In 1992, Mattel released Teen Talk Barbie, who uttered the infamous words, “Math class is tough.”
Public outrage quickly followed, including criticism from the American Association of University Women in a report on how schools shortchange girls.
“Although many students struggle with math, this message from a popular toy only helped to reinforce negative stereotypes about girls’ math abilities, despite ample evidence of their achievements.”
Each doll was programmed to utter four out of a possible 270 phrases, including “I love shopping,” and “Will we ever have enough clothes?” Following complaints, Mattel altered the computer chip to remove the offending phrase.
I remember when this doll came out. I was past the stage of playing with Barbies, but not too old to remember my own struggles with math class.
Elementary school wasn’t too bad, and I managed to grasp the basic numeracy skills needed to enjoy some level of academic success. I grasped the concept of geometry and learned my times table.
But in Grade 8, it all went horribly wrong. My brain was just not wired to grasp the concept of adding “a plus b divided by c”, and so on in algebra class.
In my report card, the common theme was “does not think logically.” In any of my arts subjects — English, French, history — I did well and enjoyed the classes. But math and science? Forget it.
And then in Grade 10, it somehow came together, due in large part to a wonderful teacher who was able to translate the material so it made sense.
And so I began Grade 11 with a sense of optimism, which quickly turned into a feeling of doom when I realized I was in over my head, but needed the class in order to graduate the following year.
So I struggled. And struggled. And struggled. And all I could think was, “I will never in a million years be considering a career that requires me to use algebra.”
And sure enough, I failed the course. So naturally that meant spending three hours a day, five days a week for the entire month of July at summer school. I would like to say that it all became much clearer to me. It did not.
To be sure, I was probably distracted, thinking about the beach time I was missing, the sleeping in, the lovely, lazy days of summer that teens cherish.
Grade 12 began and where was I? Back in Grade 11 algebra, only this time it was about as basic a class as possible. And yes, I passed. I’d like to say I passed with flying colours after all this. The best I could manage was a C.
So math is not my thing. And it’s not a girl thing: my dad was lousy at math but has succeeded in his chosen field for 50 years, while plenty of my female classmates were straight-A math students.
A few months ago, I found myself at a wonderful parent education program offered by the Vernon School District called You Can Count on Me. Along with other parents of Grade 1 students at Beairsto, I listened as learning resource teacher Kim Nenzen offered us simple strategies to help our children improve their numeracy skills. We were given some games to take home and plenty of information. But the one thing that has stayed with me is that we should not admit to our kids that we were bad at math.
So to my daughter I vow to not own up to my pathetic math skills or lack thereof, because I want her to have an open mind. It’s early days, but I’m feeling hopeful.
When we decided on French immersion for our daughter, my husband and I were clear: I would be the one to help her with French, he would help with math.
Because in either language, I’m still bad at math. I won’t admit it to my daughter, but I fear she’ll know the truth soon enough.
– Katherine Mortimer is the Lifestyles editor of The Morning Star