The test had elaborate drawings of wheels, cogs, levers, as if it had emerged from the fevered dreams of basement tinkerer. If one pulled a lever up, would the wheel rotate clockwise or counter-clockwise? There were dozens of questions like this. I finished the test and looked up and glanced about the room. Everyone else still had their head down, shoulders stooped as if this was a heavy burden. The occasional sigh and groan arose from a student. At the end of the test, I asked the teacher if there was any way to get books of puzzles like this because I enjoyed them so much. She looked at me for a moment as if I might be pulling her leg. After convincing herself of my sincerity, she said, “I don’t think so.” She looked at me a little bit strangely. “Why?”
“Because it was fun,” I said matter-of-factly.
She looked at me as if I’d lost my mind and suddenly I felt like a total freak. It was one thing to be enjoying taking a test when everyone else seemed to be agonizing. It was altogether another thing to let people know. No longer a nerdy kid, I had friends, I behaved in a socially appropriate manner, boys seemed to like me, but it came at a price. That price was constantly being misunderstood and underestimated.
The test had been one of about half a dozen that were administered during the course of that week. These weren’t class tests. Although it came in a booklet with a sheet containing dots to be filled in so it could be graded electronically, it was not the usual battery of achievement tests that we took almost every other year. It was a test to evaluate our strengths and weaknesses in preparation for career counseling. Consequently, in addition to the usual tests for reading comprehension and mathematical ability, there were also tests for clerical ability and mechanical ability, which is the one we had just finished.
A few weeks later, we were each called individually down to the guidance counselor’s office. We still didn’t have much of a choice in terms of our education, but as I understood it, choices would be coming. That’s what all of this was about. It was about careers and our educational program in preparation for those careers.
The guidance counselor was a genial older man, a good bit older than my parents and most of the teachers.
Sometimes, when you poke around on individual blogs and the comments sections of news sites, you can come across statements in which people want everyone to note their dramatic lack of sympathy for people who have had x, y or z education and training only to find that they are unemployed. “Well,” such a statement typically reads in response to someone’s child dying for lack of medical treatment, “what did they expect majoring in liberal arts!” What this statement ignores, besides basic human sympathy, is that good advice when one is thirteen may not hold true twenty years later.
One of my closest friends in college majored in physics. As she was finishing her doctorate, the Soviet Union collapsed. There was an influx of scientists from the former Soviet Union and the defense department stopped hiring. She had gone into the field for a love of physics, not for job security, still she was unprepared for the lack of jobs when she graduated. She worked in a dress shop and in a call center until the attacks on 9/11 got the defense department hiring again. Yes, some of those call center workers might have a Ph.D. in physics. “Well! What did they expect majoring in a theoretical field!”
I can console myself with the fact that she once told me that as a teenager she like to do mathematical proofs for fun. After all, there are freaks and there are freaks. What little girls do when no one is looking.
That we actually expect an individual with the ordinary perceptions of a mortal to give guidance is really quite a charade.
So I sat down in the student chair that was next to the guidance counselor’s desk on which sat a folder containing my school records. I never once had a reprimand or a detention, nor would I ever, and the folder was notable only for its thinness. The heavy weight paper containing the results of the skills tests sat on top. On the top of the paper was a graph shaped like a deep V with extended serifs. I saw the results of the mechanical score said 99. I asked the guidance counselor which question I had gotten wrong. He was slightly surprised by my question. I clarified that I was quite sure that I had gotten all the questions on the mechanical section correct. How was it that I didn’t have a 100. He explained to me what a percentile was and I was mollified. He explained that that still didn’t mean that I had gotten everything right, but deep down inside I knew I had. The bottom of the V was the score for clerical ability. As someone who couldn’t spell and couldn’t type, this was no surprise to me. I still can’t type or spell. If it weren’t for spell check, you would peg me as an illiterate.
“Have you given any thought to what you would like to do as a career?” he began by way of introduction.
I nodded. “I would like to be an engineer.”
He pressed his lips together as someone who has heard an incorrect response but wants to be sensitive in the way he corrects it. “I was under the impression that you were something of an artist.” I believe I had seen this man very briefly once about a year earlier. That he would have any impression of me at all came as something of a surprise. Indeed, a few years earlier I might have said “engineer or artist,” however as I was getting older artist was beginning to hold less and less appeal. Certainly, I would not have chosen at that young age an educational path that would deemphasize math and science.
“Art is a much nicer field for women.” There really wasn’t anything subtle about this conversation.
“But it’s very risky. A lot of artists can’t support themselves.” I countered.
“That won’t be a problem for you. You’re very pretty. You will probably get married.”
Years later, I would repeat this conversation to my mother. It’s stayed in my mind because it surprised me at the time. This was the late seventies. Second wave feminism had been well underway for over a decade. My mother worked. Most of my friends’ mothers worked. It would only be much later that I would find out that it wasn’t only feminism, but a changing economy, that would end the short-lived era of lower middle class women staying at home.
My mother said, “But he liked you.” That was exactly what was so insidious about it. He did like me, and not in a creepy, ignoring professional boundaries sort of way. I have met female artists with professional husbands. They have real careers. Their work is exhibited and reviewed. But at the lower level art pays so badly that even with a decent career they would never be able to pay their rent and put food on the table if they were unmarried. It’s not a common situation anymore, but the guidance counselor was older. I understand the life he saw for me. It didn’t occur to him to wonder whether or not I wanted that life for myself. Yes, I was smart and pretty, but it wasn’t in my character to use those characteristics to seek out a young man with good prospects. There have been days in my life when I’ve wondered if that wouldn’t have been the smart thing to do. But I don’t think it could have happened except by accident. As a career plan, it was frankly stupid. Yet this short, superficial conversation would come to symbolize the many ways I was pressured towards interests considered suitable for women. Most of the time, it would be more subtle and hard to be certain why I felt pressure. At least the guidance counselor told me in so many words that engineering wasn’t “nice” for women and art was.