Someone Like Me

by Nan Petersen

My senior year in high school I took Advanced Placement English, a challenging literature class with the goal of preparing class members to take a test for which a passing grade earned college credit. I already loved the subject matter, but the class itself was delightful primarily because of our wonderful teacher, who also happened to be the gospel doctrine instructor in my ward.

It was Utah. A lot of my schoolteachers growing up were LDS women. But in this particular case, and knowing Mrs. Reed’s background, her gospel teaching shined through her literature teaching. I’ll never forget our lesson about rotting hippo meat and cannibals while reading Heart of Darkness that was essentially a discussion about living in the world while not being of the world. She challenged and amazed us every day, and I came to see what it really meant to learn from every good book.

Fast forward 22 years (how can it be that long ago?!) and I’m standing in front of my own senior English class reading “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” from the Canterbury Tales and marveling when one particularly engaged young woman raises her hand at the end of the story and asks the very question I was about to ask. While we discussed what transformations can happen when we truly learn to love and look on the heart, I could feel that undercurrent of truth-teaching that characterizes great literature. Mrs. Reed would have been so proud.

Though I don’t regret my career path, I sometimes wonder if I might have chosen differently if Mrs. Reed had been Dr. Reed. And not the Ph.D-in-literature type of doctor. Although I was surrounded by working women as a girl—my mother, my aunts, etc.—they held jobs as nurses, secretaries and teachers. Not to say that these jobs aren’t fulfilling, necessary and challenging in any way, but they are jobs in which there was never any glass ceiling to break. They are the same jobs that women have always done; perhaps because organizing, teaching and nurturing are natural extensions of the work women do at home. While being told at every turn that I could do/become anything I wanted, how could I truly aspire to be something I had a hard time imagining?

I covered for a geometry class a few weeks ago at my school, and in the back of the math room is a poster that looks as though it has been there through several teachers. It is slightly yellowed on the edges, the graphics aren’t from this millennium and it isn’t attached as well as it probably once was. The large poster fills a big chunk of the back wall, right underneath the first hundred digits of pi. It proclaims, “The Men of Mathematics” and presents a timeline going back hundreds and hundreds of years. This poster, innocently placed in another age by a male math teacher patting himself of the back for decorating his classroom, frustrated me beyond belief as I taught math that day. The washed-out poster was continually within eyesight as I stood in the front of the room: the eyes of so many venerable and very dead men on me, challenging me, a woman, to teach their great insights to these children.

I thought of the hundreds of girls that must have passed through the doors in the years since that poster was placed, being continually reminded that, whatever their teacher had to say otherwise, math was for men. Is this the best that can be done in 2014? Really? In a generation when women are going to college in unprecedented numbers, wouldn’t it be wonderful if their influence was felt more broadly in every field, including science, technology, engineering and math?

This week our school held parent teacher conferences, and I shared my message there too with my science students. Whenever I had the mother or father of a particularly bright young person (and many of my brightest freshmen are girls) in front of me, I emphasized science as a viable career path, encouraging them to continue with the “hard” sciences after they finish biology next year—chemistry, physics, anatomy and physiology. I mentioned to one girl that I thought she had potential in the medical field and her eyes widened when I said the word “doctor.” Some people have to become doctors. Why not her?

Though I’ve spoken here of doctors and engineers, blood and pus kept me from the former and too many tears over calculus from the latter. My work as a teacher is fulfilling and meaningful to me and my personality and skills are well-suited to it. My point is not to imply that some careers paths are more or less valuable than others, but to demonstrate how hard it is to become that for which you have no example. When we work with our daughters and young women we are so effective at demonstrating righteous womanhood and nurturing motherhood. We show them what devoted church service looks like. I would also hope that we don’t hide the good work of our jobs (whatever they may be) under a bushel.

More important than the crafting and cooking skills we teach our girls, or even the discussions about jobs outside the home, is the conversation about prayerful consideration of choices and understanding the unique plan God has for each of us. A message I read time and again here is the need for personal revelation when it comes to decision-making. Rather than foisting some cultural idea onto our daughters and young women about the “perfect” cookie-cutter life they are all striving for, we should be guiding them with the pure doctrine of personal revelation and continual self-improvement. It doesn’t matter so much if our girls see us as teachers, engineers, doctors, mothers, lawyers, bloggers, crafters, chefs, or some combination of jobs and roles, what matters is that they see us making deliberate, prayerful choices. The key to happiness is not becoming the CEO or the eight cow wife or a Nobel Prize winner, it is instead knowing you are on the path God would have you on. When these searching young women see leaders, mothers, and mentors anxiously engaged in both the work of the church and the work of the world for the benefit of God’s children, they will truly have examples worth emulating.

8 Comments on “Someone Like Me

  1. Perfectly perfectly said! I have so much I could say about being an LDS woman with a career in business. I know a lot of women who teach because the schedule is family-friendly. Wouldn’t it be great if other (typically male) professions offered similar benefits.

  2. “what matters is that they see us making deliberate, prayerful choices.” That is one of the more insightful things I have read in a long time. Thank you.

  3. This is a terrific post! Its reminds me of the work the Gina Davis Institute is doing through their “See Jane” program. Their motto is “If she can see it, she can be it”, which I love. I often think about whether my career path would have been more ambitious had I seen, and been able to take for granted, women working in every field. What a huge impact these subtle (and not so subtle) messages from our environment have on our individual and collective lives.

  4. This post hit the perfect note! You’re absolutely right in that it isn’t about what we choose but about how we go about making decisions.

    I think you should make a poster of The Women of Mathematics and put a photograph of each girl in the class on it (as well as photos of historical women in mathematics, because they are there).

    And for any LDS girls or women hesitating on education or careers in STEM fields because they may not be “family friendly,” having them read this address by Cecil Samuelson:

  5. Thanks for this reminder that being prayerful and letting young people know that answers to prayers don’t always go in a straight line, and that we need to keep asking.

    I’m at peace with many things in my past, but those times that are hardest to let go of are the ones when I had received an answer, and I let someone else talk me into not trusting my own worthiness to receive answers.

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