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Interview with my Mom – An Ada Lovelace Tribute

Posted by Amy Wilson on March 23, 2010

Jean Wilson is a retired Chemistry and Math teacher.  Upon graduating from high school in 1964, Jean became the first person in her family to attend college.  She earned a BA in Mathematics and a minor in Chemistry.  Subsequently, she earned a certificate in Medical Technology and a Masters in Education.  Since she retired in 2008, Jean, a lifetime learner, has taken up the clarinet and the flute and plays in the local Horizons band, has mastered quilting (and has completed a dozen masterpieces), and tutors a young woman from El Salvador.  And she’s a blogger … how cool is that?

What was your first indication that you had a talent in math and science?

At the end of Junior High, my 9th grade math teacher recommended that I enroll in accelerated geometry.  I realized later that this teacher intervention was instrumental for me.  At the time, I felt scared but also special that they had paid attention to me.  I worked very hard.  I also had crushes on most of my teachers – that helped a lot.  In high school, I was at the top of my class of 700 students in math, chemistry and physics.  Only one other boy was at the same level.

What did you enjoy most about math and science?

I was a lab assistant for 2 years.  I got to do this instead of study hall (which I dreaded).  I set up labs and got to do extra experiments.  After the fruit fly experiments, they asked me to stop doing labs.  I did typing for them instead.

What happened with the fruit flies?

It was a genetics experiment in which I had to sex the fruit flies to make matches.  I would knock them out so that I could look at them under the microscope to see their sex.  It would take me so long to figure out what sex they were, they would start to wake up.  They looked like giant monsters under the microscope – so I would SCREAM.  Eventually, the science department thought it was best if I didn’t do that experiment anymore.

What was your decision process in going to college?

At the time, there were 3 professions available to women: secretary, nurse or teacher.  Computer programmer, scientist, doctor – none of those were even considerations for me.  Things changed quickly in the 60’s – more options started opening up, but in those early 60’s, it was very limited.  My family had no money and I didn’t think college was an option for me, so I was preparing to be a secretary.  The high school counselor advised me about scholarships and also guided me toward a career of teaching.

I applied to colleges that had good math programs, some teaching curriculum and were a good distance from my home in Minneapolis.  My home life – including an abusive stepfather – was miserable.

I received full scholarships to all of the schools I applied to and accepted at Lawrence University in Wisconsin.

What did you learn in college?

I learned a lot of math and chemistry.  I never could get probability straight though.  The teaching program was focused on preparing teachers to be experts in their field, rather than an emphasis on teaching.  I had to take a couple of education courses and those were just a bunch of baloney – can’t stand that education jargon!

I also learned to get out of my shell a bit.  I joined a sorority and I was even elected president.  I gained confidence in leadership and I got to take a trip to New York City – it was my first time on an airplane and it was wonderful!

How did you support yourself in college?

They assigned me a job in the cafeteria freshman year and over time, I just kept adding jobs.  By senior year, I had 4 or 5 jobs.  Each year, I had to pay off my scholarship contract, but once it was paid off, I was able to keep the money.  My mom would send me a couple of dollars a month to help me get by in the meantime.

What came next?

I went to University of Minnesota for graduate school in Math.  That was a mistake – other than I met my husband there.  I did not like high level college math; chemistry would have been much better.  I left the program after a year to go teach.

How did you go about finding a teaching job?

There was actually a lot of sex discrimination in the hiring of high school math teachers.  Upon reflection, all of my high school math and science teachers were men.  With junior high, this was not the case.  Women could teach math in junior high.  Except I hated junior high.  I didn’t like the math and I didn’t like the age.  Unfortunately, I had to settle for junior high for awhile.  After I had a baby, I did substitute teaching in high schools and eventually was able to get a full-time teaching job in a high school.

We moved to Buffalo, NY in 1977.  At the time, there was a glut of teachers.  There were lots of baby boomers that were trained to be teachers (as a result of NSF funding to prepare for the cold war) and not enough kids around to be taught.  I was 300th on  the waiting list and substitute teaching was not economically viable.  I looked for other options.

What options were available to you?

Medical technology was an emerging field.  I went to school, quickly earned a degree, and worked as a Med Tech for several years.  Eventually, I grew bored in this field and took an opportunity to teach high school math full time.  Later, I moved to chemistry.

What was your favorite thing to teach?

In math, I liked to teach proofs in geometry better than anything else — I loved the logic of them and the fact that they were all like puzzles.  They were also interesting and challenging for me and the kids.

In chemistry, my favorite thing to teach was oxidation-reduction.  It is the basis of so many practical things; it was nice to teach something that had so much application in the real world.

I think my kids liked my demonstrations the best.  I screamed a lot and when they got me laughing, I always cry-laughed.  Those lessons seemed to stick the most.

Do you ever hear from your students?

Oh yes!  Several have reached out on Facebook!  When I was still teaching, many came back to visit.  One gal who went into chemistry returned to do a lecture for my class.

What advice did you give your students?

The advice that I tried to give my students was that they needed to learn how to learn and to enjoy it.  Learning is a lifetime occupation — you never know what is going to come up, but you have to be ready to adapt, and the only way you can do that is by having the confidence and the ability to learn something new.

How are you liking retirement?

[smile] I don’t miss the school board or the administration one bit!


In honor of Ada Lovelace day – an international day of blogging to celebrate the achievements of women in technology and science.

12 Responses to “Interview with my Mom – An Ada Lovelace Tribute”

  1. What a great post and a wonderful tribute to your Mom!

  2. Well, you must know that the “quilt masterpieces” would catch my eye as that is my off work passion too. Send your Mom down to Meadow Vista…really just a couple of hours from Reno. We can tell stories of growing up in the 50s and being the first woman to do lots of stuff. Besides I want to hear what it’s like to retire. Thanks for sharing your Mom!

    • Amy Wilson said

      Lexy – My mom would love to learn from you! She considers herself a beginner and was embarrassed that I referred to her as a “master” (but I know better). An Auburn meet-up is definitely in order – I feel like a matchmaker!

  3. Laurie Pace said

    Amy & Jean,
    What a fun peek into what makes Jean Jean. I didn’t know so much of this. Like your interest in math. I love math too, although I didn’t realize this until college. I also considered getting a med tech certificate a couple of years ago but went in the pharm tech direction.
    Jean, I have to say, that your scream/laugh, to me, is your signature. It is bliss for those who are lucky enough to experience it.
    Long live the scream/laugh.

    • Amy Wilson said

      Laurie – indeed, Jean’s screaming/laughing/crying talent was lost on the mathematics curriculum. Chemistry really allowed her to shine! As does the family get-together … 🙂

  4. Your mom is lovely I can see the resemblance.

  5. Meg Bear said

    Amy and Jean, thanks so much for sharing your story. I just love how people can influence the lives of others. The influence of your math teacher, with a single recommendation, managed to change your life. Wow!

    – Meg

  6. Louise Barnfield said

    What a great and inspiring read! Thanks for sharing, Amy! Jean’s story is an excellent reminder of how very different the opportunities were for women just a relatively short time ago! I love the fact that she’s still learning…and not just learning, but mastering too! 🙂 It’s a great tribute to her as a teacher that her ex-pupils still reach out to her on Facebook. Now I’m looking forward to reading *her* blog to see what snippets I can glean about *you* in return! 🙂

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