For Ada Lovelace Day, I’d like to write about this girl from my high school. It was (and is) a huge school, with over 3000 students. I didn’t know Carla very well. She was in my classes, the “advanced” ones and the ones for gifted kids. Did we ever have a conversation? At all?
She almost always wore a funky old fashioned, maybe vintage, purple hat. How to describe the hat? Picture it being 1984, the outer fringes of suburban Houston. We’re maybe 15 or so, sophomore year of high school. It’s so totally Breakfast Club you wouldn’t believe it, but with more raw brutality. Carla’s hat was like something Queen Elizabeth would have worn. It was “weird” even among people who wore weird things, and it had massive amounts of dignity. This hat made me think of Harriet the Spy. Not because Harriet would have worn it but because it made her seem like a character out of Harriet’s world, like The Boy With the Purple Socks. So I thought of Carla as The Other Geek Girl, and The Girl in the Purple Hat.
In math classes, she was one of four of us who would always get 100% on everything, plus all the extra credit problems. Her, two dudes, and me. I was SO GLAD she was there. I wasn’t alone. Though I was a freak and geek and proud, it was so good to be just that little bit less of a freak, because she was there, a secret rock star in my head.
In computer math class, as we typed away on our machine-gun-sounding IBM keyboards, she was quietly, serenely competent. Her program would just work. She didn’t show off, but if someone asked, she would explain how to do stuff in Pascal, sometimes clearly figuring it out on the fly. She and I, and those same two dudes from math, and a couple of others, knew more than the teacher. (Not hard in a high school computer class, then or now.)
I was more flamboyant, competing openly and boasting and mixing it up with the boys who acted like they owned the world and who were so hostile and cruel. But Carla would just do her thing. She sailed on through. The bullshit never seemed to touch her. I admired her so much. I felt like I could never be like her. Just doing it, so matter-of-fact. I wondered, did she feel like I felt? Was she struggling? Was she angry? Was she being harassed all the time? Did she have anyone to geek out with? Was she having any of the issues I was slamming up against at high speed? Did she like science fiction?
What if we had talked to each other? Maybe she would have just been like, “Yeah whatever, skank.” Or we might have had nothing to say other than “Nice math test!”
No one would think of me as shy, but I was too shy to say anything to the other obvious geek. Part of that wasn’t individual shyness but of not wanting other people to comment on us or target us any more than already happened. If we banded together, we would just be a bigger target.
It sticks with me, sticks in my head, that she inspired me and gave me courage, maybe even sisterhood or shelter, just be being there and being awesome. I think I’ll try to find her on Facebook, and say so . . . Thanks for being awesome, Carla!
I had this whole mythology of a person developed in my head, but how much nicer it would have been to try to get to know a person.
An extra note, the upcoming issue of Cascadia Subduction Zone is on Women in Science! I think it will be out next week and it will be well worth a read!
And, I’ll be at GeekGirlCon all weekend in Seattle, so if you see me, come say hi!