by Kate Carson
When my mother, a Wellesley graduate, first suggested a women’s college for my tertiary education, I would have none of it. I listed a dozen different NO-WAYs, starting with my non-existent dating life, coasting through: “Things are so much better for women now; do we really need that kind of feminism anymore?” And always landing firmly at: “The real world is co-ed. Don’t you want me to be prepared?”
Meanwhile, in that very real world, I studied physics. Mr. Hickey taught two sections of advanced placement, and the demographics were the same for each: 18 students, only 3 of us girls. I loved that class. Physics was hard and fun and exciting. The deeper I got into physics, the more curious I grew. I wanted to speak the language of calculus and understand all the things I could not see.
At the end of the term, we received our grades. I had done well. Very well. I put my grade slip away quietly. But the boys in the class, who outnumbered us girls 5 to 1, started posturing with each other. They wanted to know who was top of the class. Mr. Hickey wouldn’t tell them. He rolled his eyes and redirected, but the chaos escalated and the boys started shouting out their guesses of who was best at physics.
“Tom!” They guessed. “Aaron! Deepak! Mike!” they went on. “Steve! Brian!” They guessed boy after boy after boy until they had named every boy in the room. They didn’t guess a single girl.
Mr. Hickey looked furious. He snapped.
“You want to know who has the top grade in this class?” He asked. “Kate. Kate has the best grade in this class. And in the other section it’s Donia.”
You could hear a pin drop.
In the sobered silence, I understood. My classmates–kids I had grown with since kindergarten– didn’t realize that I was smart. They didn’t know that Donia and Sue and Emily and Ericka were smart. And when these peers learned how well we were doing in physics, rather than think more highly of us, they took it as a personal insult and kicked themselves for losing out to girls.
In the end, I decided that the real world could wait for a few more years. I went to Smith, a women’s college. I studied chemistry and physics. The physics department was tiny, 9 students. We taught each other, collaborated well, and built each other up. When we went to conferences together, physics professors from other schools asked us, with wonder and surprise, “How do you get so many young women to study physics at your school?”
We built a learning environment that welcomed, supported, and celebrated women. It made all the difference.
I transitioned easily back to the real world, teaching at coed schools, marrying a wonderful man, working in coed labs, studying further at coed graduate school. Single sex education did not hold me back in any of the ways that I feared. Instead, it elevated my education, nurtured me, and quieted the noise so that I could hear myself think.
At Nashoba Brooks, I see the benefits of this nurturing learning environment every day. My students are passionate about science. Hands shoot up with excitement. Eyes gleam wide with wonder. Heads nod together in collaboration. Here, everybody celebrates girls’ intelligence and ability. Girls come here to learn and grow well for a few years so that they can thrive for a lifetime.
Kate Carson teaches Grade 8 math and science at Nashoba Brooks School and serves as a Grade 7 and 8 advisor.