Tuesday, January 25, 2005

it was bound to happen

I can't help Mariah with her homework any more. Today I "helped" her study for her biology final (postponed from last week because of snow days) by posing her old test questions. Since she got some of them wrong the first time around, and wasn't quite sure what the right answers were, I ended up googling chemiosmosis and acetyl-CoA. Apparently what we found helped, but the whole thing was pretty humiliating for me. I took high school biology in 12th grade (I took two languages up until that year, and my high school only required one lab science to graduate), and I never understood it either. It seemed to me that everything I needed to know wouldn't be explained until I took chemistry--which I never did. I chose a college based on the (lack of) requirements, and never took another science course.

I sometimes regret it, as when I'm unable to help Mariah, or to answer Nick's incessant questions. I wish I'd learned physics, for example. But I didn't really have the math skills.

I supposed this could all lead one to suggest that I don't really have the cognitive ability to do math or science. That's what Mariah tells me, channeling Lawrence Summers unwittingly. I'm not so sure. I was always actually pretty good at both math and science (I got good grades, anyway, even if I didn't always understand it). But I could never figure out why I should be interested. In a way, I think that's a failure of teaching--now, I can see why biology, and chemistry, and physics could be interesting, but at Mariah's age the idea was beyond me. I could "get" why books were interesting--they allowed me to experience things outside myself, to understand myself better, to explore emotions I wasn't really ready for (this concerns a lot of parents, but I'm glad I read romances before I got romantic, myself). A lot of this was my parents, too--neither of them is particularly interested in anything outside of the humanities, although my mother was good enough at science to at least start nursing school. (She quit when they got to patient care--she liked the book stuff better. Hmm.)

I also do think that I knew no one expected me--as a girl--to be good at this stuff, so I didn't bother. In many other ways I liked to upset people's expectations--I had aspirations to be the first woman priest in the Episcopal church, at one time, but I was too young--but I certainly didn't need to work at it with the math/science stuff. I also had a math teacher humiliate me once, though I don't know really how formative that was. He asked for a definition of "symmetrical," adding--as I already got my hand up--that people often said the human body was symmetrical. I offered, "perfect?" and he just looked at me and said, "Is your body perfect?" OK, it wasn't, but I'm not sure a male teacher should point that out to an eighth grade girl, in front of kids who were already disposed to tease her. Yeah, it wasn't pretty. But I think I was already ready to give up on math anyway.

Obviously there's a whole complex of things going on here: nature and nurture, cognition and conditioning. But I do wish I could be more helpful about the biology test.

1 comment:

Meg said...

Ugh! I had science for the first time in sixth grade. No matter how good a student I usually was, science and I did NOT click. I took as few science classes as possible to graduate high school. Which means I didn't take biology at all. (And the only reason I passed chemistry is due to my husband's ex-wife!!)

My son has had science since kindergarten. He's in the fourth grade, and he's learning things that I **never** learned in school. In the fourth grade!

Talk about putting Mommy to shame...