Maryam Mirzakhani: Math Mastermind

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Fields Medal, Wikipedia.org

 

This past fall, Maryam Mirzakhani was awarded the Fields Medal, the most prestigious honor mathematics has to offer–the “Nobel Prize” of the math world. She was the first woman to earn the award since its inception in 1936. Mirzakhani, who was born and raised in Iran, received the prize for her contributions to the fields of geometry and dynamical systems.

I am drawn to her story for many reasons. She has defied the odds in countless ways in order to reach a pinnacle of success that few ever achieve. She was among the earliest female participants in the International Mathematical Olympiad, a prestigious problem-solving contest for high school students. The Olympiad began in 1959, and today over 100 countries take part. Mirzakhani participated in 1994 and 1995, winning gold medals at both, and achieving a perfect score in 1995—an amazing feat considering that even as late as 2014, only 56 girls participated in the Olympiad, compared to 526 boys.

I can also connect to her story on a personal level. Her original career goal was to become a writer; however, when she was exposed to geometry an entirely new world opened up to her.

I was always very smart and did well in school. In junior high I was the first girl to win the science award. I took many classes early, including math and science classes. One of my first dreams was a career in aviation; flying fascinated me. Also, when I was in eighth grade, I was selected to travel with a group of students to the Koster dig site in Illinois. It was then that I decided that becoming an archaeologist was also a possibility. That, however, was before I set foot in Mr. Hummiston’s geometry class. Although I did well in algebra, geometry was a different matter. When math became spatial, I struggled, and Mr. Hummiston was quick to point that out to everyone in the class: ‘Diane seems to be having trouble proving this theorem. Can someone please help explain it to her?”

Moving from biology to physics brought similar struggles, and before long, I dreaded all math and science, and let go of the dreams of aviation and archaeology. Similarly, at one point I toyed with the idea of becoming an interpreter, since I loved to travel and had a good grasp of the Spanish language. In graduate school, I was the only student in my program who passed the foreign language exam, which required translating literature from a foreign language to English. But again, I began having doubts because I hadn’t spent time abroad and wasn’t fluent; therefore, I didn’t feel I was good enough. I certainly didn’t want to fail. So I remained an English major, which was the safe thing to do.

 

geralt / Pixabay

geralt / Pixabay

 

Interestingly, Mirzakhani did not do well in her first math class at Farzanegan middle school for girls in Tehran. Her math teacher didn’t believe in her abilities, and undermined her self-confidence: “It’s so important what others see in you. I lost my interest in math” (quantammagazine.org). Yet the next year she found a teacher who believed in her abilities, and she never looked back. Some of the biggest stumbling blocks we experience as women stem from a lack of belief in ourselves. We aren’t taught to be confident in our own abilities, or if we are taught this, somewhere along the way the images and messages we are bombarded with slowly erode our belief in our own competence, and the self-doubt that results can be overwhelming.

Today Mirzakhani is a mathematics professor at Stanford University, where no doubt she encourages other young women to believe in themselves and their abilities. Her story should be included in the middle school curriculum of all schools; this is such a critical time for girls as they face the pressures of conforming to gender stereotypes and can begin doubting their abilities in math and science. Perhaps this explains the fact that only a handful of US girls have ever qualified for the International Mathematical Olympiad. We need to do better, and if we share her story, Maryam Mirzakhani will certainly serve as inspiration.

To learn more about Mirzakhani in her own words, click here.

Who was your most inspirational teacher in math or science? I would love to hear about teachers who sparked your passion.

Somewhere in America

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I was floored when I watched this performance by three brave and talented young women. It is a message that must be seen and heard numerous times; there is so much truth to digest. (Click on the link below to view the video).

Changing the World, One Word at a Time 

“But the greatest lessons you will ever teach us will not come from your syllabus…”

When I first heard these words, before I had listened to the rest of the performance, I nodded knowingly. As a teacher, I am well aware of this fact. The teachable moments—the ones we all learn the most from—are spontaneous, and usually take place when we least expect them. They are moments of candid truth telling that happen rarely, when the space and place are deemed safe and the environment is ripe for increased awareness and action.

Yet that is not at all what these young women are talking about, as I quickly learned in their very next breath.

“You never told us what we weren’t allowed to say; we just learned to hold our tongues.”

They are addressing all those other moments that occur in education, the ones we never admit. Implicit bias—an unconscious bias that comes into play even when people have the best intentions—I wonder how many times I have been guilty of this in the classroom, even though women and gender studies is a subject I teach. Issues of intersectionality are so easily ignored. I experience privilege because I am white, straight, and middle class. I am oppressed because I am a woman. How often does my own unconscious bias impact my teaching?

“They build us new shopping malls so that we’ll forget where we’re really standing—on the bones of the Hispanics, on the bones of the slaves, on the bones of the Native Americans, on the bones of those who fought just to speak.”

If we are continually distracted by shiny objects, we will never have to face the ugly truth. If the objective is self-satisfaction and consumption, we do not need to acknowledge our tainted history or teach and learn empathy, tolerance, and kindness.

“Transcontinental railroad to Japanese internment camps—there are things missing from our history books.”

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Chinese Railroad Workers

I was never taught the truth about the slaughter of Native Americans. Instead I was taught to celebrate Christopher Columbus and Thanksgiving. I was never taught about the abuse of Chinese laborers or the imprisonment of Japanese Americans. I also didn’t learn about the women’s movement or the Vietnam War. Perhaps it could be argued that when I was in school the wounds of the Vietnam War were too fresh, and therefore ‘US History Civil War to Present’ stopped just before our involvement in the war. Yet the same argument cannot be made for the second wave feminism. I did learn about the Civil Rights movement, yet the women’s movement was not part of the curriculum. I didn’t even learn about first wave feminism and the suffragists.

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National American Women Suffrage Association 1913

“Women are killed for rejecting dates. A girl is black-out drunk at the after-party. Take a picture before her wounds wake her. How many pixels is your sanity worth?”

We need to stop and take a long, hard look in the mirror. Not only must we acknowledge inequity and issues of intersectionality. We must act to change our course—for our children, and for ourselves. We need to answer the challenge that these young women were brave enough to stand up and force us to confront.


To learn more about the incredible program that led to the creation of this video, visit http://getlit.org/getlit/

 

 

 

 

Frances who?

When I am battling insomnia, I most often turn to books to pass the sleepless hours. Yet once in awhile, when I am too tired to read but not able to sleep, I do resort to television. On one such night, I happened upon The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell. He had just begun a discussion related to currency, in particular the lack of women featured on US currency. Instead of lulling me to sleep, his words made me sit up in bed and pay attention.

Apparently, there have been just three women on circulating U.S. coins: Susan B. Anthony on the dollar coin from 1979-1981; Native American Sacagawea on the dollar coin beginning in 1999; and Helen Keller, who appeared on the reverse of the 2003 Alabama quarter. There has been only one woman on U.S. paper currency: First Lady Martha Washington appeared on the $1 silver certificate in 1886, 1891 and 1896.

Sacagawea_Dollar_Coin_Mint Sacagawea

There is nothing written in current law that would prevent a woman from appearing on US currency, provided that she is no longer living; only those who are dead can appear on paper currency. The other requirement is that the words “In God We Trust” must appear in an appropriate place on the bill.

While I found all of this very interesting, especially in light of the recent uproar in the UK over the petition to put Jane Austen on the 10-pound note, it was the person O’Donnell suggested should be the first woman to appear that startled me: Frances Perkins.

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Frances Perkins

Frances Perkins…who was she? I am a well-educated woman, and I should know who this woman was. Yet while I am sure I had heard the name at some point in time, I couldn’t place her. This realization was enough to tell me that I certainly hadn’t studied her in depth at any point during my formal education. Yet if O’Donnell was recommending her above all other US women to be the first to appear on paper currency, she must have played a significant role in our country’s history. So why hadn’t I learned about her?

Frances Perkins was born in Massachusetts in 1880. She completed her undergraduate work at Mount Holyoke during a time when only 3% of US women attended college, and she earned her Masters degree from Columbia, where she studied economics and sociology. When she realized that her husband’s struggle with mental illness would prevent him from providing for the family (they had a daughter), she made the decision to continue her studies at Wharton College.

She began work as a factory inspector for New York State, and eventually became Commissioner of Labor under then Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt. When FDR became president, he asked Perkins to serve as his Secretary of Labor. Perkins was the first woman cabinet member in US history. She held the position for twelve years. In that time, she established Unemployment Insurance and Social Security. She also paved the way for Medicaid and Medicare—government health insurance. These measures would be added as an amendment to the Social Security Act in the 1960s. Perkins also established minimum wage and the forty-hour work week, and ended child labor. She was the woman behind the New Deal; she accomplished more than any president has ever accomplished, yet she took no credit. She just wanted to get it done.

Get it done she did. Frances Perkins should be taught in all US History and Social Studies classes. And yes, she should be the first woman to appear on US currency. Let’s start a petition. What other women have earned the right to appear on paper currency? I’d love to hear your nominations.

 

Transitions

I am reaching a definite point of transition in my life. My children (twins) are 18, seniors in high school. They are elbow deep into college applications, and the excitement on their faces radiates as they inch closer to completing the K-12 marathon. I can tell they are itching to sprint to the end, grab that diploma, and strike out on their next adventure as young adults. And I share that excitement. It has been an incredible journey (albeit a quick one) to watch them grow from babies to toddlers to children to young adults, and I have enjoyed getting to know the people they have become. They are giving, kind, caring individuals who will make positive contributions no matter what path they take.

photo-2My own path seems a bit less clear. I have jumped through all the hoops society has laid out for me. I finished high school, finished college, and eventually finished grad school. I married right after I completed my undergraduate degree, because that was a hoop that women jumped through at an average age of 23 back then (men tended to be a bit older at 26). I haven’t always stuck to the prescribed plan, however, as that marriage did not last. At 23 I had no idea who I was, and even less idea of the woman I would become.

I have worked without pause since I was 15 and got my first job stuffing envelopes upstairs in the windowless office of Sealfons in Ridgewood, NJ. For years I have worked more than one job at a time. I did remarry, and when the twins were babies, my husband and I worked opposite shifts and learned to maneuver through the baby handoff—who had been fed, changed, bathed? We kept a chart on the refrigerator. We lost nights of sleep we never recovered. But we continued to work.

I was the mother who could rarely make it to the kids’ events. I couldn’t volunteer at school. I couldn’t bake cookies for the classroom parties. I couldn’t chaperone field trips. I was often chastised for picking the kids up late from after school care. I was working. I was always working. Yes, part of my reason for working so hard was financial. Yet there were other factors. I always felt I had to prove my worth—to show everyone I could do it all and do it well. I could take on a 100 mile one-way commute through a twisting canyon after dropping off my one-year-old twins at daycare, in order to teach four classes and drive 100  miles back to pick them up, and then drive home to endless hours of grading and class prep. I could teach full time, write grants part time, and raise two kids while my husband traveled for work. I became selfless—a top-notch martyr. And when the pressures became too great, and I could no longer contain the resentment, it often reared its ugly head in very unhealthy ways through destructive coping.

Last March I was lucky enough to hear Gloria Steinem speak in Denver in celebration of International Women’s Day. During the question and answer session, a woman who looked to be in her fifties stepped up to the mic and asked, “Why did feminists fight for the right of women to do it all? Doing it all has left me unhealthy, unhappy, and utterly exhausted.”

Ms. Steinem seemed genuinely surprised at the question, yet without hesitation she replied, “That was never our intention. Choice – yes. More options – yes. Having to take on everything – no. That wasn’t our message.”

FullSizeRender-3Gloria Steinem 

I can’t go back and change any of my journey. I do believe that while I have not always lived the healthiest life, and have not  always been the best role model, I have managed to raise competent, caring, loving kids. I chose to share this story now for two reasons. First—if you are a woman who is struggling to do it all—to be everything to everyone except yourself, I hope you will pause and take some time to consider why you are on this particular path. I often said I didn’t have a choice, but I know now that this isn’t necessarily true. At some level, we can always shift and make changes, even small changes, which can put us on a healthier path. We can’t all quit our jobs. I’m not advocating for that. My work has, at times, brought me great joy while it also paid my bills. But we can examine our motives – are they intrinsic or extrinsic? Are we doing something because we truly feel that to do so makes a difference, or are we merely trying to jump through those socially constructed hoops and please others? Are we doing what we “should” – what we “have to”?

My second reason for sharing this story now is to motivate myself to begin a healthy life transition. I could easily stay the course. I certainly have reason to do so. With two children entering college next fall, I must keep working, or else how will we pay even part of their tuition? How will we pay for it even if I do keep working? Even if I take on another job? Even if we mortgage the house? Once that panic sets in, fear tends to keep me jumping through those socially constructed hoops; fear keeps me on the hamster wheel, spinning and spinning and spinning.

IMG_1025Perhaps I will find the courage to choose a different path. I long ago stopped climbing the ladder in my career. I find myself in an environment where we are asked to do more for less, and to be grateful that we are employed. So I have chosen to focus on my students, and to provide them with the best I have to give in the sixteen weeks we are together. I love teaching, yet my idea of what that looks like is morphing and changing. Maybe it no longer means teaching required courses that I am not fully passionate about and my students don’t want to take. Maybe it means a different venue altogether. It could mean reaching out to a smaller community, one bound by fewer “shoulds”; younger people perhaps, or older. Those who would like support to share their stories, or those who need help expanding their critical reading, writing, and thinking skills. Perhaps I will work one on one with at risk students. Maybe I will go into nursing homes or assisted living residences to help residents share their stories. Maybe I will simply listen.

As a student of mine so eloquently reminded me recently, “To understand a story, all I need to do is listen.”

We could certainly use more of that. By pausing, by being present, by listening, my next journey will begin to unfold. I can’t wait to see where it takes me.

If you have recently made a life transition, I hope you will share that experience here. There is so much to learn from our collective experiences. 

The Gift of Storytelling

 

She didn’t write it.  (But if it’s clear she did the deed. . .)

She wrote it, but she shouldn’t have. (It’s political, sexual, masculine, feminist.)

She wrote it, but look what she wrote about.  (The bedroom, the kitchen, her family. Other women!)

She wrote it, but she wrote only one of it.  (“Jane Eyre.  Poor dear, that’s all she ever. . .”)

She wrote it, but she isn’t really an artist, and it isn’t really art. (It’s a thriller, a romance, a children’s book. It’s sci fi!)

She wrote it, but she had help.  (Robert Browning. Branwell Bronte.  Her own “masculine side.”)

She wrote it, but she’s an anomaly.  (Woolf.  With Leonard’s help....)

She wrote it BUT. . .

~Joanna Russ, How to Suppress Women’s Writing

 

My Women Writers course is by far my favorite class to teach. It is also the most challenging. In this course we don’t just read works by women writers. We dig deep in order to recover—and finally hear—women’s voices; we examine how women’s life experiences—their personal truths—have led to greater societal change. What has always interested me, even more than the women’s writing itself, is the story of their lives, not because their lives were incredibly extraordinary–although some of them were—but because I can always recognize so many of their personal struggles in my own life. In this course we take a long and at times painful look at the influence of childhood experiences and relationships, core and situational self-esteem, love/sex relationships, career success, marriage, motherhood, depression, addiction, and—thankfully—humor and the ability to laugh at life’s absurdities.

We search for the answers to difficult questions. Why, after all this time (centuries, in some cases), are women still facing the same struggles? Why are some creative women able to overcome adversity and triumph, personally and professionally, while others, equally talented, falter, stumble, lose their way and give up their dreams? How were those who thrived able to overcome all of the obstacles thrown in their paths, and why haven’t we learned more from them, so that we can apply their lessons learned to our own lives, and then pass our life lessons down to those coming up behind us?

The fall semester is now complete, and together with an incredible group of young women I have finished the journey of Women Writers for what could be the last time. While I certainly grieve that possibility, my heart is also full as I sit and read my students’ reflections. Their words are powerful and empowering, and I would like to share some of their thoughts here:

The most important key to accepting our truths is to forgive ourselves and others. At this moment it seems scary, acknowledging what I have tried to keep hidden for so long. But like all of these brilliant women, the ability to be honest with ourselves is what will not only make us better people, but better women.

You’ve made me realize things about my health I never thought of; you’ve made me question society’s “plan” for me as a woman; you’ve made me consider law school; you’ve made me realize how important it is to talk about taboos, and things that society wishes it could shove under the carpet. You’ve taught me the important lesson of forgiving oneself—something no one else has ever told me. You’ve taught me the importance of being gentle with oneself, and have given me a lifelong project to work on. You’ve made me realize the struggles of other women writers, and have given me hope, knowing I’m not alone in my struggles or my creative ability. 

Mary Wollstonecraft ox.libguides.com

Mary Wollstonecraft

I had completely forgotten about how much I enjoy reading, and over the past 15 weeks I really loved being required to sit down and spend time with the fabulous women we had been discussing in class. In late August I griped about taking a required writing course, but now, in December, with a long reading list for the holiday break, I realize that I have never, in my entire career as a student, learned as much about myself and developed my personal beliefs more than while spending my Tuesday and Thursday afternoons in the company of some terrific women, discussing the terrific women of years past.

This class has been such a beautiful and eye-opening experience for me. Although a lot of the women that we read shared very sad or uncomfortable stories, learning about their lives showed their strength, and that they could endure and overcome their struggles and setbacks. It is so important that these women have shared their stories. We are all different, but every woman faces hardship in her life. From these strong women we can learn, become stronger, and help each other and ourselves. In the words of Maya Angelou, no matter what happens, “Still I’ll rise.”

Adrienne Rich public domain encyclopedia.com

Adrienne Rich

When I think back to all of these women that we have read, my heart is filled with an overwhelming sense of gratitude. Each woman was so courageous to share her truth and her experience through her writing. It was a gift that each one gave to the world in her writings because it served as such an inspiration. Their courage gave the gift of courage to someone like me as I struggle to face my own history. I have learned the absolute importance of knowing my truth, accepting my truth, and speaking my truth. I have learned that I do not have to be a victim of my circumstances, that I am not limited due to my past, and that I always have the chance to change the ending of my story if I do not like it, and this is exactly what I have done.

The most important lesson that I have learned from this class is that I must not dwell on the negativity in my past, but focus on the brightness of my future. I know that I will make mistakes along the way, but I will now look at every mistake as an opportunity to learn and become a better woman because of it. My past definitely affects the person I am today, but does not necessarily define the person I was meant to be.

Maya Angelou permission PD-USGOV-POTUS Wikimedia Commons

Maya Angelou

It takes courage to face your own history in the comfort of solitude, let alone with the world watching and judging. And though I may not have experienced much of their pain first hand, I have learned that all moments, no matter how small or grand, are important and worth sharing. In each of us is a living literature, equally whole and honest to our unique self.

Beyond renewing my passion for feminism, through this class I have learned to fully embrace and accept others as well as myself. For the first time I have consciously begun to recognize the people in my life beyond the role they play for me. I am able to accept these people as people. I can acknowledge their individuality and grasp that they may be carrying baggage like the rest of us.

Amy_Tan public domain www.arts.gov

Amy Tan

To understand a story, all I need to do is listen.

Yes, for one small block of time, in a very small room on a very large campus, we were all present, and we held space for others’ stories and for our own. What an incredible gift.

 

 

 

Coming of Age Books for Girls and Women

With the approach of the holidays, I find myself searching for books to gift, because books are my favorite gifts to receive. For me, the healthiest way to cope with the crush of the holiday season is to curl up under a blanket in my favorite chair and open a book to begin an incredible journey.

As I work to put together a recommended reading list for students in my Women Writers class, I have been thinking quite a bit about coming of age stories for girls and women. I recently read two very good ones—the classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (1943), and Someone: A Novel by Alice McDermott (2013). What links the two is a female protagonist who spends her youth in Brooklyn in the early part of the twentieth century. Both books are beautifully written stories about all of the moments—mundane and life altering—that make up a woman’s life. An unremarkable woman’s life. A life like most of our lives.

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Reading these two works sent me on a search for other female coming of age stories. The classic tales that I have carried with me through the years, some that I now teach, include I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood by bell hooks, The Woman Warrior: Memories of a Girlhood Among Ghosts by Maxine Hong Kingston, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston., and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

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More recent coming of age books that continued to swirl around my head long after I read them include The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, and White Oleander by Janet Fitch.  Both of these painful yet beautiful stories address girls who have been abandoned to the foster care system, yet grow to find their own strengths, gifts, and place in the world. Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees and The Invention of Wings are also excellent reads with strong female protagonists.

One unique book I recently read for younger girls is Ophelia’s Oracle: Discovering the Healthy, Happy, Self-Aware and Confident Girl in the Mirror by Donna DeNomme and Tina Proctor. Another is Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson.

kindness

If you area looking for coming of age books for girls and women, two great resources are A Mighty Girl and a list kept by Kay Vandergrift of Rutgers. What coming of age books do you recommend for girls and women? I would love to add to my own reading list, and gift some special titles to the women and girls in my life this holiday season.

Betraying Others, Betraying Ourselves

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It has taken me my entire life to begin to understand why I am the way I am. I am not proud to say that along my journey I have hurt those I have loved the most. I have betrayed family and friends. I have also hurt people I didn’t even know. What I failed to understand about myself until quite recently is that I completely lacked core self-esteem. Instead, I relied on situational self-esteem for much of my life. I never even knew there were different types of self-esteem until I read Gloria Steinem’s Revolution from Within. In this groundbreaking work, which I came to decades after it had been written, she explains that we develop core self-esteem when we are very young, usually in our family of origin. If we possess core self-esteem, we understand that we are loved and lovable, valued and valuable just for being—just as we are. If we lack core self-esteem, we tend to rely on situational self-esteem, which usually develops when we are a bit older, around the time we begin school. Situational self-esteem comes from doing. We are rewarded for what we do; we must earn situational self-esteem. What I didn’t understand is that because I lacked core self-esteem, I spent the majority of my life coping destructively in an attempt to fill that void.

Destructive coping takes many forms, and over the years, it has appeared in many different ways in my life as I attempted to fill my void. At various points along my journey I self-medicated by drinking too much, I starved myself in an attempt to disappear, I turned to men to make me feel loved, and I took on more and more work in order to feel I was an invaluable cog in the wheel. As a result, I hurt and betrayed almost everyone who matters to me—my family of origin, my friends, my spouse, my children. What’s worse is that even once I started to understand why I was the way I was, I couldn’t suddenly change my destructive coping. Those grooves were so worn into my brain—it was how those synapses were used to firing—that even when I knew I was turning to destructive coping, I hated myself enough to keep doing it.

I can’t go back and change anything that I have done before this moment in time. I can’t undo the hurt I have caused my mother, my spouse, my friends, or my children, but I hope they know that I love them to my core—even if I don’t fully understand who I am at that core. I continue to be a work in progress, and I hope to wake up tomorrow and make fewer mistakes than I made today.

The work I do with girls and women does not come from a place of narcissism. I have not rewritten my past. I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I don’t pretend to have any. What I do have is firsthand knowledge of all the dark places I have been along my journey. I can’t change where I have been. But I can own my mistakes, and try to help others understand the difference between core self-esteem and situational self-esteem—the difference between constructive and destructive coping. And while that doesn’t in any way lessen my burden or the pain I have caused, I hope that it helps others move forward in their lives with compassion for who they once were, a greater understanding of who they are now, and a clearer sense of their genuine path. If my mistakes can help one girl or woman avoid the darkness, I will be so very grateful.

 

Showcase More Women in Science

When I was in ninth grade, which was so long ago now it was considered part of “junior high,” I won the science award. I remember sitting in the auditorium with my 300 classmates, all of us packed in like sardines, bored out of my mind. I hated award assemblies. Everyone hated award assemblies. So I wasn’t even paying attention when my name was called. My friend Heather had to shove me while she hissed in my ear, “It’s you, it’s you, go up there!”

A I stood on stage, legs shaking, wondering what I had just won, I heard Ms. Johnson, who had been my biology teacher the year before, tell me I should be very proud of this honor, as it was the first time in the history of Benjamin Franklin Junior High that a girl had won the science award. She then handed me an engraved silver bowl, and my moment of glory was over.

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I still have that bowl in a box of mementos buried somewhere in my crawlspace. I am sure it is now so tarnished that I wouldn’t be able read what was once engraved on it. I have carried it with me all of these years not because it is the only award I ever won – although it is. What stuck with me was the fact that I was the first girl to win it. Even then, as a girl in my mid-teens who did not fully understand feminism and the importance of fighting for equality for all, I somehow knew that this small silver bowl stood for something that mattered. At the time, I also didn’t realize I was about to enter the 1980s conservative backlash that would begin to chip away at women’s rights, a backlash that has continued for my entire adult life.

One of my first dreams was a career in aviation; flying fascinated me. Also, when I was in eighth grade, I was selected to travel with a group of students to the Koster dig site in Illinois. It was then that I decided that becoming an archaeologist was also a possibility. That, however, was before I set foot in Mr. Hummiston’s tenth grade geometry class. Although I did well in algebra, geometry was a different matter. When math became spatial, I struggled, and Mr. Hummiston was quick to point that out to everyone in the class: “Diane seems to be having trouble proving this theorem. Can someone please explain it to her?” Self-doubt overwhelmed me, and before long, I dreaded all math and science, and let go of the dreams of aviation and archaeology. Instead I became an English major. 

Why am I even thinking about all of this now? Mildred Dresselhaus, that’s why. Who is Mildred Dresselhaus? I wondered the same thing when I saw she was one of 18 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded at the White House last week. She is 84, and she is a pioneer physicist, materials science, and electrical engineer. She is a professor at MIT, and she continues to go to work seven days a week. She has won countless awards, including the prestigious $1 million dollar Kavli Prize in nanoscience. She received her Ph.D. in the 1950s, when there were no women in physics, as her advisor continually reminded her. Yet here she is, still making discoveries that have had a profound impact on how we understand the universe we live in.

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Perhaps if I had known about Dr. Dresselhaus when I was a young woman, I might have persevered in science. Maybe if had known about Alicia Stott, Ruth Benedict, Sophie Germain, Gerty T. Cori, Rosalind Franklin, Eva Crane, or countless other women in the fields of science ad math, I would have had role models to emulate. But I never learned about any of these women. They weren’t included in the curriculum. And while I am grateful to know about them now, I believe that today’s girls who may wish to be tomorrow’s scientists and mathematicians need to know about them, too.

We have a long way to go to equalize the K-12 curriculum. Until we do, who knows how many discoveries we are missing out on because girls are not being encouraged to pursue their dreams, and aren’t being provided the role models they need to support them along their path.

#iamsubject project – My Natural Self – Reclaimed

My Natural Self – Reclaimed: Tying the Provisional Life to the Complex

by Raymonde Savoie

“… the power of our earliest messages is extraordinarily difficult to confront, especially when it is at work unconsciously. What we do not know does indeed hurt us, and others, and has the potential to guide our choices in directions quite different from those the soul desires.”
James Hollis

Back in 1990 when I realised that my actions and behaviours were not what I wanted or intended them to be, the shock to my ego sent me searching for answers that have been the focus of my life ever since.

Upon learning that I was under the influence of an addiction to relationships as a direct result of having been sexually abused as a little girl, and that it wasn’t my fault because I was a bad person, I could then start healing the wounded self I had become. It would be years before I could start to identify the complexes that riddled my dreams, and especially the needy little girl complex that was, as Hollis mentions, ‘guiding my choices in directions quite different from what my soul desired.’

At the time I wrote in my journal: “Who am I with this monster of need having its roots deep in my soul?”

Decades passed as I tried my best to dig down deep and uncover what my past had done to me. I was living my provisional life; the ego-self’s outer mask, or persona, was just a disguise hiding and protecting the fragile, real Natural Self that I had buried a long, long time ago.  Because I was not living who I was naturally meant to be, in other words, growing up, I was being assaulted from within with physical symptoms and mental dilemmas, not to mention very disturbing dreams that haunted me continuously.

Dreams can arise from many psychic, unconscious sources, and one of these sources is the presence of complexes that are formed when, as children, our life undergoes the changes and challenges to our reality that we are unable, or unwilling, to face at the time.

Facing a complex, Anthony Stevens says, “is hard, demanding, and sometimes frightening work…” and, “Dreams provide direct access to the complexes as well as mobilizing the symbolic and emotive energies necessary to change them.

Conscious Healing of the Past and Present

What I have come to call my Needy Little Girl Complex, or psychologically speaking, my Puella Aeterna, the ‘eternal girl-child,’ has been the one in charge of my life for many years, way past the time when she should have grown up, left home, and become a mature, responsible and autonomous woman.

From leaning on a non-emotional mother to marrying my first husband, also non-feeling, to diving into a second marriage in which we prided ourselves on ‘living a fairy tale,’ I have always attempted to have others care for me so that I would not have to do it myself, simply because it was too scary.

Dreams and Nightmares, A Survivor’s Best Friends

 Childhood is a period of great emotional intensity, and a childs earliest dreams often manifest in symbolic form the basic structure of the psyche, indicating how it will later shape the destiny of the individual concerned.

This is what Marie-Louise von Franz wrote in the chapter “The Process of Individuation,” from “Man and His Symbols.”Further, quoting a dream recounted by Jung to his students, she notes,

From this single dream it is possible to deduce the fate of the dreamer, which was anticipated by her psyche in childhood.

My retrospective search for healing and truth has uncovered this interesting correlation that von Franz speaks of between the complex that imprisoned me and the dreams I had as a child during and after the abuse. One recurring dream that I had the summer I was being molested seemed to be a presage of how I would thereafter perceive life and the ways I would invent to deny, elude or escape its anxiety-producing clutches.

In this dream, I am tied to a post in the family barn, with only a circle of yellow light surrounding me. The rest all around me is a pitch-black darkness. I am terrified because I know that sooner or later, he is coming for me and I am totally powerless to stop him, to free myself, or to expect anyone to come to my rescue.

What was staring out at me from the darkness was the huge fear of the new and the unknown, which Jung calls “misoneism,” and which my young, fragile mind perceived as the horrible man who abused me. The dream ends with the terror of hopelessness filling me, as hopeless as I felt to make him stop hurting me, and as hopeless the recurrent theme that filled many subsequent dreams that I have had all of my life.

In the year 2010, however, one dream in particular took on a more urgent, immediate flavour. I was living in Canada with my second husband, and an imminent change was about to rock our world. We had learned in the spring that he would have to go back to his native country, and I would be left alone, at least for the winter months ahead.

The dream that changed the course of my life went like this.

I dreamed that I was a passenger in a yellow car being driven by my husband. Going up a sloping bridge, we fell in the ditch, which became a circular, black rut or hole from which we could not escape. Eventually in this dream, I was left alone, first by my husband who told me the yellow car was fine when it was obviously broken, and then again by the woman in the back seat with the little girl who had warned me I would fall ‘into sugar’ again. Towards the end of the dream, I am in bed with the “manager” who is, to my dream ego, a complete stranger. My dream ends with “What is to become of me in this strange place, all alone, with a car I can‘t even drive? I feel so deeply alone…” Because, even if the car had been fixed, I would not have been able to drive it, for in reality, I don’t have my driver’s license.

The changes we dreaded did come to pass and after he had been in Australia for a few months that year, I too followed him and we were together once again. It took me nine more months of fighting my dreams and the dreadful insights that were bubbling up from my unconscious to finally give in, to admit that, all this time, my Needy Little Girl complex had been running the show, and not my adult self at all.

By showing me the nature of my true reality, this dream, after I was able to finally decipher a great deal of its important message, led me to leave my husband in Australia, to fly back to Canada alone, come back to become responsible for myself, and to try to heal the rifts between my family and myself that I had created such a long time ago.

My dreams have often brought me the healing symbols I needed to grow and move forward on my personal and spiritual path, especially when I have felt stuck or was at an impasse in my waking reality. That’s how dreams work, if we will let them. They helped me reclaim my Natural Self.

References

Hollis, James, ‘Finding Meaning In the Second Half of Life, How to Finally, Really Grow Up,’ Gotham Books, New York, 2005

Stevens, Anthony, ‘Private Myths, Dreams and Dreaming,’ Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1955

Von Franz, Marie-Louise, ‘The Process of Individuation,’ Part 3 of Man and His Symbols, Carl G. Jung et al, Dell Publishing, London, 1964

#iamsubject project – The Glorious Gift of the Unexpected

The Glorious Gift of the Unexpected

by Ceejae Devine

Jade was only minutes old when they placed her on my tummy. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Actually, her eyes. They were huge, bright, fixed intently on mine. I lay there thinking, “Aren’t newborns supposed to have their eyes closed?” The midwife told me my life would change when Jade was born, but this was different from anything I’d envisioned. I held on to the moment, deeply affected by this glorious gift of the unexpected.

To everyone’s surprise, a few hours later my husband and I decided to head to our home in the San Juan Islands to save on hospital expenses. We caught the 8:30 p.m. ferry and stayed awake with Jade until midnight. The next day passed in a blur, then the following morning I took Jade to her first checkup. When I mentioned how alert she was, the midwife said, “We call these babies ‘little wizards.’” She tossed the words out casually, as if people said things like this every day.

It was fun to imagine that this was an omen, but I’d been compelled to make a number of life changes, so I figured a couple of them had probably affected Jade’s level of attention. In my late twenties I struggled with exhaustion, so I stopped drinking alcohol and made changes to my diet. I’d also become a business owner and, even though long hours were often required, I was able to work from home. I hadn’t planned any of these things for Jade’s benefit, but they turned out to be ideal—she spent most of her time in the care of a college-educated health nut.

Jade inspired me to start writing. I had to take occasional business trips, and flying down the freeway, trying to catch the let’s-make-this-just-a-fourteen-hour-day ferry, sometimes made me wonder if I was going to make it home at all. I wanted Jade to know who I was and how much I loved her. I started reading about women’s issues because my work/life balance was significantly more difficult than I expected, even given my circumstances, and Jade continued to amaze me, so I thought, “I need to tell this story.”

Months later, I shared my book about “becoming an awesome mother” with a friend and she said, “It’s too personal. You can’t publish it.”

After hours of heartache, I realized she was right, so I tried to restructure it. As I learned more about writing and publishing, I realized no one was going to publish my book if I didn’t have anything more than brilliant-kid credentials.

I thought, “Maybe I’m not good subject material.” My interests and concerns had also shifted significantly, being a mother was now just part of the story. So, I stepped out of the spotlight and started a collection of humorous essays about expectations and challenges I suspected many other women were facing.

Then, one weekend, an event occurred that affected me in a deeply spiritual, but unconventional way. I grew up believing that everything about God was known, that all anyone had to do was read one book. I was also led to believe that nothing was going to happen to anyone after what happened 2,000 years ago, so I didn’t know what to do except write about it. A couple of years later, another event occurred at a writing workshop. I didn’t know what to do with that, either. I just wrote about it, wondered a lot, and kept writing.

I participated in more workshops, read books on a wide range of subjects, and generated a collection of essays called Brave New Girls. In 2012, I attended a writers’ conference where I received positive feedback and interest from a couple of agents, so I thought, “Finally, I’m on my way.”

About a month later, while attending a fund-raiser at a bird sanctuary, another remarkable event occurred. The sanctuary cares for my two parrot friends who needed a home when I lost mine in 2010.

As I was walking around the grounds, I saw a woman who was wearing the same shirt I had on. I’d heard this kind of thing was supposed to be embarrassing, but I decided to say hello anyway. We talked for a few minutes, then I went to find a seat for the live auction. I decided to bid on a framed print even though I felt sure I wasn’t going to get it, and the woman who was calling the auction items came over and asked for my name. Little did I know, the woman with the matching shirt was watching.

When the auction ended, a little girl came storming toward me, arms pumping, jaw jutting forward, demanding to know my name. As I replied, the woman with the matching shirt and the girl’s mother caught up to her. It was incredible. We had matching shirts and the same name.

You’re probably thinking the odds of something like this happening was bound to occur sometime.

But, by this point in time, I’d experienced a number of other events that had been pushing me to think of them as something other than luck or coincidence. So, for me, the message was clear: I used your name; this didn’t happen by chance.*

Once again, I felt compelled to start over with my writing. I struggled with the idea of writing a memoir, thinking, “Who was I to write about a spiritual journey? Who would want to read about the details of an ordinary woman’s life? Especially, a feminist.”

As I worked on it, I began to see how disparate combinations and a broad range of information and experiences could generate startling, unexpected perspectives. I was subject, again. Not just the easy, pleasing parts—all of me.

As everyone does while growing up, I’d developed ideas about the rules and limitations of life. I was certain mine would be commonplace. For years, I believed that “anything that didn’t fit within the rules” should be kept quiet. I knew there would be challenges and I was led to believe that most people found happiness through the pursuit of worthwhile work, marriage and family. I’d lived most of my life thinking of God as an abstraction: distant, perhaps the source of love, something we wouldn’t understand until we died.

As I looked back over my life, I realized that I’d been on a life-long spiritual journey. Always open, always wondering, then finally seeing that as I chose to do what was right for me—a woman and a feminist—I was getting what I needed in some ways and more than I dreamed in others. God had always been there for me, and I began to find myself experiencing blessings in ways that were beyond my wildest expectations.

As I pieced together the details—the depth of the hardships and the breadth of the gifts—they revealed experiences that create a storyteller. I was supposed to combine the knowledge I’d acquired with the experiences of a woman who’s done things some people claim are harbingers of evil and, instead, found herself immensely blessed.

I found a voice I never dreamed could come from me—a voice needed to help this generation move forward in solving many of the conflicts the world faces today, conflicts that revolve around women’s lives, the nature of humanity, and misguided ideas.

*This is only part of the story. Other significant elements occurred that were similar to what happened at the writing workshop.