I was ten years old, staring down into a microscope Sister Mabel had brought into the classroom for all of us fourth-graders at St. Joseph’s school in Wichita, Kansas. Her assistant, Sister Norma, insisted a “full circle” would become visible and then we could adjust the knobs to bring the specimen into focus. I could get one eye or the other to see the circle, but not both. Even though our turns at the microscope were limited, I got a stiff headache before I could see anything of consequence. It was even more frustrating when other kids rejoiced, saying they could see what Sister Norma said was there, with little or no effort. I wanted to see whatever it was, too, but microscopic images of salt, sugar and pepper were visible to everyone but me.
Starting with the following Christmas and every year since then I have wished for a microscope. I knew I didn’t want a little person’s contraption. I wanted a big person’s microscope because I wanted to see the entirety of the world I barely glimpsed that day – and I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to see it with a toy. Instead of telling me the truth – microscopes were prohibitively expensive and the family budget simply couldn’t accommodate my request – my mother told me girls aren’t scientists. When I pressed the issue, it was that girls in our family aren’t scientists. And when I just wouldn’t let it go, it was that “proper” girls grow up to get married and become mothers, not scientists.
I begrudgingly accepted these notions until I was 12 years old. As is par for Catholic classrooms, we had the same teacher all year in all subjects and would through eighth grade. In seventh grade, Miss Harity, one of the few lay-teachers in our school, showed us the science in every subject. She was very excited about science; and the more excited she got, the more excited I got.
I got even more excited when she said she would be bringing in microscopes – as in more than one. Finally! I might be able to spend enough time on it to see what there was to be seen. But for now, she said, it was time for math. She divided the classroom into boys and girls for a math-problem-solving relay race at the board. I was not particularly good at math, but I stepped up when it was my turn and did my best. My best knocked out six boys in a row. I was on top of the world! The girls were going to win! Then the other girls started complaining about not getting a turn. I was being “unfair” and “hogging the board.” Miss Harity said it was time for me to sit down. Naturally the boys rejoiced all the way to their victory.
I stared at the other girls who didn’t seem to care about our tremendous and unjust loss. I stared at Miss Harity, who never looked me in the eye after that, and suddenly she became the poster child of the image my mother had laid out for me. Miss Harity was not married and had no children. She must, then, have settled for being a teacher who just happened to like science. And of course, I should’ve known that when those more-than-one microscopes showed up, the boys would get longer turns and who cares since I couldn’t see whatever was on the slides that day, either.
I abandoned the idea of ever being able to access that tiny world. After high school, I went to art school as my mother had instructed. I couldn’t calculate my way out of a paper bag and I was made fun of for correcting people who wondered how one could eat off the periodic table; but I could draw and had taught myself calligraphy. When I became pregnant before being married, my mother took me out of school and I was married off faster than you could say “That’s enough of that.” I had another child, divorced, remarried, and had a third child. There wasn’t enough money for indulgences for so long, I sent my fourth-grade aspirations to the back of my mind.
But I finally got my microscope. It was with no small amount of “Screw You World!” that I unpackaged it this last Christmas. I’m 51, I wear progressive lenses and my hand isn’t nearly as steady as it was when I was ten, but for the past few weeks I’ve been powering through headache after headache to glimpse the world everyone else has been able to see all along. I still can’t see it with both eyes, but I’ve finally figured out a way to see the circle and bring the specimen into focus because no one is there to tell me my turn is over and anyway I’m a girl. And when I first brought the edges of that teeny tiny bit of salt into focus, it was one of the most exciting moments of my life.