Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!


Flora's picture

I have three hours to complete my digital clock in my last advanced Physics lab of the second semester of my junior year. In front of me, I have a soldering iron, a partially completed breadboard and ten fingers that are shaking. The shaking makes the chips on my violet nail polish even more revolting. I sit on my hands, now a barrier between myself and the lab bench. The seven other seats in the lab are each filled with a male college student plugging in their iron, pulling out more solder from its sweet coil, studying their circuit diagrams (neater than mine) and not seeing the hands of the only female student shake because I am sitting on them. Problem solved. But how to get through the next three hours handless?

Pure science does not need hands. That's what he told me. Professor White did, my academic knight in shining armor. After that first semester, no, the first exam freshman year. Pure science is not about hands or things, he said, but thought experiments. Einstein-theoreticians predict the world before hands discover it. Your hands, your body is not what is important. He did not know-- the years at the barre, the exquisite pleasure of watching, no feeling, no both, your leg curving, the calf muscles clenching into the pointed toe. But ballet was not a profession; college was for professions and there was no ballet major here. Just now, this required physics course. He did not know-- Your grade on this final is so high, if I curved to you, everyone else in the class would fail, he said. I write the exams expecting everyone to fail. But you, you are brilliant, no your mind is brilliant. I don't know how you knew that much without coming to class regularly-- I knew: 3 days and nights alone with the text book, alone feeling the pot of coffee imbibed sawing its way through my temple, alone reading the theories until fluent in the symbols and equations, alone with the constants, unreal numbers that do not change (genius. what other truth does not change?), the laughing voices of the drunk girls in the hall searing my heart till I cry on the calculator, why this need to be perfect?

He does not know-- And I --always curtsy, spoke when spoken to, remember a young lady must be pleasant to their elders-- smiled, gracefully shrugged. It was nothing –clenched teeth invisible-- You must continue, he said. You have a moral obligation to become a physicist. Girls like you get shoe-horned into those other superficial departments. But I want, no need, to tell you something, he did need to tell me-- he did not know how much I understood his wants, how every girl had been trained since birth to anticipate his wants-- Physics is the world: chemistry, biology, even literature: those are just byproducts of my discipline. A physicist can learn anything, can research anything. We decode the world. There are not enough women in this discipline and you, no your mind, would excel. Promise me you will continue, Ada. First my nervous laugh. But he had been serious, had decided my life for me in that office. He taught me my mind was a tool for the future, a liability, my cross, a source of not pride, but asphyxiating duty, my glass slipper. For how could I waste this immeasurably valuable possession? For I was but a vessel for this mind and all else irrelevant: body, love, passions, even other courses were hobbies. There was nothing but the mind. And yet, thinking was not moving any of the equipment on the lab bench in front of me. Check the time: 160 more minutes.

I do not want to move my hands.

Here, think of something else. If you just move things around on the bench, unfold the circuit diagram, flip through the lab notebook, rummage through the wires, no one will stare. No one will notice the awful failure you have become. Try to hide it. Just start soldering. Good. It does not matter if you are connecting in the right places, they do not expect everyone's clocks to work. But, Professor White says, you are the exception, the golden girl. No, Dr. White, I say, no. It was was not my fault. I had bad parts, the TA said some of the parts may not work and it might not be my fault at all. Well, let's get you a voltmeter then and check your circuit. Check my circuit! I hadn't thought of that. He will know, he will know, they will all know that I am a sham. That I cannot do this all alone. The others, now the others are chatting about a football game they went to last night. Smile and laugh. You should not need them. You are the keeper of the brilliant mind: to attend a problem session is to admit defeat, weakness. You can build this clock. You can build this clock without even an instruction manual, given the time. All the first physicists, all the discoverers of theories, they did it alone too. No one else is mentioned in the textbooks beside them. I must do it alone or not at all.

Think of something else. Think of a time when your mind followed your hands instead of choreographing them. Elementary school-- this is good, your eyes are following the veins of the circuit diagram, hands moving in time-- third grade: building the potato clock. Remember the joy in the potato clock. The boy, your lab partner, sent to the principal's office for eating a bite of his potato. You ate some too, of course, everyone did-- a sweeter, crunchier apple-- but it was the boy who did not know to take a piece between fingers on the sly, slip it in the mouth and enjoy it alone, secretly. You would not eat it on a dare, in front of everyone when the teacher was out of the room. You knew better. And so he did not get to assemble the clock, you were alone! Remember the excitement, pushing the two solid nails—real nails!-- into the ripe flesh, fumbling with the alligator clips—how you liked the name! You pictured the eyes on the metal face of the clip, saw its little metal teeth, the snapping hinge of its jaw clip. To control an alligator! And look, there are alligator clips at your lab bench, in this college lab. Remember their magic mouths-- chomp the alligator clips to each nail, red and black for positive and negative, push the wires in, attach the clock—this is not school, but an art project-- and the clock worked! You were the first, you knew it. But you did not shout it out and five minutes later the two silly girls got the smile from the teacher. Their clock did not even work. You ate another bit of potato, success unacknowledged.

The hands keep moving. Half of lab is over. Look around, look back at your clock. You are at about average completion. The slow one in the corner bench, smiling and bobbing his head to the ipod, has built less than you have. Would you sacrifice this mind to have that smile? How did he learn to live with his impotency? How can he smile, laugh with the TA, openly display his poorly executed technique? Where do they learn it? Where did they learn this acceptance, this lack of shame? Has no one ever told them how stupid they are? One cannot go on living, go on

The hands stop.

But the clock is not complete and the TA will enter to remark on our progress any minute and you will not be the farthest along. No one has worked as cleanly as you, but that does not matter, does not matter. You should be completed by now. What if someone leaves early, finishes before you? Try harder, Professor White says. No, no, the therapist, Dr. Mitchell says. You are not what you do, Ada. This mind, this mind is part of you and you can do whatever you wish with it. You push yourself too hard. It must be so painful to be inside your head—but I can handle it-- and this pain is unnecessary. Why don't you try something else for a semester? Something that will not drive you to these lengths-- NO, Professor White says in his office, his pulpit, his parapet, your turret room. You were given a gift, you have a responsibility, this is a moral issue. I know you are having some girl troubles right now, but you can fight them. Just work harder, see your friends less, cut back on your fun activities,--but studying used to be fun for me, what about the enjoyment?-- not a lot, but enough, above all else, remember-remember-remember you can fight your resistance. You are capable—But Ms Mitchell: do you want to, Ada? Ada, stop crying. Whenever I see you, you are crying. You let no one else see you, your roommates don't even know, do they?--the tears are swelling behind her eyes in this lab, no! No crying on the lab bench-- How can they not see what this is doing to you? You do not have to live this way, Ada. Your emotions do not matter, Dr. White mutters and sighs. If you only acted like a real physicist--

The hands have stopped. You are the only dimension of stillness in the lab-- a fifth dimension? An anti-fourth? Not time, but its absence--.You beg your fingers. They will not continue.

No, no, no. Why this disconnect? Why this disconnect from the potential of the mind and the will of the hands? It was not like this before. You were the group leader in high school. You had to lead the group of the three tough boys. The teacher laughed at them, let them bring power tools to school to build the ramps you drew the plans for; signed the approval slip for you to shoot tennis balls into the empty parking lot; even sneaked you out of school to ride around in the boys cars buying tech supplies. They all thanked you, called you a saint, jokingly offered to pay you for writing their lab reports. What a success. You were the responsible one, liked the attention—nerd. Don't expect to have any beauty, nerd. Be grateful.-- and knew this was your source of power. Even before Professor White, you knew that this mind was more precious than virginity. But then the mind was the conductor of your body. Your hands would have moved for your high school lab group. Why won't they move now?

Professor White's voice! He is coming down the hall, walking with the TA. There is still an hour left: why visit the lab now? Look around the lab. No! One guy has completed his clock! Steal it. No, no: his clock is too sloppily done. Yours is close. But not close enough to finish before the two men in the hall arrive. Run. The tears are swelling, burning around your eyes and still the hands are still, the rough breathing starts. No. Not again. No tears, no hyperventilating in the lab. What are they saying about me? Professor White: How do you like Ada? TA: Who, that thing? She can't even complete her clock. She just sits in class, tinkering and staring into space. What a worthless girl. She has no future. Just goes to show women don't belong in the lab. Here, White is crushed by disappointment. Why would he defend me, the failure, the one unable to function without hands, wasting the potential of the mind--The pain of this is intolerable, will destroy the purity of the mind. Run. They have stopped in the hall. What are they saying? Run now. Run now and you can make it out the side door, run to the trees and sob like a toddler hidden in the branches. First, throw the clock against the wall-- the exquisite pleasure of seeing the breadboard clatter apart-- no. Leave calmly, quietly. Yes, stand up, clean up the bench. Good. Wave good afternoon to the rest of the lab. Good job. Soon you can open your mouth, breath until your lungs deepen, not this tight shallow feeling. I am feeling ill, you say. I have a key and can come finish it at night, you say. Feel better Ada, TA says. Feel better, Ada, Professor White says –he doesn't know--Don't make eye contact. Good. Now step slowly to the exit: the door is closed- Run! Run outside! Escape!