This is part two of the importance of representation. Read part one here.
Now, on to middle school, widely regarded as the time most people would love to completely forget about. Am I a huge fan of middle school me? Not really. I’m definitely in the camp of people that would love to forget their embarrassing middle school selves. However, I will never look back with anything but happiness on the school itself.
I was lucky enough to attend an all-girl’s middle school called Julia Morgan School for Girls, or JMSG. Since being there, I have recommended it to any parent I meet who’s trying to decide where to send their daughter to middle school, and for good reason. The type of encouragement I was given to succeed and pursue my interests is one that I had not received from teachers before. Past teachers told me to follow my dreams and always try hard, but it was said to my whole class, not me directly. It was said without any acknowledgement of what difficulties I might face. It was a blanket statement given to every student. At Julia Morgan, we had small classes, which meant more direct attention and involvement, and we were encouraged to strive for our goals, even though they might be difficult. No one tried to pretend that my gender wasn’t going to make things harder. In 7th grade, my best friend was in a club that sent a letter to Senator Dianne Feinstein about the Equal Rights Amendment. We watched those Dove Real Beauty PSAs about how photoshop changes women’s bodies into unattainable ones. There was an acknowledgement that gender inequality still existed and would work against us. We were told about these things and showed these things, and then told “but you can still make it. You can still do what you want, if you work at it.” They addressed problems with self-esteem and self-respect. They had “four C’s” that they encouraged every girl to be: Confident, Capable, Caring, and Compassionate.
Aside from general encouragement to work hard, going to an all-girls school does wonders for in-class participation. Middle school tends to be the time where being the smart girl suddenly becomes a social faux pas. Where boys are praised for being smart and participating, the girls are told to be quiet. I was in public middle school for 6th grade, and I saw this firsthand. If people didn’t avoid you for being the nerd, they would try and convince you to let them copy your homework. The other girls in my class had already learned that it was better for them to be quiet. The boys were all loud and rowdy and participatory. In a 6th grade math class, one of my friends in the class started to feel like she was horrible at math and couldn’t do well. She talked to my teacher about it, near tears, and instead of offering her help, he suggested she ask me for help because I was a “smart chick.” While teachers gave male students direct help when they were confused, they largely ignored female students, or helped them grudgingly. Female students gave up on asking my teacher for help and came to me, knowing I not only understood the material but also the fact that if I didn’t help them, no one would. Some studies have even shown that teachers have a greater tendency to call on male students even into their college years. In a class full of girls, that wasn’t a problem. We were encouraged to participate and ask questions, and that became the environment. The staff while I was there was also almost all female, with only one exception. For girls looking for representation, we had someone in every field. They had projects that made STEM the fun thing to do. In 8th grade, about 10 other students and I stayed late after school for a few weeks to work on a robot so that we could participate in the LEGO robotics competition. We built the robot from a set starting base, and used a simplified application to program it to move. There was a map with objectives that were each worth different points. We scored well enough to make it through to the second competition. Every academic pursuit we showed interest in was encouraged.
This did not remain exactly the same in high school. My teachers were majority male, especially in STEM. You may remember that little anecdote in my first post about a teacher telling me I should be a tour guide instead of an astrophysicist. In my junior year, I applied to a summer science program through the UC system called COSMOS. I would spend four weeks at UC Irvine learning astrophysics from university professors, using the telescope, and doing a final project that involved observing and analyzing data. It was a dream. When I asked my (male) physics teacher to write one of my recommendation letters, he said, “Oh, COSMOS! Another kid in my class is applying to this, and they’re really smart,” and raised his eyebrows as if to suggest that I couldn’t compete with this mystery student. I went from a world where my pursuits were supported to one where it was implied that I wasn’t smart enough, and for no good reason. I ended my physics class with an A-, and I had showed an interest in science all year. And yet when I asked for this recommendation, it was implied that I wasn’t going to be good enough. Thankfully, the support I’d received at home and in middle school had stuck, and I knew better than to listen to these men who thought I couldn’t do it. I was accepted to the COSMOS program. Letter in hand, I walked to my physics classroom and told my physics teacher that I so appreciated him writing me a recommendation, because I had been accepted. I wanted him to know that even though he didn’t think I could get in, I had. I think all I got in response was “oh, that’s nice.” It wasn’t the answer I’d been hoping for, but I was still proud to be able to stand there with proof that I was capable. I had been confident in myself because of the representation I had. At home I had parents who supported me. My middle school was full of girls who loved science unapologetically. Without these things, I might have deflated when my teacher implied I wasn’t smart enough. Representation matters. COSMOS was my self-assigned litmus test. I knew I liked astronomy in theory, but I had never actually had to do it. I needed to know if I would like it, and if I would be good at it. Without COSMOS, I might not have decided to study astrophysics, and without the representation I had leading up to the time I applied, I might never have applied at all.