Girls don’t need telescopes.

(What follows is an essay that I’ll be turning is as part of a scholarship application. This happened last night and I’m still very upset about it. I hope you’re upset, too. The encounter lasted for quite a while but the word count for the essay must be less than 500 words.)

I’d had another essay prepared for this application. It was a really good essay, too, but something happened last night that I feel very strongly about. I am compelled to share this experience with you as it pertains to my educational and career goals.

My son and I went to the observatory here on campus. He likes star charts and planets and imagining what aliens might look like. We climbed the spiral stairs and looked through viewfinders; we saw the stars and he was happy. As he leaned over the railing, he saw a group of kids playing chase and he asked if he could join in. I agreed and down we went. He tore off after the other boys and a girl, probably about ten years old, stood beside me. She told me, as gregarious and talkative children do, about her brothers and her favorite subjects and how much she likes “space stuff”.

When I showed her the star chart app on my phone, she said, “My dad has one of those on his phone but he won’t let me see it.” I showed her the Pleiades on my tiny screen and told her the old myths about the seven sisters. She said, “I want a telescope but my dad says girls don’t need telescopes.” I suggested maybe she just wasn’t old enough and she said, “No, he just says girls don’t need sciencey stuff. Girls don’t need telescopes.” I felt nauseous, but she continued, “We all want to look through the telescope, but my dad says the boys get to look first because I’m just a girl. I’ve been asking for a long time, but finally my brother asked, so we got to come.”

Our conversation continued and I chatted with her mother (who thought I was crazy for wasting my time with school) and the family finally left to go up the stairs to the observatory. The father and the boys went first while the little girl held her mother’s hand and bounced with excitement.

This is why I want to teach: I want to empower children, especially girls, with knowledge and curiosity. “Girls don’t need sciencey stuff” will haunt me for a long, long time.

My husband has deployed to Afghanistan; children there would gather around the troops and ask for candy or pens. He offered pens to the girls first, as pens are seen as tools for education and power. “Kahlum, meestuh? Kahlum?” (“Pen, sir? Pen?”) The thirst for knowledge is acute in the young, even in cultures where women are worth less than a goat…I never thought I’d see a family squash the light of curiosity here in America.

I will teach high school chemistry and I will add oxygen to the flame of curiosity. Girls need sciencey stuff.

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