Written by Nicola Ranson

Voices

My teacher… made me a feminist

Standard Issue writers are exploring when they knew they were feminist. Nicola Ranson was top in her maths class. Not that her teacher cared.

Illustration by Louise Boulter.

I was 11 and in my final year of primary school. I was in the ‘top group’ for maths, the sole girl in a group of boys. My male teacher would speak only to the boys, seemingly forgetting that I was even in that group. He’d come over to our table and greet us with a “Right then boys…” I didn’t belong in that group because I was a girl – he made that very clear.

When we took our exams I beat all the boys in my group and achieved the top mark for maths in the class. I was really proud of this, my mum and dad were proud of this, my grandparents were proud of this. My sister was eight and probably didn’t know what was going on, but I’m going to say she was proud of this. I felt clever and, maybe, even that I deserved my seat at that top table, despite the fact I was a girl.

A few days after taking the test, our teacher came over, greeted us “boys”, and started talking about an additional advanced exam paper he had entered the rest of the group in for. Every single boy had taken an additional exam – an advanced exam – to prove what they were capable of, to push themselves, to excel. But I hadn’t been given the option. I was the only one in the group that hadn’t been asked.

“We need to make sure if a girl dreams of being an astronaut, she is never told she can’t be one because she is a girl. That it is never implied that she can’t be one.”

But I got the top mark? I remember thinking, baffled. I was a nerd! I actually wanted to do extra. I liked maths. I liked my homework; I did my maths homework on the bus on the way home from school on Friday evenings.

I had missed out because I was a girl. It was the only explanation I could think of.

It was small. A tiny thing. But I was 11 and I cared so much that it crushed me. When I was mentioned in assembly for my top mark, I thought about that extra exam paper and I felt a little proud of my achievement but also a little sad. The stats said I was the best, but my teacher said I wasn’t. It didn’t matter what I achieved or what I did, my teacher still didn’t think I was the best because I was a girl.

It is easy to crush a child. They are made of Plasticine. If you stand on one part of them, crush that part of their dream, then it will change who they are, and change their path.

Before you get out your tiny violin to play a sad song for the poor little nerd who didn’t get an extra exam paper, I think this is important. Seventeen years later I still remember this and it still makes me annoyed. How dare my teacher make tiny 11-year-old me feel sad when she worked so hard.

You hear a lot about gendered toys and how this affects children, their view of who they are and who they can grow up to be. On Twitter, you see mothers and fathers firing impassioned tweets to Toys R Us about the pink branding slapped all over toy kitchens or doll sets, while boys are allowed to be pirates, engineers, doctors…

These might seem small issues, but they are symptoms of a system that still after all these years treats men and women differently. A system that opens doors for men and closes them for women.

“I felt clever, and, maybe, even that I deserved my seat at that top table, despite the fact I was a girl.”

These little things are the cracks in the wall that reveal the subsidence. The small patch of damp on the ceiling, hinting at a burst pipe, or a house-destroying leak. They might not appear to be big things on their own but they hint at greater societal flaws. A society that views men as the default setting. Men’s rights first. Women’s rights second.

We need to erase these little moments from our children’s lives. We need to make sure they don’t feel limited. That they can’t do something because of some stupid discriminatory reason – their race, their gender, a disability. We need to make sure every child feels that the world is their oyster, and we need to make sure that they never feel inferior to other children, because of the hand they were dealt at birth.

We need to make sure if a girl dreams of being an astronaut, she is never told she can’t be one because she is a girl. That it is never implied that she can’t be one. That when she goes to the shop to buy a toy spaceship, she doesn’t have to walk into the boys’ section to fetch it. That she is never made to feel that she doesn’t deserve to be there.

We need to make sure girls have role models. We need to make sure if a woman goes into space, she isn’t forgotten as soon as a man goes into space. Female role models exist but are so often hidden.

My story has a happy ending. One day, when my teacher wasn’t looking, I put a load of crayons on the radiator and turned it on. Sat back at my seat on the top table, I watched as the wax dripped down through the radiator grille and began to fill the classroom with the smell of birthdays. The grille around the radiator couldn’t be removed  – it was fixed to the wall. Nothing could be done. The wax dripped, covering the radiator with colourful streaks of gloop.

The teacher was livid. Beside himself. The wax was there for the rest of the year; no one could get through the grille to the radiator to scrub it off.

In fact I’m fairly certain if you go into the temporary classroom on the playing field at my old school, there will still be traces of wax on that radiator.

Read about more of our writers feminist lightbulb moments here.

@nicolaranson

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Written by Nicola Ranson

Nicola Ranson is a writer, amateur beekeeper and wonky crocheter who particularly enjoys ranting and puns. Sometimes at the same time.