This is a guest post as part of our Letters to My Young Self” series. Sarah Lemaire is the Principal Information Developer at HP Vertica. She graduated from Wellesley College with degrees in Mathematics and Sociology. She is committed to paying it forward.
As you head to middle school, I want to tell you about your life going forward and give you some advice. As you know, in fifth grade, Dr. Ellis diagnosed you with dyslexia on the basis of one test that you failed: standing on one foot with your eyes closed. But you’ve always been a good student, especially in math, like Mom. Everyone around you encourages this ability; there’s no one who thinks that girls can’t be good at math. But you are still clumsy, and other kids will call it “Sarahtitus.” The teasing is good natured, so don’t let it bother you. Your clumsiness will be a life-long trait.
Mom and Dad offer to send you to boarding school for ninth grade. They don’t like the local high school. They prefer that you stay closer to home, but there are no private day schools for girls nearby. Take advantage of this opportunity. The thought of being on your own appeals to you, so you decide to give it a shot. Kent is sort of co-ed, so it wins out over Dana Hall, an all-girls school in Massachusetts. But you still live and attend class with only girls, and make lifelong friendships.
In the beginning, and for every year thereafter, Dad meets with the headmaster to decide how much he can overpay of Kent’s tuition so that underprivileged students can attend on full scholarship. He is proud of this. Always remember his commitment to helping students in need get a first-class education. You will have the opportunity to pay it forward, for a bright young woman from Providence and a young woman in Bosnia who lost family members in the war but wants to become a doctor.
As a senior, you take the only calculus class offered—on the boys’ campus. At first it’s hard, but eventually you come to love calculus class. You and your classmates find errors in the (renowned) textbook, which you send to the author. He appreciates the finds, and you all enjoy hearing from him. In addition, Kent requires everyone to write a computer program in BASIC for every math class. Your girlfriends are baffled by this strange language. I’m embarrassed to admit now that you write many of the computer programs that they turn in. But it was so much fun to write all those programs.
At your fifth reunion, your calculus teacher has a little too much to drink, but tells everyone, “She’s the best girl I ever taught in calculus.”
Your guidance counselor encourages you to apply to women’s colleges. His reasoning is practical: women’s colleges were looking to increase the number of students who were good at math and science. You tour Wellesley College and MIT on the same day, and Wellesley wins out just for the physical beauty of the campus.
College math is hard: more abstract, less concrete. For the first time, you struggle with your math classes. You don’t understand how to apply what you are learning to the real world. You take statistics in the math department, but your reaction is, “Who cares how to derive the formula for chi square? I want to learn how to use the formula.” So you take statistics in the psychology department, which is way more interesting. What shocks you is that all the female psych majors were petrified of the statistics class. Smart women scared of math? Why is anyone scared of math? They groan about how hard statistics is, and how amazing you are for finding it so easy. At least this time, you don’t do their work for them! It was probably the easiest A you get at Wellesley.
After that psych class, you decide to combine your math skills with social science and end up with two majors: math and sociology. Dad’s reaction is, “What kind of job can you get as a sociology major?” Math is practical; sociology is interesting. You especially enjoy research projects and crunching numbers. Your first job after college is at a large company that is evaluating automated message handling in the Navy. Your job requires you to crunch numbers and write up your findings. It’s the perfect jumping-off point to a career that has twists and turns, but most of your jobs involve math and computers.
You marry a math major and have three sons. Ironically, only tow of your sons think they have any math aptitude. They are as math-phobic as the women in your psychology statistics class were 38 years ago. But they are boys, so what can you expect?