Some weeks ago I saw the movie Hidden Figures, which is the story about three black women who worked as computers for NASA in the 1960s. If this movie had existed when I was a little girl, I think I might have chosen a different career path.

I was one of those smart ones. I always did really well in the state tests, and I did better in math than I did in English. My teachers in elementary school kept suggesting I go into the GATE program or into the Magnet program, but I didn’t want to leave my group of friends to go into another classroom. It was a recurring story in junior high as well — teachers telling me I should be in more advanced classes.

But I wanted so hard to be like everyone else in my class, especially the other girls. I wanted so hard to fit in. I dressed like them, did my hair like them, and stayed in classes that didn’t quite challenge me, just like them.

During my high school years, the two opposite influences in my life finally battled it out. Somehow the teachers managed to get me to take Advanced American English, Chemistry, various forms of Algebra, A.P. English, A.P. Biology, Calculus, and what-have-you. On the other end, because I liked the uniforms so much and did so well at the tryouts, I somehow managed to get on Varsity Cheer.

My Calculus teacher was thrilled with my work in the beginning of the year, but as the year wore on, and I found myself overwhelmed with homework, cheer practices, going to the games, teaching piano lessons, dealing with my parents divorcing, and planning for a college life after high school. I started doing less and less of the assigned math homework, until I was no longer doing any of it, and I went from being an A student to being a Calculus class dropout.

This was not me. I’d gotten an A+ in all of Trigonometry. I do very well in math when I pay attention.

But I didn’t pay attention. Math was a low priority for me at the time. I preferred to focus more on the English classes and their endless essays, even though I always scored more in the math sections of most tests. Why? Because science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) was boring to me. It was easy, and it was clear cut, but it was boring. It felt like work that wasn’t creative because the answer was always black and white, non-negotiable, whereas there were so many ways to compare two works of literature in a single essay.

However, if I had seen a movie like Hidden Figures, I would have seen STEM work as noble and exciting, meaningful and empowering. I would have paid more attention to all the teachers who kept trying to push me in that direction, and I probably would have gotten myself on a track that led to higher paying jobs in the real world.

As it was, I continued in my conflicted ways through college, overwhelming myself with a full load of highly academic classes, college cheerleading, and working part-time as a piano teacher and also at a movie theater. Again, it eroded my focus on my studies; I took the highest math class offered at Mesa College — Differential Equations — but as soon as I enrolled at UCSD, I stopped taking math entirely. I briefly considered double-majoring in math and English, but in the end I majored in liberal arts and literature/writing.

If only…!

It took spending some time with a robot enthusiast to realize my lost potential. As I helped design a robot to be more stable, I was told very simply that I have the mind of an engineer.

It was quite the revelation, especially as I was having fun at the time. I realized that STEM is NOT boring at all. It’s actually surprisingly fun and engaging. I mean, there I was helping to build a robot! And later, a drone! I totally could have been doing this all along and having loads of fun and loads of income.

It made me look back to many of the times I experimented on my own:

  • Taking apart wind-up toys and putting them back together in different ways to create different things.
  • Creating a “toy” syringe out of a ballpoint pen casing and a needle.
  • Playing with the programming games on my Commodore-64 and my Apple IIe.
  • Etc.

And it made me sad. What a waste of my aptitude!

Not that I regret getting into publishing and design. I still love what I do.

But I wish there had been more time to explore my STEM interests and abilities as well. I’m so far behind!

So, STEM world? Hello, again!

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