The only woman in the room: I studied hard in physics and pulled ahead -- but why do I only remember that first failing grade?

I wasn't the only one struggling in introductory physics, but I was the only girl -- and it nearly broke me

Published September 12, 2015 6:00PM (EDT)

  (<a href=''>Alex_Traksel</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
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Excerpted from "The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is Still a Boys’ Club"

Of course, more than a few of the 118 boys in that introductory physics class had trouble keeping up. But I didn’t know that then, any more than I knew most of the boys worked on their problem sets together; in assigning all the female science majors to Silliman, the administration had prevented us from stumbling on the boys doing their problem sets together in the all-male entryways on Old Campus. Then again, I wouldn’t have had the courage to ask those boys for help. Why would I have let them know how desperately behind I was? As to seeking out my professor, why would I expose my ignorance to such a brilliant man?

That left only Erika, but her problem sets came back with even lower scores than mine. How could she remain so insanely confident? No matter how difficult a class, Erika was never ruffled. She was like some small, pugnacious dog—a female version of the Yale mascot, Handsome Dan—who finds herself in the ring with a Doberman or Rottweiler and dances about, snapping and strutting so brazenly that the larger, fiercer dog becomes suspicious and backs away.

I spent the rest of that semester holed up in the basement of Kline Science Library searching through book after book in the hope of finding a sample problem similar to the one I needed to solve for that week’s homework. Or I sat in my room, reading the same difficult passage in Halliday and Resnick over and over. If not for Laurel’s presence at the adjoining desk, I might have lost the power to communicate with another human being. Laurel was struggling with her pre-med courses, and we found solace in each other’s sighs, the squeak of a highlighter against a page, the crackle of a sheet of graph paper being crumpled and tossed in my much-used wastebasket. Laurel was more accustomed than I was to finding comfort in her female friends, and every now and then she would snap her biology textbook shut and say, “Okay, roomie, that’s it for me,” and we would brew Lipton Cup-a-Soup in our hot pots and talk about her boyfriend, Bill, and how he was doing at MIT, or why Barry hadn’t responded to my letters. Then we went back to studying, only to take another break to walk to Wawa’s, where we would buy a gallon jug of grapefruit salad so tart my lips pucker at the memory, or descend to The Buttery in the basement, where we ordered coffee and English muffins to revive our brains.

I didn’t meet another physics student who was suffering as much as I was until we took our midterms. As the class crowded around Professor Zeller’s door, I stood on my toes and saw a big red 32 markered beside my name. Thirty-two? Did numbers go that low? Wobbling away, I came upon my classmate Ronaldo, who seemed equally as distraught as I was. Ronaldo was yet another Yalie whose ancestry puzzled me: he had grown up in Mexico, but he had a fair complexion and spoke English without an accent. Unlike most Yalies, there was something hangdog and vulnerable about Ronaldo; maybe it was that his mustache drooped and he walked with a romantic limp (I never asked why—maybe he’d had polio as a child). When it turned out his score was barely higher than mine, I felt oddly euphoric; for the first time, I could join a boy in complaining about a grade.

Back at my suite, I listened to Ronaldo agonize about how to tell his father he might not pass physics, which, as an architecture major, he needed for the upper-level requirements. That anyone’s parents might want him to succeed in physics struck me as bizarre. My father rarely wrote letters, but I still have the note he sent in response to my anguished revelation that I had gotten a 32 on my physics midterm. “It was nice speaking to you the other nite,” he starts, then immediately advises that I have “picked too tough a schedule” and bets that “a couple of more grades like the one in Physics will turn you from that course.”

If you had asked my parents, they would have said they wanted me to succeed. But they didn’t want me to set my sights too high, only to be disappointed. They didn’t want me to attract the malevolent gaze of the Evil Eye. Most of all, they wanted me to be able to earn a living until I married a man who would earn my living for me, and physics seemed unlikely to accomplish either goal. There were no women physicists, and even if there had been, no man in his right mind would have married one.

Well, if everyone expected me to major in English, why not go ahead and please them? Deciding to drop physics seemed as easy and alluring as falling asleep in snow. I trudged up Science Hill to ask my professor to sign my withdrawal slip. To get to Gibbs Physics, one needed to battle one’s way past the Kline Biology Tower, which resembled a giant Tootsie Roll on its end. The pillared arcade surrounding Kline funneled the wind, so I was forced to bend ninety degrees to cross it, then summon all my strength to open the metal door to Gibbs. Inside, I took the elevator to Professor Zeller’s floor, then navigated corridors lined with thick conduits for wires, humming generators, photos of the all-male faculty, and corkboards with the answers to problem sets for upper-level courses (if those were the answers, I didn’t want to see the questions). I found my professor’s office and convinced myself to knock because returning without his signature would consign me to even worse humiliation.

“Yes?” he said. “Come in.”

I was so flustered I could barely talk, but he smiled encouragingly, and I managed to stammer that I had gotten a 32 on the midterm and needed him to sign my drop slip.

“Why?” he asked, as if the answer weren’t obvious. When I didn’t say anything, he told me that he had gotten Ds in his first two physics courses. Not on the midterms, in the courses. The story sounded like something a nice professor would invent to make his least talented student feel less dumb. In his case, the Ds clearly were aberrations. In my case, the 32 signified I wasn’t any good at physics.

That I didn’t drop the course can be attributed to what my professor told me next. “Don’t pay attention to how anyone else is doing. Just swim in your own lane.” Seeing my confusion, he said he had been on the swimming team at Stanford. His stroke was as good as anyone’s. But he kept coming in second. “Zeller,” the coach said, “your problem is you keep looking around to see how the other guys are doing. Keep your eyes on your own lane, swim your fastest, and you’ll win.”

I gathered this meant he wouldn’t be signing my drop slip?

“You can do it,” he said. “Stick it out.”

For once, being female was an advantage. I developed such an overpowering crush on Professor Zeller that I stayed in the course for him. As he raced around writing equations on the board, I lost much of what he said because I kept fantasizing about what those swimmer’s shoulders would look like without a shirt. But my reluctance to disappoint the object of my crush prevented me from giving up. Week after week, I struggled to do my problem sets, until, by the end of term, they no longer seemed incomprehensible. Which is why, the deeper I tunnel now into my copy of Halliday and Resnick, the more equations I find festooned with comet-like exclamation points and theorems whose beauty I noted with exploding novae of hot-pink asterisks. The markings in the book return me to a time when, sitting in my cramped room, I suddenly grasped some principle that governs the way objects interact, whether here on Earth or light years distant, so my heart raced and my skin grew hot and my mind expanded to contain the universe, and I marveled that such vastness and complexity could be reducible to the equation I highlighted in my book. Could anything have been more thrilling than comprehending an entirely new way of seeing, a mystical layer beneath the real, a reality more real than the real itself?

What stuns me isn’t that I got off to a shaky start and, much to my credit, studied hard and pulled ahead. It’s that the version of the story I always tell is how I was so terrible at physics that I earned a 32 on my first exam and never caught up. For my entire four years at Yale, I saw myself as handicapped or behind.

The truth is, the less a subject had to do with the visible world, the more talented I was at solving problems. I was nearly as far behind in calculus as I was in physics. But I wasn’t the only woman in the class, so I felt more comfortable asking questions. And I discovered I was far more gifted at imagining the behavior of an infinite number of infinitesimally tiny quantities than of bullets, bats, and cannons. The same held true for chemistry. I had an easier time picturing the dance of a nucleus and its electrons than the path one billiard ball might follow after hitting another. Laurel was in the class, along with Barbara, Bobbi-Rae, and a frail, shy psychology major named Rochelle, who struck me as the kindest, least competitive woman I knew at Yale. Our textbook showed no chemists of either sex, and the equations described a universe in which the greatest division lay not between female and male but positive and negative charges.

The disaster came in chemistry lab. After so many years of carrying out my own lame science projects at home, I was allowed to perform experiments in a laboratory more substantial than one that could be folded up in a case. Maybe if that first class hadn’t fallen on Rosh Hashanah, or I hadn’t worn a dress and pantyhose, or I hadn’t felt so humiliated standing there with my mottled, smoking legs being stared at by sixteen male classmates, I might not have come to see myself as unable to pick up an instrument or a piece of glassware without causing some catastrophe.

As it was, I accepted the role of the perky but bumbling co-ed and played it to the hilt. Even though I cried, genuinely distraught, each time I caused a mishap, I related each incident with relish to my friends back home. Everything about my childhood had prepared me to play this part. Hadn’t I spent junior high and high school practicing how not to look smart in front of boys? Hadn’t I grown up giggling at Gracie Allen and loving Lucille Ball? Freshman year, I went to see Bringing Up Baby with my fellow physics major Jim. He found the movie to be annoying, but I took home the message that bringing down a T. rex skeleton was a highly effective way for Katharine Hepburn to persuade Cary Grant to marry her.

As much as I worried that the guys in my lab saw me as a clumsy broad, I also got the sense they liked me. My partner, a stocky rugby player named John, thought I was so adorable that one day, in the middle of an experiment, he threw me across his shoulder and carried me down the stairs. Larry, the lab assistant, seemed dismayed by my many screwups, but he paid me more attention than he paid my male classmates. If nothing else, my disasters made the boys feel better about their own fumbling attempts to get their experiments to succeed.

What none of them guessed was that I was the one bringing up the curve. When the time came to write up my lab reports, I provided more extensive error analyses than the handouts required and offered more comprehensive explanations of the theories behind the experiments. None of this came easy. My parents balked at spending two hundred dollars on one of the amazing new Texas Instruments calculators most of my classmates owned, so I carried out my calculations on my slide rule, spending an extra twenty hours a week writing up my error analyses. But even with my clumsiness at the bench, I earned all As.

That was the double bind that strangled me. If I did poorly, I would prove women never did finish their degrees in science or math; if I succeeded, I would be even more unpopular than before. Bad enough to be a girl who had gotten all As in high school; how much more of an oddball would I be if I earned all As as a physics major at Yale? The only way to escape this paradox was to do well on my exams and lab reports but remain quiet in class and present myself as a lovable if clumsy clown in lab.

My best performance came at the end of the second term of P-Chem. My three lab mates and I had just spent a month synthesizing a compound whose name sounded like cis-boom-bah. I was to return to the lab that night and pour the liquid our group had so painstakingly synthesized through a suction filter to distill what should have been 0.30 grams of a purple crystal. Stirring the sediment with a glass rod, I scratched the filter and . . . whoosh! . . . the hose sucked a month’s worth of work into the waste receptacle. Terrified that my partners would no longer be amused by my ineptitude, I poured the contents of the waste drum through a new filter. The next day, as Larry and my teammates watched in amazement, I caused 20 grams of fluorescent orange crystals to materialize in the funnel.

The script was writing itself. Wasn’t this the plot of every screwball comedy I had ever seen? Perky but absentminded co-ed makes a shambles of the lab. Then she accidentally discovers a strange new compound and works all night with her lab instructor to solve the mystery of the compound’s essence. Over coffee at dawn, they fall in love. “Whose name goes first on the article?” the co-ed asks. “We’ll just have to publish under the same last name,” the instructor replies, laughing.

Instead, Larry ordered me to make up for my blunder by figuring out the structure of the compound I had synthesized. He didn’t have time to guide me through the analysis but offered to let me use the lab after hours. I had visions of figuring out that the orange compound was a substance never before seen on Earth, with properties that cured humankind’s every ill. Then I realized I couldn’t have identified a teaspoon of Kool-Aid unless I had seen the instructor ladle it from the jar. The prospect of figuring out which tests to run and how to run them made me ill. So I didn’t pick up that lab key. I was afraid I would fail the course. But when the grades were mailed home, I saw that the instructor had docked me only a few points for my clumsiness, and I still received an A.

The trouble was, I felt like a failure. Whenever I heard the word chemistry, I saw the contents of that filter getting sucked into the waste receptacle, saw those bright orange crystals of cis-boom-bah appearing in the funnel when my teammates were expecting purple. I felt ashamed I hadn’t shown up to identify the mysterious orange compound, even though a much more complex set of skills would have been required than I was likely to possess. From then on, whenever I stepped into a lab, I thought of myself as a danger to myself and others.

Excerpted from "The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is Still a Boys’ Club" by Eileen Pollack. Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

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