On the first day of middle school after moving to Michigan, I took a mathematics test. Our teacher walked slowly up and down each aisle, handing every student their test with a straight face. This was a pre-algebra test that would determine if we were competent enough to stay in the “advanced” math track, and everyone was expected to pass, as it covered concepts from the previous year, seventh grade.
The only problem was that in the seventh grade, my school in Mexico taught me geometry, not pre-algebra. Algebra was our subject in the sixth grade, but we didn’t use calculators or graphing paper. Slope was foreign to me, and the easy test every “advanced” student was supposed to fly through wasn’t a breeze for me. The next day, the teacher again walked up and down each aisle, but this time she was smiling at students.
Congratulations! You get to stay in this class. You get to have high school credit before going to high school. You get to call yourself smart. You are “advanced.”
My test was facing down when she walked by my desk. Her eyes darted away from mine and my smile was met only with pursed lips. I turned it around and saw I had gotten a failing grade, only a fifth of the questions were marked as correct. She never directly spoke to me or offered to help me catch up. She simply requested a meeting with my parents to talk about the logistics of moving me to the math class “adequate” for my level.
“The advanced mathematics class is too fast-paced. Andrea will never be able to catch up. I believe it will be best for her to have an easier class. She will adjust better. She doesn’t need to be in the “advanced” level. Not every student can learn at the level of my algebra students.”
At which point, my father simply excused himself and went home, sat me at the dining room table, opened my algebra book and told me that I was going to stay in the class. Every day after that, we sat at the table for two hours. He taught me how to foil, how to find the slope, corrected my homework and went over my tests with me. He sat with me after work every day because he knew I could do it. My father so believed in me that he became something he wasn’t supposed to be: my algebra teacher.
My father became a lot of other things for me. He was a mentor for my reading, a book scout for our monthly book club, a dance lover during my recitals. He even encouraged me to play soccer despite my objective lack of athleticism. He was always there at games, watching me fall, step on the ball or score on the wrong goal, but he never once told me he thought I shouldn’t do it. He never once told me I shouldn’t do anything.
I always quietly believed my father to be a feminist, but I never worked up the nerve to ask him because, where we come from, most men are everything but feminist. My father grew up in a society where men are dry of tears and emotion and women have nothing but. Men are strong and practical and women care for nothing other than cooking, vanity and gossip.
At family reunions, men are never seen in the kitchen. After dinner, they never pick up their plates. During the party, a man is seldom seen taking care of a crying child or changing a diaper, and at the end of the night when it is time to clean up, the men wait in the living room while their wives and daughters clean the kitchen. My dad was always different, and often got made fun of because of it. When he went back to the kitchen to heat up his own tortilla, my mother’s competency was questioned. When he made sure us kids were fed (and didn’t get away with only eating cake), jokes were made about who “carried the ropes” in the relationship.
These gendered lines and toxic stereotypes color and shape family life in Mexico. Breaking them is not easy, and the acceptance of new and more egalitarian family dynamics is harder yet. Which is why I was surprised that when I called my father and asked him if he was a feminist, he responded with a decided yes. He had never acted to make me believe he wasn’t, but I never thought he would admit to it.
“Para mi, el feminismo significa que los hombres y mujeres deben tener las mismas oportunidades, derechos y obligaciones. Las mujeres deben de sentirse orgullosas de ser mujeres y de ser diferentes.”
“To me, feminism means that men and women should have the same opportunities, rights and obligations. Women should feel proud to be women and to be different.”
Maybe speaking those words out loud in front of the rest of our family in Mexico would have brought about even more jokes and sneer name calling, but here, to me, it meant everything. Throughout my life, my father has become many things for me. He has been my math teacher, my soccer fan, my reading mentor and a shoulder to cry on. He has believed in me and encouraged me to pursue my dreams and passions despite any hardship. Never once has he made me believe that I am not enough. I am a feminist because of my father, and he is a feminist because of me.