math never looked straight at me.
But I still saw chances; I couldn’t give up. Mrs. 7th-grade English adored my writing and didn’t understand why I wasn’t in A-group. I told her that I didn’t know, either. She vowed to speak to Mr. Math on my behalf. During a break that day, a sister “S” passed the room where Mrs. English was making her appeal. She told me she saw English speaking, and Mr. Math sitting in his chair, saying nothing back. The only thing I learned, when I asked about that conversation, was that Mr. Math said no.
Lady English promised me that, in her class, anyway, I would do the work they did in “A”. My turf. Subjective, fickle Math wouldn’t let you make a case for your own advance. In English – only in English – I could create what matched my ambition.
Mr. Math retired and was replaced in eighth grade by a Mrs. Math.
Mrs. Math was bad at teaching. By which I mean, two weeks into the academic year she’d stopped lecturing, issuing assignments, or conducting tests. Not in both groups. Just in ours. Instead of math, she discussed such issues with us as the physical, sexual and emotional abuse she’d suffered at the hands of her first boyfriend. And the pain of losing one’s virginity. And the saving hope of true love. She also talked about her baby.
She once remarked that after looking at the grade-logs she’d inherited, it astounded her there weren’t more kids in “S”. She didn’t, as far as I know, petition to restructure the division.
I liked her class, in a guilty pleasure way. When there was no dire conversation, I sat there writing poetry. I’d let her read it after. She always called it beautiful. During the times when she talked about life with her voice tender and confessional, I would listen with my chin in my hands. So did the other girls. We understood these stories were for us; she never would have shared them if boys were in the room.
But I knew, at the same time, that there were whole horizons kept outside my reach. A-group did real math. I would hear their casual talk of homework and tests and take it in my gut, tenuous and lurching. The feeling of falling behind.
During a break one day, I shouldered my way into a group of “A” kids comparing answers. They laughed together when I asked them to give me a problem. One girl obliged, copying a question from her text book onto a piece of lined paper, and handing it to me. She warned the other A-kids with her eyes not to share the joke they had going. This wasn’t part of their homework. It was algebra.
I knew from the giggles it was a problem none of them could solve. It took it anyway. Looked at it hard, and folded it away, like I was stealing. I studied it all morning behind my other books – simple, gripping thing, with its two x’s and a y to solve. I knew that I could figure it out, if only I had time. But when Math class rolled around, I couldn’t contain my secret. I showed Mrs. Math what I’d been working on. She wrote the question out on the blackboard, and answered it, muttering the hows to herself. She shrugged at me, as though asking if I were humored, then turned her attention away.
I didn’t expect it. But that was the day that I quit.
I had exposed hopes that were, after all, frail and humble and without a chance. I was embarrassed and I couldn’t fight it anymore. Math was not my turf.
I felt relief, not fear, when at Freshman Orientation the next year my vice-principal explained that, given this and that about our credit-system, “You only have enough to fail one class.” I was bad at math. So math would be my freebie. I failed accordingly. And I nearly failed a few other subjects that year. I was rude, and not in the good, imma-take-this-education-and-mess-you-up-with-it kind of way. Rude in a buck-the-system, look-at-me, I-can-make-everybody-laugh kind of way. I’d learned from prior years that I didn’t need and wouldn’t find a mentor. When I craved stimulation, I made it myself – in the middle of class if I had to, behind a notebook or out in the hallway, spinning around, then dashing back to capture that spirit in fleeter words. There was nothing for me in those classrooms, and there’d be nothing for me in the real world. Somewhere buried in the woods there was a cottage I could scribble in unheard of until the day I died, leaving castles as my legacy and torture as my glory.
Bowing to what was expected of me, I went to college anyway. I straightened out my grades enough by senior year to gain admittance to a four-year liberal arts school. It helped that I’d dominated the literary portions of the SAT’s. I came out exactly average on the math. (Massachusetts standards are apparently high enough that even a failing student at a failing school can cram her way to an eleventh-hour national average.) Not that it mattered; I knew the feeling of failure as an untold constant. Careers in all fields STEM were out of the question.
If you’re a woman, you can read a story like this and think sexism has nothing to do with it. I won’t blame you. I don’t blame you for saying that a girl who wants to get math done doesn’t give up just because no one believes in her. I get it. I write. I told never-ending stories just as soon as I could speak and asked my mother everyday when I would learn how to read. I kept a notebook by my bed and wrote by nightlight’s glow, using the letter “c” in place of “k” and “s” because I was in kindergarten and hadn’t learned all of the alphabet. If you told me that sexism took your writing away, I surely wouldn’t listen.
When you are ambitious and a female there are things you can’t afford to hear. They might sort you, and tell you no. Laugh at you, while you take on that problem no one else knows how to solve. You won’t hear it. You won’t listen when they tell you that failing is allowed. Or when they remind you to work on humility while praising the valiance of that New Guy in the room. They’ll snort when they ask you, oh really, you sure now, you can imagine a googol? You won’t listen then, and you won’t when they tell you – over and over – that it’s dangerous to be a woman, you’ll cry and bleed the first time you have sex, you wont sleep a wink after you have a baby, and all of that is more important today than your stupid little problem-with-two-Xs-and-a-Y.
When you’re the underdog, sometimes you don’t want to know. And if that’s where you’re at, sister – go ahead. Tell everyone I’m wrong and sexism’s a ghost. Don’t listen to my story. One too many warnings that you move against the grain, and anyone with sense would quit. Maybe that’s what I lack, and why I write. Maybe I can just afford, today, to name the force you’re up against.
It’s a funny kind of privilege that we get by giving up.