My Daddy Taught Me Calculus. #ThinkBigDiversity #BLACKandSTEM
As Father’s Day approaches, and I reflect on a talk that I gave on Tuesday in Denver on publicly acknowledging the role of family and community support on the STEM journey, I honor my father, (the late) George C. Garrison Jr., who is identified below in the family gospel choir in Philadelphia as the tall guy with the superhero “X” on his chest. I used this photo on a slide during my section of the keynote panel on Tuesday, “WOMEN OF COLOR: IMPACTING STEM’S PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE” for the 2017 Women in Engineering ProActive Network (WEPAN) conference [Change Leader Forum] in Denver (#WEPANFORUM2017). My Aunt Joyce posted this photo a few weeks ago, and it brought back many memories. The picture not only has my dad, but it has my mom (Patricia Medley Garrison, 2nd from the right, 2nd row), aunts, uncles, cousins, and “play” aunts, “play” uncles, and “play” cousins … in other words, family. As I thought about what I would say to the audience during my talk, I decided to use it to represent the support of my family, church, and community as I pursued a career in engineering and STEM leadership.
Some tweets from the WEPAN event in Denver, June 13, 2017
— Dr. Christine Grant (@DrGrantEmpowers) June 13, 2017
— Lee Ann Cochran (@LASchwope) June 13, 2017
— Meagan Pollock (@MeaganPollock) June 13, 2017
My identity as an engineer was shaped by my father. He was a tall guy from Jersey (6 feet, 4 inches), who ran track, played piano and trumpet, and loved math. He studied engineering at Howard University in the 60’s, and told me that I could be an engineer, and that I could be a doctor. My mom and dad gave me math books, and a copy of ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ when I was a child. I had the red-nosed “Operation” game, and books that had symbols like “infinity” — and I just thought that it was a fun shape.
I remember him telling me that girls could be doctors, and that math was an objective measure. (He also taught me about being proud of my brown skin color and that “all hair is good hair. There is no such thing as ‘bad hair.'” This is a much-needed affirmation in the life of a little Black girl.)
As I was learning about discrimination, he encouraged me to pursue math because math was an objective measure. He strongly believed that if you were good at math, you wouldn’t be subject to people telling you that you were wrong about knowledge, because the math would stand on its own.
He would say, “1+1 will equal 2, and when ‘x’ is the unknown, solve for ‘x’.”
My brothers and I will laugh when we remember daddy and math. He was excited to help us with our homework, and would tell us to sharpen the pencils and bring out the scrap paper. Then he would clasp his hands into a loud clap and say, “AHHHH, MATH! Good stuff! Good stuff!” (LOL! <— my internal chuckle as I remember these moments!). I remember having both coloring books and math workbooks. I remember clearing the table after dinner and bringing the scrap paper, and I remember my daddy teaching me calculus. My dad taught me to differentiate, and to integrate, so I finally understood the meaning behind “that big ‘S’ thing” that I used to see him draw on the board at Seton Hall University when I sat in the back of the room as he taught math for their Equal Opportunity Program.
I have since tutored elementary students in math, and taught math to middle school and high school students from Chicago in summer programs. I remember introducing my middle school students to calculus because I wanted them to know that it existed. It didn’t matter that people told me that the kids “wouldn’t need calculus,” or that “if they ever did get to it, it would be in high school or college.” After all, my daddy taught me that math was an objective measure, and that math could be a way “up.” I could not deny any child that opportunity, especially when I had an auditorium full of young people who looked just like me.
My dad passed away early, he was just over 50 … still young. This year, 2017, marked the 50th anniversary of his college graduation from Howard University’s School of Engineering. I was invited to walk in his place with the 50th year honorees, and I wore my mother’s medallion, as she had celebrated her 50th the year before. The Instagram post announcing the honor was also posted on Facebook here, and is shown below.
So on this Father’s Day weekend, I salute my daddy. I miss him. This little girl from Plainfield, NJ has moved forward, particularly in engineering education and I have been working hard for engineering equity and access around the world. I took what I learned from my dad, my family, my church, my hometown and community, and my teachers, and I kept on learning math. My dad did see me graduate, and lived to see me in my first STEM faculty position at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I left the faculty years ago (another story), however, now, in addition to my current administrative roles with UMBC and the University System of Maryland, I am proud to be a new Professor of the Practice in UMBC’s College of Engineering and IT, so I feel as if I am returning home, and going back to my roots — honoring my dad’s dream and vision for me.
…. This is the spot where I am crying ….
… because I miss my dad and wish that I could show tell him all of the stories and show where the math at the kitchen table has taken me.
I’ve been around the world daddy … I’ve talked about math and engineering in India, Korea, Italy, and throughout Latin America and the U.S. I’ve taken your dream to the next level daddy. I’ve worked with young people who have now become professors and program leaders around the world … and now they teach math and engineering to others, with eyes on and actions toward equity. Thank you daddy … I miss you. Happy Father’s Day in heaven.
Happy Father’s Day to all dads, and all who serve in dad roles. Happy “memory” day to all who have fathers and father-figures who have passed on. Let’s honor the legacies of our fathers who gave us pieces of their lives in some way, by using anything that we have to serve our families, communities, and humanity.