The Feminist Tale Behind the Pet Mice

By Deborah

I work in a traditionally female field.  When I was a senior in high school, I told my  sixth grade teacher that I had decided to study elementary education in college.  She fought back tears: “You know you can be anything, don’t you?” She hadn’t known that, perhaps.  I know that she had wanted to be something else, something that let her travel around that well-worn classroom globe.

But I went into teaching knowing I could be anything, and choosing it because I loved it.  Because it fit me.

I knew this because of my father.

Dad was not verbose.  He was scientist who was more at home in the lab with fruit flies than at a ward function. But he created an academic and egalitarian infrastructure in our home that left me certain about my ability to choose my path. For example . . .

When I expressed an interest in geology at the ripe age of nine, my dad did what he knew: he took me to the geology department at Caltech and formally introduced me to faculty members.  He also brought home two college textbooks and plunked them on my bed and then let me play hooky from school to accompany his college students on their annual “geology field trip.”  When my geology phase ended – by about sixth grade – he wasn’t too disappointed.  He waited to see what would capture my imagination next.

African ethnography? Not a problem! I came home to a stack of Richard Leakey books and a pictography of the Maasai.

Journalism? He read every article I wrote for the school paper, read the Sunday papers with me, and sent me to a journalism camp at the University of Indiana.

Elementary education? He began to stockpile the storage room with materials that could be used to teach science to children – including two glass aquariums for class pets. He thought class pets were essentially to raising a new generation of zoologists.

After college, I spent a dozen years blissfully teaching middle and upper school English.  But this year I teach fifth grade humanities.   And, due to the persistence of these precocious 10-year-olds, I just purchased my very first animals for the classroom.  Two mice. Coco and Chanel.  “It’s like science in the classroom!” one girl exclaimed. Somewhere, dad is smiling.

Because I’m interested . . .

To what extent did your upbringing influence your educational and vocational choices?


Deborah is K-12 educator who nurtures a healthy interest in reading, writing, running, ethics, mystics, and interfaith dialogue.

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15 Responses

  1. imapsyc says:

    When I was in high school I told my mother I wanted to be a psychologist. She told me “you know, the only people who major in psychology in college are people who are messed up themselves and need help.” That discouraged me from studying psychology for about 5 years until I finally decided to forget her, and went on to get a PhD in Psychology and LOVE IT!

  2. Madam Curie says:

    My Dad had all girls where he wanted sons. Being the first-born, I bore the brunt of his “masculinization”. When I wanted to take ballet, he enrolled me in karate classes. When I wanted to play the flute, he urged me to take up trombone. Needless to say, when I wanted to major in history in college, my dad made it pretty clear that I needed to focus on getting a job that would “make money”. He actually threatened me with financial repercussions if I didn’t oblige him. So, I did my undergraduate in chemical engineering.

    He was really pushing for me to attend med school, but by this point I had grown a backbone and chose to get my PhD instead. Then he wanted me to get a job in industry, and I got married, had a baby, and started my own business. He was not happy with any of this. Thirteen years out of high school, I am doing more or less the same thing as my dad – working in an at-home business that offers me the lifestyle flexibility I want. The difference is that where he wanted to be a doctor and hates his accounting business, I am extremely content being an editor.

    Even though I begrudged him a lot of this as I was growing up, I am really grateful for what my Dad taught me. Without him, I wouldn’t have thought to push myself beyond my limits. He also turned me into a feminist – without him, I never would have come to realize that women really can do anything they want career-wise.

  3. Alisa says:

    What great memories of your dad, Deborah. For years I planned on being a physician, but ultimately gave it up because I was afraid it would impact my chances of getting married if meant my future husband would need to accommodate my medical training. In retrospect, it’s a sad reason to give something up, but I am still happy with what I chose instead. I’ve let my feelings over that lost career path go.

    When I decided to ditch my science training and go into the humanities and study what I loved regardless of earning potential, my dad (an engineer) told me about technical writers who he works with. I went into literature studies, but followed my dad’s advice to get a solid background in professional communication for job security. As a woman working full time in that field, I’m so glad he encouraged it, allowing me to earn a living and enjoy the literary arts through my educational background.

  4. ZD Eve says:

    I love this post, Deborah, especially as a new mother. That’s the kind of parent I want to be to be to my daughter.

    In elementary school, and even into high school, I thought I’d go into math or science. Although I read constantly on my own, I never liked English much because of the rigid, standardized way it was so often taught, in which narratives were reduced to neat little morals and we all had to answer five dull questions at the end of every reading “exercise.” When I took my first English class in college and found out how wildly the critics–the experts!–disagreed on nearly everything, I was hooked–and retrospectively betrayed. I couldn’t believe the way my high school English teachers had misrepresented literature as if it had a right answer!

    I went through overlapping phases of interest in encryption, chemistry, math, geology, and music. Doing logic as part of my philosophy major helped me sneak some of the math back in. I still wish I had time to pursue it further–it was so much fun, one of the most enjoyable things I’ve ever done.

  5. Keri Brooks says:

    Most people on my father’s side of the family are engineers. My grandfather is a professor of engineering. (There’s a joke that there’s a family math gene.) I showed early aptitude and interest in science, so everyone thought I would become an engineer or a physicist. I bought into that idea until I joined the debate team in high school and I fell in love with argument. I decided I wanted to be a lawyer.

    In college, I majored in political science. I took a philosophy class my sophomore year, and I felt the same passion for philosophy as I felt for debate. I threw around the idea of becoming a philosopher, but my dad reminded me that I needed something more marketable, so law school was still in the cards for me. I decided to go on a mission, and I went to law school right after I got home.

    I chose my law school poorly (which has been the subject of much of my personal blog), and I ended up getting kicked out because of some red tape. I had decided by that point that I really wanted to be a professor (my uncle became a history professor during this time), so I considered getting a PhD in philosophy. However, I felt unmistakably prompted to try law school again.

    To make a long story short, I’m back in law school somewhere different, I’m happy, and I’ve decided to become a law professor. I’m also getting back to the family engineering roots, since I work for a software startup and I’m specializing in intellectual property law.

  6. Deborah says:

    imapsyc: love your handle!
    Madam Curie, Eve, Keri, and Alisa: Thanks for sharing your stories. One of my favorite master’s classes was counseling psych. Because I took it over the summer, it was filled with female teachers — median age of 45/50? — who were looking to do something different. As we went through our own “vocational histories,” many tears were shed by women who “didn’t know” they could be anything but a teacher or a nurse — or whose parents had refused to pay for college for anything else.

    I like the term “vocation” over career, and I like to think that if we can quiet the “noise” enough to listen to ourselves, we can find the/a path that will satisfy our souls.

  7. jks says:

    Women in our country have more choices, so we are actually more likely to choose NOT to be in math and science fields. What is it about female puberty that makes them turn away from math and science? I was always so good at math but no field of math or science sounded the least bit interesting. My daughter is even in a gifted program but this year says she doesn’t really like math. I have done all I could reasonably do to encourage her interest.
    I think that she does have a lot of choices. While she is 95+ percentile in math, she is almost as good in other areas so she has many choices. So she will pick her interest and chances are her interest will be outside the math and science field.
    My son, however, will be good in math and science and definitely less talented in other areas. I’m guessing he will choose a math science field.
    So the article that really made me think will probably come true around here. Very interesting ideas.
    “The survey data showed a notable disparity on one point: That men, relative to women, prefer to work with inorganic materials; women, in general, prefer to work with organic or living things. This gender disparity was apparent very early in life, and it continued to hold steady over the course of the participants’ careers.

    Benbow and Lubinski also found something else intriguing: Women who are mathematically gifted are more likely than men to have strong verbal abilities as well; men who excel in math, by contrast, don’t do nearly as well in verbal skills. As a result, the career choices for math-precocious women are wider than for their male counterparts. They can become scientists, but can succeed just as well as lawyers or teachers. With this range of choice, their data show, highly qualified women may opt out of certain technical or scientific jobs simply because they can.

    These studies looked at different slices of the working world, but agree that in a world in which men and women both have freedom of choice, they tend to choose differently.”

  8. D'Arcy says:

    Well, my parents still shake their heads at me and ask “what exactly do you do?”

  9. Caroline says:

    My mom told me when I was young that I probably wouldn’t like math, but that I would be good at humanities. That happens to be true, but I do wonder how comments like that affected my confidence and steered me towards liking certain things more than others.

    A much more important thing my mom emphasized was ‘education for education’s sake.’ She wasn’t at all interested in me going to college to train myself for some highly practical field. Rather she thought it was great that I wanted to major in classics (one of the most impractical fields ever.) I’ve always appreciated that…

  10. Kelly Ann says:

    This is beautiful. What a wonderful tribute to your father and description of your choices. I of course love the science edge as well.

    I too was raised in a family of engineers (mostly civil). I attended every possible science fair as consequence. I “rebelled” into the life sciences. But I am grateful for knowing I could be anything I wanted to be and now appreciate my inherited idiosyncrasies of critiquing overpass and parking lot designs.

    However, as I have become older, I think of ways to re-invent myself. I think growing up is way over-rated.

  11. Two of Three says:

    Caroline- I,too, was raised in a family that believed in “education for education’s sake”. There was never any other choice for me or my siblings. It was college or college. I am grateful to my parents for this. They never discouraged me when I chose a non-practical major (anthropology). It is in stark contrast to my high school best friend who was not allowed to go to college because she was a girl and the money would be wasted. She always dreamed of being an architect and never got the oppertunity. First, her parents, then her husband felt she belonged at home. I always have wondered what kind of person she would be today if her family had believed in her.

  12. Ziff says:

    I really enjoyed this post, Deborah. I’ll have to think more about your question.

  13. amelia says:

    i loved this, deborah. i love thinking of your dad approving of your little coco and chanel.

    my upbringing had everything to do with my educational career. i grew up seeing my dad reading constantly and a book on my mom’s nightstand all the time. my mom started me on novels when i was six. and i grew up listening to my dad read poetry. i was surrounded by books in my house. and i used my weekly allowance to buy books my entire childhood and adolescence. it’s entirely unsurprising that i chose to study literature.

    when i graduated from BYU, i had the opportunity to do an MA in english at UVA. but i was hesitant. it would be very expensive. and i had no funding. my dad told me, with no hesitation, to go. that the debt to get an education was worth it. that decision has had everything to do with my pursuing my PhD now.

    there are ways that i’m an oddball in my family because of my education. i’m in the minority in my family having a bachelors. none of my siblings have graduate degrees. and i’m pretty sure most of my family has significant doubts and worries about me pursuing a career in academia. but mostly i think they’re proud of me for working hard and sticking with my program. here’s hoping that someday i’ll actually make it through.

  1. December 30, 2009

    […] With hope born again in faces of those here and before […]

  2. August 7, 2010

    […] And in honor of my dad’s birthday tomorrow, another look at “The Feminist Tale Behind the Pet Mice.” […]

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