A Work in Progress

Submitted into Contest #150 in response to: Write a story where an algorithm plays an important role.... view prompt

29 comments

Fiction

“Nine, eight, five, three, three…”


He reads the numbers, and my face burns. I stand at the edge of the hallway, somewhere by the swinging doors, and posters advocating Girls in Science. A group of teenage boys loiter by the pinboard.


The first tests results are out. The scores printed next to the ID numbers. And there’s unrest amongst the troops.


“Is it you, Troy?”


“James?”


“No, he didn’t finish.”


“Cody? Surely, it’s not you?”


The boys mill by the pinboard, accusations flying, suspicions looming, ID cards waving, intent on deciphering the owner of the top score.


I lean against the wall. Invisible. Dismissed.


Introductory physics at university. I heft my bag onto my shoulder and push through the swinging doors. It’s quite the introduction to patriarchy.


I need an algorithm to cope.


#


I swing open the door to the toilet and sit. The final course results will be posted today. An entire semester at university.


Survived. Endured.


I reach for the toilet paper and smile. The triangular piece I left folded yesterday is gone. Someone has used this stall. Someone like me.


A woman.


I pull off the square of toilet paper and tuck it into my pocket, a reminder I am not alone.


I step into the corridor, and the boys are by the pinboard. The scores are out.


“Nine, eight, five, three, three…”


I lean against the wall and smile.


“James?”


“Show me your card, Ben. It has to be you.”


“What about Troy?”


“No, it’s not him. I checked last time.”


The boys scramble, a thronging mass of egos, desperate to know who has bested them.


I push off the wall, and my shoes squeak on the lino. Acne ridden faces turn. Silence falls.


The boys shoot glances at each other, unsure of how to interact with me, even after a semester together. Several of the leaders shuffle closer, and I turn for the door.


“It’s you?” The boldest one asks, his voice a mix of disbelief and self-righteous horror. Beaten by a girl. At Physics. Imagine.


I pause. And shrug.


The boys erupt. Leaping and hollering, talking all at once. Some are thrilled to have found the owner of the ID number.


But some are not.


The boldest one steps forward. “You’ve been getting the top score?” he asks. “You?”


I nod.


“Bloody hell. Who did you sleep with to get that?”


My face burns. No one asked that of Troy when he got the top score in the mid-terms.


I think of the hours I’ve spent in the library, alone with my dogeared table of integrals, scribbling endless proofs, solving equations, finding eigenvectors, calculating eigenvalues. Again. And again. And again.


I want to make a comment about what he can do with his genitalia to further his education. But I don’t.


I touch the folded square of toilet paper in my pocket. I know the first step of the algorithm.


#


“Lena, a word, please.”


Professor Archibald stands at the front of the lecture theatre, his bald head glinting in the artificial light and his bow tie at odds with his socks and roman sandals.


He smiles. He’s harmless.


I walk down the stairs, my boots clomping on the wooden floor and the boys pushing past as they head for the door.


The professor waits until they’re gone before he speaks. “Lena, I have an opportunity I’d like you to consider.”


I wipe my palms on my jeans and nod.


“What are you doing next year?” he asks.


“I’m going to tcol,” I say.


My face feels hot. So far, I’ve managed to avoid this conversation. Largely because no one has asked.


He stares at me, silent, his eyebrows inching closer together.


“Teachers’ training.” I clarify.


His mouth forms a tiny circle and a hiss escapes. Clearly, this is not the answer he’s expecting.


He stutters back into life and coughs. “But, postgrad?”


I shake my head. “No.” 


“Well, if that’s your decision.”


I nod. It is.


“I can’t say I don’t think it’s a great shame, Lena,” he says.


I stifle a smile at the double negative. My classmates hid their emotions behind complicated syntax and inflated vocabulary, too.


“Perhaps you’ll hear me out, anyway.” He pulls a handkerchief out of his breast pocket and mops his brow. “There’s a spot in a research team that would be perfect for you, if you were looking to do your masters.”


My chest tightens, and I run my finger over the tatty square of toilet paper in my pocket.


“What’s the project?” I ask.


“Atom trapping. We’re hoping to make a Bose-Einstein condensate.”


I stare at him. It’s an ambitious project.


“I’d be your supervisor,” he says.


I look at my feet, my face burning. It’s a big compliment. A world away from tcol. He coughs again, and I sense some unpleasant news coming.


“We've split the project into optics and theoretical. You’d be part of the optics team, dealing with the laser.”


His words are so unexpected, I gasp.


He ignores my reaction, or doesn’t notice, and continues. “Obviously, you’d have access to all the data for your thesis.”


I shake my head, finding my voice. “I haven’t done optics since first year.”


He tucks his handkerchief into his pocket. “It’s the nature of funding. We had two places to offer but had to split them this way.”


Two places.


A trickle of sweat runs down my back. “Wouldn’t I be better suited to the theoretical team? The entire focus of my degree is theoretical physics. Quantum mechanics.”


It makes no sense. I’d hardly be able to turn on the laser, let alone add a significant contribution to the research.


“Troy’s accepted a place on the theoretical team with Doctor Austin. We’d really like you on the optics team,” Professor Archibald says.


I stagger backwards, the name assaulting. Troy. On the theoretical team. Troy from my class, who worked hard and was ranked second in our year.


To me.


Why didn’t he get offloaded into optics?


And then it dawns on me. Theoretical has Doctor Austin, the token woman on the team. Obligation fulfilled.


“You need a female on the optics team,” I say, my voice cracking.


Professor Archibald shuffles. The emotional female, a rare creature in the bowels of the physics building.


“We’re offering you a place because your grades are outstanding, Lena.”


“But it's Troy on the theoretical team.”


“Well, yes, having you in optics would balance our numbers, so to speak. In practice, it makes little difference. We’re all part of the same team.”


But I’m not part of the same team, am I?


I’m torn. It’s a great opportunity, and I want to accept. But I also want to be more than a token woman. I take my hand out of my pocket and wipe my forehead. The square of toilet paper falls onto the floor.


I’m doing this for her. For me.


I heft my bag onto my shoulder. “Thank you for the opportunity. But I decline,” I say.


I clomp up the stairs and add another step to the algorithm.


#


“Kia ora, team, books out and sitting down, thanks.”


I stare at my class and try not to sigh with relief when they obey.


My heels click on the lino, ringing with an authority at odds with my churning stomach.


It’s my first day on the job. I hope I survive.


“I’m Miss Waters,” I say, pleased my voice isn’t shaking too audibly. “Your physics teacher this year.”


“What would you know about physics?” A boy in the back row calls out, his lip curling in a smirk.


I fold my arms and look over the sea of faces. They're on the edge of adolescence, about to tumble into adulthood. Mostly boys, but the girls are holding their own.


“What would I know about physics?” I ask.


The class falls silent. Still. The gauntlet thrown. Challenge accepted.


I run through my choices in this moment. Do I prove myself, challenge him to an intellectual duel, whipping out Schrodinger’s time independent equation and painstakingly solving it on the board?


Two girls in the front row sit with their books open and pens poised. No, I’m going to nip this patriarchy in its infancy.


I walk towards the boy in the back, his name is printed on his pencil case. Benny. My heels ring with authority and I lift my chin.


I have endured the solitude of being a woman in a man’s world. And I have developed an algorithm to combat the patriarchy.


It’s a work in progress, I’m still learning, but I apply my algorithm now. I raise my head, look Benny in the eye. And smile.


Warmly.


I’m rising above it. Proving my worth, measuring my intellectual dick, that’s a man’s game. And I’m not playing.


I know my truth. I am worthy.


And so, I’m simply going to shine.


“I know enough, Benny. Now, sit down,” I say. “We’ve both got a lot of learning to do.”

June 17, 2022 09:30

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29 comments

Zelda C. Thorne
10:17 Jun 17, 2022

Hi Beth, enjoyed this! The frustration was palpable. It made me angry, and I relived my own personal sexist experiences (because we all have them). Liked the end. I found it empowering.

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Beth Jackson
01:53 Jun 18, 2022

Thank you, Rachel! I appreciate your comments! =)

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Michał Przywara
20:43 Jun 20, 2022

Great story! Lots of emotions here. Anxiety, when it comes to participating, because who knows when it will get turned against you. Embarrassment at being ridiculed, frustration for not being taken seriously. A sense of betrayal at being a token researcher, all the more poignant because it *was* a great opportunity. All of this beautifully sets up the ending. The narrator truly does rise above it, and not only does she show the girls in class that a future in physics (or by extension any field) is possible for them, but by avoiding the b...

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Beth Jackson
10:07 Jun 22, 2022

Awww thank you, Michał! I genuinely appreciate the time you take to write such insightful feedback. Your comments are so lovely - They make me feel like my work is ‘seen’. Thank you, I really appreciate it. :-)

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Suma Jayachandar
14:15 Jun 17, 2022

Wow! Such a powerful portrayal of every woman trying to stand her ground against patriarchy. Every sentence conveys the arduous journey Lena endures and tries to pave way for others. So relatable and eminently readable. Thanks for sharing.

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Beth Jackson
01:54 Jun 18, 2022

Thank you, Suma! I really appreciate your kind words! =)

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Jay McKenzie
21:34 Jun 22, 2022

There is something extraordinarily courageous in Lena's decision, and a selflessness. It would have been easy for her to accept the role, but instead, we are left with a feeling of hope: that those girls, pens poised, won't face the same discrimination she did. I love the little triangle of toilet paper as a symbol that she's not alone. The pace is great, and that you cover so much in in short story is excellent. You are economical with detail which is perfect for this story. Thanks so much for writing this Beth. We need more stor...

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Beth Jackson
07:33 Jun 24, 2022

Thank you so much, Jay! I really appreciate your kind feedback and encouragement. You’ve made my day, thank you! :-)

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H L McQuaid
08:56 Jun 22, 2022

Hi Beth, First time reader of your work, and I'm a fan. This story captured what it's like to be an (unwanted) outsider, and the often competitive nature of academia. I can relate to a lot of this (went to graduate school for Cognitive Psychology in the early 90s). You do small details really well, the showing not telling is sublime. Looking forward to reading your back catalogue, and your future work. -Heather

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Beth Jackson
09:54 Jun 22, 2022

Thank you for your lovely comments, Heather! I really appreciate you taking the time to read and comment! :-)

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Betty Gilgoff
04:47 Jun 22, 2022

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this story Beth and agree with others that it is a clever use of the algorithm prompt. You’ve definitely nailed the feeling of being a clever young woman in a male dominated field but I especially appreciate that you develop your protagonist in a way that doesn’t just have her buy in to how others want her to be. That you can do that and keep her and her choices so believable is a credit to your writing. Thank you for sharing your story.

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Beth Jackson
09:57 Jun 22, 2022

Thank you Betty, I really appreciate your kind feedback! I was a bit nervous how this piece would come across, so thank you - your comments are reassuring for me! :-)

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Michael Regan
18:35 Jun 21, 2022

A wonderful story. I have been struggling with the character of a woman physicist in one of my stories. I wasn't sure how much discrimination there is in that field. Thanks for the insight.

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Beth Jackson
09:59 Jun 22, 2022

Thank you Michael! :-)

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Tobin Wheeler
12:43 Jun 21, 2022

As a woman in the STEM field among many male counterparts, I know this refrain all too well. Fantastic writing, and I loved the character building. The prose is beautifully written and just complex enough to add interest while still maintaining focus on the plot and characterization. Well done!

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Beth Jackson
10:00 Jun 22, 2022

Thank you Tobin! I really appreciate your kind feedback! :-)

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Jim Firth
16:23 Jun 19, 2022

Beth, Clever use of the algorithm prompt. I would never have thought to make a human brain/behavioural algorithm. Makes total sense though; I mean, aren't our brains the best bit of technology in the universe? I like how Miss Waters ended up dealing with the student. I think she's going to be a good teacher!

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Beth Jackson
01:20 Jun 20, 2022

Thank you Jim! I appreciate your kind feedback! :-)

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Wendy M
12:42 Jun 19, 2022

What a brave ending! An excellent and engaging story.

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Beth Jackson
01:21 Jun 20, 2022

Thank you Wendy! :-)

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02:20 Jun 19, 2022

I admire how much your story flows. It's not choppy like others, but it flows like a peaceful stream in nature's golden abyss. You tackled the patriarchy nicely, as a lot of math departments are dominated by men, and men alone sometimes, so the premise of a woman getting a top score would definitely shock from acne-ridden teenage boys. Really nice story with great details; you describe people very well and have a natural talent for profoundly developing the scenes.

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Beth Jackson
08:09 Jun 19, 2022

Thank you so much! Your comments are so lovely! I really appreciate the time you’ve taken to read my story and write a comment! :-)

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Amanda Lieser
19:23 Jun 18, 2022

Hi Beth! Oh, I just loved your MC in this piece. She is so courageous! And she says a lot of things that many other humans have longed to say, but never found the courage. I also really loved the latter few paragraphs where she is confronted with this intense decision and in my opinion, makes the best choice. I also really admire this MC for being witty and funny and humble. What a beautiful piece! Thank you so much for writing it!

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Beth Jackson
08:08 Jun 19, 2022

Thank you, Amanda! I really appreciate your kind and insightful comments. You’ve really made my day! Thank you! :-)

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Seán McNicholl
20:57 Jun 17, 2022

A great great story Beth, and the perfect ending to it! Very well written and engaging from start to finish! Loved your portrayal Lena and the quiet confidence that she grows into. Great story!

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Beth Jackson
01:53 Jun 18, 2022

Thank you! I appreciate your kind comments! =)

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Graham Kinross
13:19 Jul 31, 2022

Quiet confidence beats bragging, people who have to brag are just trying to hide their insecurities and also end up exposing their flaws. Also, the people like that usually waste their time showing off instead of getting things done. Lena would probably be a great teacher.

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Cindy Strube
17:02 Jun 24, 2022

Beth, This is fantastic. The calmness of Lena, even in her frustration, speaks well of her capability. The toilet paper talisman (now, that sounds like a title…) is great. Love how you carried it through. Lena has integrity, which is a wonderful attribute. She knows her abilities. She follows her algorithm, and she shines. Very smart writing, while being relatable and satisfying. I look forward to more of your work! Almost forgot - Kia ora - you must be a Kiwi?

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Tiffany Andrew
13:45 Jun 24, 2022

I really loved this story - the last line wraps it up so nicely! Beyond the theme, I really loved the format - shorter sentences balanced with longer ones and lots of returns. It made it really pleasant to read. Great job!

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