One of my favourite memories of the Drop-In Centre happened not too long after I started here. One of our regular visitors happened to be pregnant at the time, and as always happens when parents are in the presence of a pregnant woman, it wasn’t long before we began swapping birth stories. And not just ones from our own experience, but also the ones related to us by other parents before the births of earlier children. I won’t relate any of these birth stories here, because I don’t want to freak you out (like the way we freaked out those poor 18-year-old male students studying at the same table as us during this conversation).
I remember thinking later how strange it is that parents naturally want to tell birth stories to pregnant mothers. And the pregnant mothers listen to these stories with interest, no matter how gruesome and frightening the story is. Why is that?
The reason came to me during the last couple of weeks of summer semester. It came to me because large numbers of students asked me what their maths courses in second year would be like. They soaked up all the information I was willing to give even if it frightened them a bit that there would be statistics, or more proofs, or they would have to remember this infinite sum stuff. And why? Because the fear of the unknown was worse than the fear of the known.
This is why pregnant mothers listen to birth stories: so that when their own birth experience comes, they know what might or might not happen and how to deal with it if it does — in other words, to reduce the fear of the unknown. They even listen to the stories when they have had a child already, knowing that one birth is not enough to know about all possible births that could be.
And in a flash I realised that one of our longstanding policies in the MLC was wrong. In the past we had a general policy of not allowing the second years to stay. Of course we’d been as nice about it as we could be — telling them that the first-years need us more, that not all of the staff are experienced in their particular maths, and that they should make their lecturer work for them — but to all intents and purposes we had turned them away.
But I realised there was a certain advantage to having them in the room with the first-years: they can tell stories from first-hand experience about what the future will be like for the first-years! If they weren’t there, it’s just us, and they only get our stories, and our stories become less relevant as time goes on, like the stories my great auntie told us about having babies in her hallway in Wallaroo 50 years ago. (Ok, I had to tell at least part of one actual birth story.)
So we have a new policy: we’ll still tell the second years they should talk to their own lecturer, and that first-years have a greater need, but we won’t turn them away. Because they can help the first-years with their fear of the unknown.