A Letter to my Daughter Who is Struggling with Math

In 2015, I met Mary Bishop while doing a story on women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) careers. Mary is a scientist who has worked in research and data analysis in life sciences since 2015. She holds a B.S. (magna cum laude) in Biological and Biomedical Sciences from FSCJ. When I spoke with Mary, she told me that her teachers in high school discouraged her from considering careers that required math. “I’d been told by one of my teachers that I ‘just wasn’t good at math,’ so I never explored science or math as a career.” She stayed on her artistic path (she was a drama student at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts, with plans to go to New York and become an actress.)

After four years of waitressing with no acting jobs, Bishop returned to Jacksonville at the age of 24 to get serious about a college education and career. “When I took my first college-level course in Biology, everything changed,” she says. “I fell in love with science; I actually had tears in my eyes when I realized I could practice this field for the rest of my life.”

Now, Mary’s daughter is in sixth grade and starting to struggle with math. Together, Mary and I crafted this message to Lila. We hope it will make a difference in many girls’ lives.

Dear Lila,
We had a rough week, didn’t we? Sixth grade is the year things start to get complicated. Your classes get harder and you have to work a lot harder in school – and that goes double for math. I know you feel like you’re struggling; I see how hard you’re working on your math homework every night.

I also know that some kids in your class get higher grades on tests and get the answers more quickly when the teacher puts problems on the board. When you compare yourself to those kids, it might be tempting to give up and say, “I’m just no good at math.” I hope you won’t. It’s a lie.

Let me tell you about another girl just like you. She also struggled with math and felt discouraged. She even had teachers tell her she had to try harder than other students because she just wasn’t good at math.

She believed them, and as she grew up, she made choices about her life and her work that felt easier. The job she chose didn’t require doing much math, but it also wasn’t very satisfying. She never felt like a success. Eventually, that girl grew up to be a mom. Your mom, in fact, and right around the time you were born, I decided to go back to school.

And you know what? It turns out those teachers were wrong. I was pretty good at math. In fact, I was really good. I got good grades, and I even won awards. I graduated from college and got an internship with NASA. Yes, with real rocket scientists. Since then, I’ve worked on all kinds of projects that require me to do plenty of math. And I love my job.

I’m telling you this because I want you to know that nobody’s born being good at anything. Babies have to learn to walk and talk by trial and error, and they work hard at it. What would have happened if you’d given up on walking because you fell down 20 times in a day? (And you did, trust me.) Babies don’t worry about being good at walking; they just keep going until they are good at walking.

When we watch the Olympics or Dancing with the Stars or the singing competitions on TV, we’re not seeing the stars’ first tries. We’re seeing them after they’ve spent hundreds, maybe even thousands of hours practicing and working on their moves. Some of them may even have worried that they weren’t good enough. But they never let it stop them from trying.

It’s easy to think that having talent means you’re just naturally good at something. But lots of talented people don’t get to the top because they don’t do the work. The hard work and practice are what make you great.

Remember how fabulous it felt when you first learned to ride a bike? It felt so good not because it was easy, but because it was so hard. When you break through and do something amazing, part of the joy of it is about conquering something you had to work hard at.

That’s why I want you to keep pushing. I’m so proud of you, and I believe you can – and you will – be very good at math. Just keep saying to yourself, “I can, and I will.”

Love, Mom



Candace Moody