Roll back 37 years to a ninth grader with a quasi-Afro and bell-bottom jeans talking with her counselor.
“What is physical science?”
“That is for students good in math and science. Pick another course.”
Times were different then. Ninth grade was in junior high and a science course was an elective.
Fast forward 32 years to an interview dinner in a historic downtown hotel. The interviewee's wife has flowing hair, attempts to be pleasant and is wearing a dress that is only appropriate because it is 110 degrees. The gentlemen interviewer inquires on the college subject she teaches. Upon replying chemistry she realizes the phrase chin hit the table was born when someone truly bruised their chin. There is no filter between his brain and mouth, and he blurts, “I would have guessed an art teacher.” No offense is taken. She finds humor in his stereotyping as she retrieves a mental picture of students making fun as she draws figures on the board.(The ratio of ducks to horses always helps explain difficult chemistry concepts.)
Return to the present at an evening social gathering. Gentleman number one is in a discussion with gentleman number two regarding when two is planning to retire. She joins the conversation by questioning where, what and the level he teaches and adds that she teaches at Bakersfield College. Gentlemen number one looks at her and asks, “What subject?” “Chemistry,” she says. Time stands still with entertainment as his brain-mouth filter is working yet he reaffirms actions speak louder than words. The list of adjustments in his eyes, head tilt, shoulders and weight-bearing leg will be skipped at this point to avoid reaching maximum word count. He struggles while searching for a reply, “Well you are the youngest chemistry professor I have ever met.” I understood what he meant, “I thought only old men teach science.”
These three experiences are not fiction. In addition, I have encountered bias much more serious and less entertaining. Nonetheless, despite the fact that I have had very few female mathematics or science teachers, it never occurred to me I could not choose to study subjects I found enjoyable. When I interviewed for the position at Bakersfield College, it was a diverse committee. I hope they selected me based on their judgement of my ability and work ethic. I have chosen to believe they could see beyond the visual and non-visual descriptions of me and did not choose me because I am a female.
Most of my students do not resemble my appearance. However, when I look at the females many remind me of my sister. I show them our picture and they ask if we have different fathers or if one of us was adopted. I tell them we have the same mother and father. They look me in the eye, remain silent and their body language speaks the truth. They don’t believe me. I am not offended by this. They are human and only know what they have experienced.
So, what is my point for showing them the photo? I want my students to know I don’t look at them and judge them and I don’t want them to do the same to me. Why would I care if they judged me? I am not trying to be their friend, per se. I just want to be a great professor and for them to allow me to be their mentor. I want them to believe that even if my size, color, ethnicity, religion, political views, gender, trials, tribulations, etc., are different, I can still be their mentor.
I encourage all students to let all teachers be their mentors. If we are to educate a continuously changing pool of human descriptions both the educators and pupils have to make this a two-way street. I ask students, as I don’t judge you, please don’t judge me. Let me be your mentor. It is for your benefit so you can reach your goals and maximum potential. And you reaching your goals is the only way I can reach my maximum potential as a professor.
Deborah Rosenthal is a chemistry professor at Bakersfield College's main campus and Delano.