This is a real memory from when I was in first grade, so I was 6 to 7. I think research has proven that we distort memories over time, but I’m confident in its reality. My first memories are from when I was 3 years old and those may just be memories of memories, but this memory formed a bit later, during a time I have plenty of other memories too. Also, in the words of Ken Kesey, “it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.”

It’s relevant to this story that I have 3 sisters and 0 brothers. They’re all older than me (well, not the brothers, they don’t exist), but not that much older. When I was younger, my father used the age old trick of bribery to get us to commit to academics. When we memorized our times tables, we got either $100 or a pet guinea pig. I never questioned the choices, by the way. Erin and Christina chose a guinea pig each, which later became two guinea pigs each after a surprise pregnancy. The original two were not both females, by the way, PetCo employee.

My sister Katie was in third grade when I was in first, and she was learning multiplication. I asked my mother what she was doing: why was she using x in math while I was using +?. My mother told me that Katie was simply condensing the same work I was doing; while I did 4 + 4 + 4 + 4, Katie did 4 x 4. It meant 4 added to itself 4 times. I said okay, and from that moment on, I knew how to do multiplication.

To be sure, I had to practice, but to “learn our times tables” simply means to memorize the results or be able to do them faster. So I was able to get faster, but I understand the concept well enough to do them quickly. Katie took her test and got $100 and I did too. The guinea pigs died from being left outside in their cages in direct sunlight for an entire afternoon. My mum still feels pretty bad about that so I wouldn’t bring it up if I were you.

So I was in first grade in Mrs. Kerlopian’s class. My classmate Kevin, who moved away after second grade and whose last name is lost in history (did he even have one? We’ll never know), also memorized his times tables at this time.

When we got paired with buddies from the fifth grade, all the fifth graders came down to talk to us to pair up. I remember one fifth grade boy saying, “aren’t you the boy who knows all his times tables?” in an impressed voice, and pairing with Kevin.

I just remember being so sad that nobody said an equal statement to me. I didn’t understand the nuisances of communication then (still working on it), so I had no idea why that happened. Why would his accomplishments be discussed and lauded and mine not? I could not figure it out. Now it occurs to me that in order for a fact to get from the first grade to the fifth grade, there must be a chain of communication, probably via teachers and parents. And people are generally more open to hearing and remembering statements that align with their expectations. And maybe they simply didn’t expect mathematics of me.

Why did I bother to write about a fifth graders off hand comment? Because I think it’s relevant to how I act now as an engineer. I think being taught from a young age that my accomplishments will be ignored if I don’t stay on top of their communication has had lasting effects, especially since it’s still true. I think it makes me more vocal and makes me sensitive to ensuring fairness in praise.

Unfortunately, I think that it made me more anxious about common misunderstandings. For instance, while eating dinner one may receive a notification about a question on a pull request (“does this need a comment?”). One may read the comment, think “hm, that’s weird I thought I put a comment on that, we’ll talk tomorrow,” and continue eating one’s quesadilla.

But one may also, if they’re used to being doubted and ignored, say “I left a comment on that code block I know it. They didn’t read it, they’re not reading it, they never read my stuff. I have to log on right now to prove that I comment well to prove that I’m good, I belong here. I commented. I knew my times tables too. What? Where did that come from?”

I tell you this story not to shame my mother for what happened to Cocoa, Marshmallow, Tootsie, and fourth guinea pig, as tragic as it was, but rather to evaluate how my sensitivities may influence my communication and actions as an engineer. And if you identify at all with this story, I challenge you to ask yourself why certain situations make you anxious and where that anxiety comes from.

Note: At the time of this writing, Christina still has not answered my text about what the fourth one was named

Update: Christina texted me - the fourth guinea pig was named Taffy