I wanted to be a marine biologist. Instead, I chose “journalism” – the only recognizable writer-related field of study on my undergraduate application. Because that’s what I was told I was good at. That’s what I’d always done. Why would I have pursued anything else? Anything more?
This is my almost, should-have-been, still-could-be ‘women in STEM’ story: A story of books smarts, bullying, and (finally) believing in myself.
I was Hermione Granger in public school, in every sense of the modern-day archetype so many smart, young women in my cohort find themselves compared to.
I raised my hand, a lot. I sat in the front of the classroom. I took copious notes (that I later found out were ripe enough for the side-eye swiping). I read a lot, I spoke up. In short: I knew my stuff, and I wasn’t afraid to show it.
And I guess other people were intimidated by me.
I’ve been called ‘bossy,’ a ‘bragger,’ even more persistently: ‘overachiever’ since my early middle school days. It bothered me. It still bothers me.
It bothered me that it wasn’t permissible to my peers – my so-called friends – to excel without being made fun of or degraded in red-flushed shaming sessions. That my smarts were something to roll back, tone down, for the sake of letting everyone else feel better about themselves.
It got worse as I got older, when I started beating out the other kids (mostly boys) for the top-spot in the class rankings. I was made to feel like an outcast, put on a pedestal, and known only for my GPA average and my relentless hand-raised-in-question. (But it didn’t stop them from copying off my homework in free period.)
I was made to feel less-than, for my more-than-average test scores.
The boys I started to fear made it clear I could never be anything more to them than a textbook. They made normal conversations nearly impossible, since I wasn’t deemed approachable or even remotely like-able. More and more, my high school experience became an isolating hole of loneliness, as I found myself drowning in course work to avoid the embarrassing reality that my social life had become.
I didn’t even consider it, even when I started carefully selecting my course list to avoid certain peoples – the perpetuators of my impossible stereotype. I didn’t even consider it when we all graduated, and I picked an out-of-the-way school – just so I wouldn’t have to accidentally run into them all again. To be in high school all over again.
I never considered it bullying until this past summer, when I sat in a women-in-STEM roundtable on discrimination for my job. It was in that moment that I realized I had allowed my own aptitude for math and science to whittle away, ever so slowly, to the point of pursuing a communications degree in college – and then ultimately rejecting it for something more academically stimulating less than two years later.
Yes, I loved my English classes and was enrolled in journalism extracurriculars – but I also had a knack for algebra and a passion for environmental science and ecology that went nearly extinct by the end of my senior year in high school.
Intimidated by a culture I found far too disturbing (would this be how a STEM field feels all the time?), I picked a future I thought was more ‘me’ – a career path far less academically inclined, with much less pay and much less prestige compared to their good ‘ol boys systems engineering and corporate hedge fund pursuits.
Basically, I let a bunch of boys bully me into silence.
I laugh now, but it wasn’t so funny then. Throughout my early college career, I tried to convince myself by writing blog posts, producing more stories, and attending professional development conferences that journalism is my passion, this is my thing, this is me.
I burned out quickly – after just 3 semesters worth – because it ultimately wasn’t me. I pushed a shoe to fit too many times, and I finally paid the brutal, mental-health price in repressing my fear of classroom failure for so long.
Having an honest look back on my formative high school experience – to admit that what I experienced was, in fact, a form of bullying – has given me the courage to pursue my own dreams at all times today. I will no longer let the voices of some intimidated (male) peers determine the path of this ship.
It’s so important to believe in your own self, to believe that you are worthy of love, respect, and kindness – and also the ability to kick ass at something you’re good at.
Now that I’m on my way to discovering who and what my work in this life can be, I feel that I’m finally free from the school-plagued oppression I chained my own self to, for all those years.
I’m finally free to be me – unapologetically me.