This week on NPR, I heard a story about t-shirts sold at either Forever 21 or Penney’s (I forget which and am too lazy to go look it up) that have slogans like Allergic to Algebra on them. The story described how a mother was disturbed enough by the message on those shirts that she started a tweet campaign against them, and enough people joined in that the shirts were removed from the stores.
What really caught my attention was the sound clip from another woman, also a mother, who basically said she didn’t see what difference a shirt like that made, they’re just kids and it’s just words or something to that effect.
I couldn’t disagree with her more. Words do matter, they matter a lot. What we tell our children has a lot to do with how they see themselves including what they think they can and cannot do. We all have those childhood tapes in our heads—some are positive and sadly, many are not.
If we tell them they are clever and good at something, I think that can influence their behavior. I remember overhearing my mother and first grade teacher talking about me right before Christmas break that year. My mother asked how I was doing and my teacher, Miss Floyd, gave her an update on me. She said that I was in the second reading group but there was no reason I couldn’t be in the top reading group if I wanted to be. That idea was new to me, that I could be in the top reading group and it was almost like I was given permission to get there. So I did. I’m not sure that would have happened without her saying that and me overhearing it.
I wish I’d gotten that message about math too. I didn’t do well in math until I got to college. Partly that’s because I went to five different elementary schools so math was very disjointed for me. I didn’t get the continuity or practice that’s necessary to master basic math skills. I also wasn’t told I could be good at math. Based on how difficult math was for me, I decided I was awful at it and that I hated it.
Flash forward to college. That was the first time I had to do a lot of math, over and over until I mastered the concepts. I realized I was actually quite good at it once I’d had enough practice. I still didn’t particularly love it, well not all of it, although I absolutely adored statistics and computer science math.
My experience with math is why I tell every little girl I see that she will be really good at math and science. Sometimes I get puzzled looks from the adults nearby but I don’t care. I want that message to get out and I want girls to realize they can be cute and also kick ass at algebra.
Edited to add a link to the article Jeanne mentioned in the comments. Go read it!