Student Essay Contest

Oasis in the Desert

2015 AWM Essay Contest: Grand Prize Winner

By: Makayla Gates, Valencia Middle School

The bright eye of the morning sun turns the Manzano Mountains a muted blending of watermelon pinks and indigo blues as it rises above the rocky precipice. It is mid-November, almost the middle of another school year, yet Gretta still waits breathlessly for “el sol” to free itself of the eastern horizon and ignite the blinding flare of snowcaps, signaling a new day. Gretta Baca Aguilar, a middle school Algebra teacher, grew up here in the high desert of New Mexico with three sisters and a brother, in a family of educators. Her grandfather and both parents were teachers but she is the only one of her generation to pursue teaching as a career. Her parents encouraged Gretta to pursue math, her subject of choice, yet at the same time warned her that financial gain would not be found in her career choice. Gretta, however, thinking back to her childhood, always knew she would be a teacher, especially a math teacher like her father. Valencia Middle School, where Mrs. Aguilar teaches, sits alone amidst a sandy windswept vastness dotted with scrub brush and the occasional jackrabbit. Driving to work through the flatlands each morning gives Mrs. Aguilar time to contemplate her day, her family, her life-choices. As she drives, she sips her coffee and plans classroom activities for the day keeping her ultimate goal in mind. “I chose to teach math because I want to teach students how to think and not be afraid of math. I was always afraid of my high school teachers. I’m sure they don’t understand the impact they had on me but they were so mean. I want to show students that everyone can do math!” This is what fuels her enthusiasm to teach in one of the most poverty-stricken areas in the U.S., with the state ranking 49 of 50. “ I love teaching math because I feel I can make a ‘hard’ subject become a subject kids feel more comfortable and confident with, and want to pursue high level math classes.”
Mrs. Aguilar is well aware that reaching her goal is not an easy task, especially here in New Mexico where linguistically and culturally different students are the norm, and hunger, housing insecurity, unstable home lives, lack of parental involvement and reduced access to health care contribute to the dire poverty and educational deficiencies experienced by a majority of her students. In 2013, only 23% of NM 8th graders tested proficient or above in math. Mrs. Aguilar wants to help change that. Communication is key to her success as a teacher and Mrs. Aguilar just recently received her endorsement in TESOL, Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, using her own mother, a bilingual teacher raising five children while acquiring her Ph.D. , as a role model. With a bachelor’s degree in teaching from the University of New Mexico and a master’s degree from Washington State, she is licensed to teach social studies and language arts in addition to her personal passion, mathematics. “My favorite part of teaching math is the students. Students are still so innocent. They haven’t been corrupted by life yet. They have a hunger for learning and will work hard for you if they respect you. Math is a hard subject for most students but I hope by the end of the year I have at least ‘opened’ the door for the majority of them in terms of their conceptual understanding of math and confidence.”
Confidence is the thing Mrs. Aguilar identifies as the hardest obstacle she ever encountered in trying to become a math teacher. In reflection, she wishes she would have spoken up for herself more, asked more questions and not felt “bad” for bothering a teacher when she needed help, and wouldn’t have been so afraid of failure. “I do think the stereotype of girls always being nice and respectful and never questioning authority hurt me most. When I didn’t understand a math problem I was too afraid to ask for help when I felt I needed it. . .Society as a whole creates stereotypes and unfortunately it hurts. Women have worked long and hard to get where we are and in some countries I would hate to be born a woman. We have come far, but we still have lots of work to do. . .I do realize there’s a small percentage of women in mathematical careers but looking back, I think my own perceptions were my worst enemy.”
Mrs. Aguilar would like to see girls entering math classes with more confidence and not be so hard on themselves. “They need to learn how to be best friends with themselves. The voice inside of our head needs to be words of encouragement, not self-doubt.” In that same vein, her advice to students pursuing a mathematical career is to have a “growth mindset” and believe in yourself. “Speak up for yourself and know that you matter! No one was born perfect. If you really want something it takes hard work and determination. Finally, accept failure and learn from it.” Mrs. Aguilar wants to see more after school programs that focus on math and science. In the rural area where she teaches, transportation is a major obstacle but she feels project-based learning would encourage more women to pursue a career in math.
At present, Mrs. Aguilar is focused upon yet another problem facing one of her students, as she finally pulls into the dusty lane leading to the parking area of the school.   Her wish for a student advocate who understands the bureaucracy of schools has given her yet another unpaid but worthy job to do. But would she change this life? “If I could change one thing in this world I would change myself. I would try to be more loving and patient. I believe I can’t change the world unless I change myself first.” For those who thirst for an education, Mrs. Aguilar is truly an oasis in the desert.
About the Student
My name is Makayla Gates. I am a 7th grader at Valencia Middle School in Tome, New Mexico. I have always loved math and science and hope someday to become a theoretical physicist or mathematician. I used some of my math and science knowledge to create an acoustic levitator to clean solar panels for my 6th grade science project. This earned me a win at my school science fair, Regionals with multiple special awards, a special award at State and two nominations to the Broadcom MASTERS National Competition
Some essays have been modified for posting on the AWM website.