I ‘came out’ as a non-scientist at an open mic night for scientists, science communicators, science teachers, historians and philosophers of science. Ironically, there was no need to ‘come out’ regarding my sexuality as the event was LGBTQ+ Science Showoff.
It was an inspirational opportunity to see a talented scientists share their research, tales from the lab and quibbles with life and studies.
I’m not a scientist, nor a mathematician. Could I have been? It’s possible, but my relationship to numbers and consequently all STEM subjects was potentially shaped by an incident with Mrs Montgomery, at St Agatha’s primary school in 1977.
One day in maths class, the concept of long division was proving too complex for yours truly. Even today, I don’t like the sound of it. Long. Division. The very opposite of Joy Division.
Mrs Montgomery was rosy with fury as basic mathematics continued to elude my 7 year old brain. To illustrate a point, Mrs Montgomery yanked an abacus from a shelf, plucked a wooden ball from it and proceeded to hit my forehead with the hard little orb, perhaps in an effort to knock sense into me.
This teaching method was, admittedly, highly experimental, even for the 1970s. Unsurprisingly, it failed to bring out the Einstein in me. At home, I told my mother about Mrs Montgomery’s Abacus Therapy.
A few days later, I found myself once again under the tutelage of Mrs Montgomery. It was a religious education class. The pseudo spiritual peace was suddenly broken by the sound of nearby commotion.
I heard the heels before my mother came into view. She stalked across the classroom, fox fur coat and a cloud of Je Reviens perfume. I saw the look of shock and fear on Mrs Montgomery’s face. My mum stood before that teacher, whacked her round the head, jabbed a finger in her quivering direction and bellowed, ‘Don’t you EVER touch my child again’.
She then turned on her heel, yanked me out of my chair and dragged me out of the classroom.
Many years later, it emerged that in the 1960s, my mum and Mrs Montgomery attended school together. Mrs Montgomery had been a prefect. My mum would have been one of those girls that chain-smoked at the school gates and wore their skirts way above the knee. It is highly likely she made Mrs Montgomery’s life a misery.
Mrs Montgomery’s revenge was to skip a generation and work on the offspring. I came to associate maths with both the Abacus Therapy and the shame of my mum slapping Mrs Montgomery. I failed my 11 +.
My time at Beverley Boys comprehensive was an unhappy one. At 16, I went to college to study for ‘A’ levels. Drama ‘O’ level was a dalliance to fill up the timetable. It seemed like the least taxing option. It wasn’t, but proved to be the most interesting. My teacher, a rather theatrical lady called Mary Kelly, who had pre-Raphaelite hair that fell to her waist, took me aside after a few weeks and said.
‘Can I tell you something urgent, Stewart? I think you have stage presence and should consider drama as your future’
I took this this unexpected drop of affirmation and ran with it. Business Studies was dropped and replaced with Theatre Studies. I later completed a BA in Drama. This means that if anybody calls me a ‘drama queen’ I respond by saying, ‘Yes, I am. Fully qualified thank you’.
I have no regrets in studying a subject that was unlikely to lead to a lucrative career. The sharing of this story is to illustrate a couple of points, the first being, if you want children to embrace mathematics, don’t hit them with an abacus. It should also be noted that if a student has to wait until they’re 16 before a teacher says anything positive to them about their potential, the education system has failed them.
In between my unfortunate experience with Mrs Montgomery and the dramatic intervention from Mary Kelly, yours truly concluded that STEM subjects were to be avoided. To this day, spreadsheets, graphs and technical challenges can cause anxiety. The fear of appearing stupid is deep rooted- but science fills me with wonder.
Several decades later, while working in a creative department for the MS Society, engaging and questioning researchers became a favourite part of the role. Trying to understand the condition inspired an interest in neurology, pharmacology, nutrition and stem cell therapy.
Part of my role was to communicate complex research findings to an audience of non-scientists. Five years of bridging that divide with the MS community led me to the Society for Applied Microbiology. My education continues and it seems you can teach an old dog new tricks.
It’s never too late to learn something new and never too early to give a child encouraging words.
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