The Drowning Gull 1 - Page 68

never liked arithmetic again.

Looking back, I know my third grade teacher used me to show that skipping grades doesn’t work. She singled me out to make her case. Me-- an earnest, trusting 8 year old. How could a third grade teacher be so cruel? It was child abuse. Long after it ended, as with all forms of abuse, the after-shocks rippled through my life.

It was no accident that she chose a girl to prey upon. One other student, Mark, had skipped into her class. She helped him, but not me. Much has been written about the disparity among genders when it comes to math. The feminist movement brought this issue to light: “High-performing females seem to be particularly vulnerable to the stereotype that girls just can't do math.” (Fennema & Sherman, 1978) Miss Blackheart knew she was feeding a widely held perception.

“That’s not the right answer, Paul,” the teacher said sternly on the first day of Advanced Algebra in my junior year of high school. Paul had volunteered to solve a problem on the board. “I know you won’t make that mistake again.”

I’d barely survived Algebra I. I thought, “If she thinks I won’t make the same mistake twice, I’m out of here.”

I went straight to the guidance counselor’s office to drop the class.

“But all of the Ivies require three years of math,” he protested, knowing I was on track to attend a top college. “I don’t care,” I insisted. Miss Blackheart had raised her ugly head again. Not only did my math phobia prompt my decision to avoid third year math, but it also made me avoid Chemistry and Physics. So when it came to the National Merit competition, my math score on the PSAT relegated me to the rank of Semi-Finalist, ineligible for the scholarships and entrée to elite schools that Finalists enjoyed. At college, that same score kept me out of the Liberal Arts Honors Program. I got the consolation prize: Honors English. I wonder how different my college experience might have been in the Honors Program (smaller classes; individual advising; a less structured learning environment).

When friends asked, “What major are you declaring?” I was stumped. Some of them were going into pre-Med. Others were looking at behavioral science majors. All of those required Statistics, a course title that conjured up formulas, variables and the like. I’d heard it was a killer. My aversion to math signaled “Danger Zone. Do Not Enter.” So English and History won by process of elimination. Thanks again, Miss Blackheart.

One woman out to prove a point at the expense of a happy little girl limited my choices in high school, college and beyond. In our house, Dad always managed the money. Mom had trouble balancing her checkbook. They were typical of the ideal families portrayed on “Father Knows Best,” and other popular TV shows. As a mother of girls I wanted to be a role model who dispelled stereotypes that held women back. But when my children needed help with math or science homework, they went to Daddy. I couldn’t help. The aftershocks of Miss Blackheart’s confidence-shaking persisted.

In my forties, I purged her from my system. As CEO of a non-profit I learned to develop and manage a multi-million dollar budget.

When Carla, our fresh-out-of-school staff accountant, gave me draft financials, I’d review them and suggest changes: “Let’s allocate 80% of the deputy director’s salary to program expenses, 20% to admin.” I might ask, “Couldn’t we spread this expense over two quarters?”

Then I’d present the financial statements to the board of directors. Did I worry that these business leaders might ask questions I couldn’t answer? Did I dread that part of the meeting? Nope, not at all. Rest in peace, Miss Blackheart!

The Drowning Gull