In Orange County I've served two terms as secretary for the Westminster-Fountain Valley-Huntington Beach Branch of AAUW (American Association of University Women. Our annual fundraiser luncheon comes up on March 17. We support Tech Trek, summer camps for girls middle-school girls to support their interest in STEM...science, technology, engineering and math. I recall how I struggled when I was that age with the mere concept that girls could achieve in this area.
My story here originally was published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons for Mastering the Law of Attraction.
Kisses for Mr. Castle
“Give me a kiss to build a dream on, and my imagination will thrive upon that kiss.” -- Louis Armstrong
By eighth grade, at age twelve, I’d pretty much bought into the common credo that girls couldn’t succeed at math or science.
“Girls don’t become scientists,” Mama said, totally ignoring Madame Curie. “Take typing and shorthand. If your future husband dies, you can always get a job as a secretary.”
Such was the common wisdom in working class families back in 1950. Girls could become nurses, teachers, librarians and secretaries. Those were the choices for those unlucky enough to remain single or to become widowed. So I gave up even before I started, and still have my junior high school report cards to prove it, sprinkled with dismal C’s in science and math.
Daddy also reinforced the myths that girls could not grasp the subtleties of algebra or geometry, or succeed in scientific endeavors. In early l950, we’d received a letter suggesting that my scores on the Iowa Standardized Tests were high enough to qualify me for a career in engineering.
“It’s a mistake,” he’d said with a chuckle, tossing the letter into the wastebasket. “They must have thought you were a Terry, a boy.”
By the last semester of eighth grade, though, I had a goal. My English teacher, Miss Laird, had written in my autograph book: “Good, better, best. Never let it rest, ‘til your good is better, and your better’s best.” Since then I’d longed for a straight A report card to please her. But how could I get it, with my mandatory science class? And this year I had Mr. Castle with his famous formidable projects.
All of his science students had to conduct research, prepare a visual exhibit, and give an oral report. Though we could be creative in choosing a topic, it had to relate to science. Science to me meant engines! Test tubes! Electricity! I still viewed the new television sets I saw in store windows with awe. Pure magic. And my father, a mechanic, sighed as he wiped his greasy hands, after trying to interest me in how our sedan’s motor worked.
“Some students do chemical experiments,” Mr. Castle suggested, when we asked for examples. I envisioned explosions that would hurtle us through the windows, with no “drop drill” exercise to protect us from the impact.
“Some like botany, and have collected and categorized various leaves into scientific classifications.” I couldn’t tell an oak from a maple, let alone a phylum from a species.
After class I stopped by his desk.
“I don’t know what to do,” I began, “I get stage fright when I have to speak, and my parents say girls aren’t good at science. So how can…”
Mr. Castle threw up a hand to stop me mid-sentence.
“No! Anybody can be good at science,” he said. “All you have to do is be curious. Curious! Just think of something that you love, and research that. No matter what it is, you’ll find it’s related to science. Forget the stage fright. If you love something, and it’s evident, so will your audience.”
Besides family and Miss Laird, what I loved most were acrobatics, baton twirling, and tap dance, but I couldn’t see how I could relate any of that to science. I also loved reading Ray Bradbury, but that was science fiction, not science.
Then I thought of Hershey Kisses, in their glittery little silver wraps. Though I later learned that Kisses dated back to 1907, during my childhood they were no longer around, since foil had been rationed for the war effort. Kisses returned on the market just as I started junior high, and I was an immediate fan.
I doted on them, but nibbled them sparingly to avoid the dreaded zits that allegedly could dot my face. At mid-century we still believed that chocolate caused pimples, but Kisses seemed safe, not as much chocolate as in a full scale candy bar, but a bit more than in one of the chips my mom used for baking cookies.
In pre-Internet days, research meant heading for the encyclopedias. Luckily, I had library science as an elective, so whenever I had a spare moment between shelving books, I read up on the history of chocolate, and how the Maya and Aztecs extracted it from cacao beans. I learned that chemistry showed that the principal alkaloid is similar in structure to caffeine, providing that little lift. I could also chart out details of how chemists and biologists over the years had worked to improve the quality of chocolate by breeding a better cacao bean.
For botany, I tracked chocolate from Kingdom Plantae to Species Cacao. For physiology, I outlined the nutritional content of chocolate, fats, sugars, carbohydrates and proteins, and demonstrated how the body converts food into energy.
Still needing color, I decided to write to the company in Hershey, PA, to plead for materials. They responded, sending posters and photographs that arrived just days before my presentation. I fashioned a portable bulletin board from an old cardboard box, and then did a mental review.
“Appeal to our senses,” Miss Laird had stressed, teaching us about creative writing. I had sight down and sound, since I’d be talking. But what about taste, touch, smell? The answer came immediately. I needed the Kisses themselves!
Three hours of babysitting would cover the cost of two bags, so I hustled next door to ask Mrs. Kimble if she needed a babysitter since she liked to go to the Saturday matinees. “Cinderella is playing up on Vermont,” she frowned. “And the kids want to see that.”
I jumped in fast. “Why don’t I take Bobby and Biddy to Cinderella, and you can go to see All About Eve at the Arden?” I asked for a dollar to cover my admission and three hours of babysitting. Just enough to buy two bags of Kisses so everybody in the class could have seconds.
“Bette Davis is my favorite,” Mrs. Kimble agreed, “It’s a deal.”
The day of my presentation I marched confidently into science class, tossing a smile towards Mr. Castle. After a lackluster procession of reports from others, I strode to the front of the class, unfurled my posters and propped up my bulletin board.
I dug a bag of Kisses from my purse, and began to pass them around, as I began to explain the science of chocolate. Nobody heckled me with “Kissy,” which had been my biggest fear. Instead, eyes remained glued to me as I produced a second bag. “Just taste them, smell them, feel the tin foil,” I urged. “It’s all science. You just need to be curious!” Mr. Castle looked away, choking back a chuckle.
I got the straight A report card I had yearned for, and Miss Laird hugged me. My parents shook their heads and agreed that somehow a mistake must have been made with that A in science.
Though I did not pursue a career in chemistry or biology, I overcame my fear of science, public speaking and even of math. My curiosity remains, and has helped me in work as a journalist and a social worker. I’m able to speak before groups with no trace of stage fright. I did a statistical analysis of data for my master’s degree and annually do my own income taxes.
In January 2007 the United States Postal Service issued a stamp to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Hershey Kiss, its special Love and Kisses, just in time for Valentine’s Day. I was at the post office early to buy several books. Even today, no matter how stringent my current diet, I can never turn down a Hershey Kiss.
And I still attribute my unabashed curiosity, which has led me to the some of the most exotic ends of the earth, to Mr. Castle.