I Can’t, but I Can

by Michelle B. Larson

I can’t sing.

In second grade mom was called into a parent teacher conference. The teacher asked if she could talk to me about mouthing the words when the class sang. I sang out of tune (enthusiastically, but out of tune). Apparently, I was distracting everyone else. Clearly, singing doesn’t come naturally. Enthusiasm, screw it.

In college I held a job at a Rangeland Insect Lab. I spent months in Montana pastures sweeping up grasshoppers with only my headphones and singing to pass the long, dry, hot days. I loved the music so much I sang while at the microscope back in the lab. I sang until a fellow college student pointed out that I can’t sing. Why did I feel so compelled to do so? Could I, please, stop.

I can’t sing.
But, wait. I can learn.

Junior year in college I took singing lessons. It started rocky. But, I could see the professor believed in me. He politely ignored my out-of-tune bellows. He ignored them for weeks. Offering technique pointers now and then, but never questioning my ability to, someday, get it right. Then, someday came. I’ll never forget his face. Yes! Yes! Michelle, Yes! You’ve got it.

I can sing!

I joined the choir. Turns out I’m a high soprano. Who knew. I can sing! What doesn’t come naturally was conquerable with hard work and perseverance. I can learn. Singing still doesn’t come naturally. And, high soprano doesn’t sound great along with the car radio. But, I know, when I work at it, I can sing!

You can’t do math.

Perhaps mom and dad say they can’t do math either. Yet, math is interesting, especially as it applies to the world around you. But, math doesn’t come naturally. Enthusiasm, screw it.

You can’t do math.
But, wait. You can learn.
If you work at it, you can do math.

You can do math!

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One response to “I Can’t, but I Can

  1. There is an interesting idea hiding here about the social psychology of math and science — both on the scientist side and the public side.

    Very few people go around the world proclaiming that they *hate* music or *hate* singing (though they may resist playing karaoke) — but they all still sing in the car, at parties, and in the shower, no matter how bad they are. Tons of people proclaim that they hate math and science, or that they were bad about it. But the truth of the matter is, they all still do some math all the time! They balance their checkbooks, the compute how long it will take to drive to Salt Lake City, they count how many days left til Christmas. They don’t do path integrals any more often than I do covers of Pavarotti. But does it matter?

    As scientists, we often want people to feel better about their ability to do math and science, but I wonder if that is the right goal? I suspect what we want is for people to *appreciate* that math and science is important, in the same way that I appreciate that phone book sculptures have artistic significance. I can’t make my own phone book sculptures (I could, but they’d look like phone book mush), so why should I expect everyone to be able to do algebra?

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