Worms and Microscopes
“Cuh-rap,” I muttered, aimlessly fiddling with the knobs on my microscope.
Everyone in the lab had already left at least half an hour ago. I was still here, face hot, eyes welling up with frustration, all too aware of the teaching assistant typing on her laptop at the front of the classroom.
“Do you need help?” she asked. The words tumbled out of my mouth before I had a chance to think about them. “Yes, yes please. I’m sorry, but yes.”
I was 18 and this was one of the top three most humiliating moments of my life. It was the first day of lab for general biology at the university that I had kicked my own ass to get into, and now I didn’t even know how to find a worm using my microscope. If I couldn’t find a worm on a microscope, how in the hell was I going to be a successful biology major? How was I going to find something as tiny as cells when I couldn’t find a macroscopic worm? Go home kid, pack, throw your lab coat in the trash, I thought, dejected as the TA placed herself behind the microscope. You big dumb un-worm-locating idiot.
It wasn’t always like this. Since I entered elementary school, I was told that I’d be able to make it all the way to college. I was a first generation child of Salvadoran immigrants and no one else in my family had gone to college, but my parents always encouraged me and my teachers told me I had the brains to do it. I immersed myself in books, volunteering, debate, academic decathlon, essentially every college-readiness tool that was free. I was my own SAT tutor, digging around in the internet for scans of free practice exams from those prep books that I couldn’t afford. When my school counselor told me to just apply to state schools because kids from my neighborhood didn’t get into private schools, I completely ignored her and applied anyway. I was the only kid in my graduating class to attend USC. I was used to the notion that my hard work automatically equaled success. Nothing had been difficult for me if I applied effort.
And now here I was, unable to find a motherfucking worm, regardless of how hard I tried.
Maybe I flew too close to the sun. The worm sun.
“Have you ever used a microscope before?” my TA asked. “Nope,” I replied, feigning a casual apathy while dying inside. She turned around and gave me a friendly smile, completely harmless, but I could feel her looking into my soul. “Well, everyone in your lab section has. They all immediately knew what they were doing because they’ve done it before.” I looked down and she kept going. “You went to public school, right? You said during the ice-breaker that you’re from LA, so LAUSD? My high school in Long Beach didn’t have microscopes either. But I learned! You’re just going to have to start over at the bottom and work your way up.”
I stared at her, my face blank. She’d just reached into my brain, scooped out my innermost insecurities, and put them into a petri dish. I hadn’t realized before that she was the first instructor I had had that week that was also a woman of color like me. She was a PhD candidate working as a TA; of course she knew the ins and outs of maneuvering college as a minority.
“Do you want to see your worm?”
I approached the microscope and leaned in. There he was, the little asshole.
I took her words to heart and set to work trying to catch up to everyone else. It took a long time and a lot of sacrifice, but I did it and got my degree. After classes in biology, chemistry, anatomy, metabolism, and so on, I now maneuver microscopes with ease.
College is over now and I’m out in the world, and I am once again faced with challenges, not as fully equipped as others with familial connections in professional settings, odds still stacked against me even though I’m educated. It’s public knowledge that Latina women make about 55 cents to the white man’s dollar and are vastly underrepresented in the field I am interested in (and in most fields, let’s be honest). I’m going to have to prove myself over and over while others might not. I’m not afraid to do that, though. I am not afraid to start over. I know now that I can.