Last night I attended a reading in Downtown Brooklyn from Danica McKellar - aka Winnie Cooper's - new book, Kiss My Math: Showing Pre-Algebra Who's Boss. Having lost a rather undignified tussle for the last seat with a little boy, I sullenly took my place behind the 30 or so chairs, which were filled with a mixture of earnest-looking teachers (the event was filed under "education"), excited kids and creepy Wonder Years fans. "This is a book signing," reminded posters all over the store. "Absolutely no pictures, merchandise or memorabilia will be signed during the event." Tables held stacks of the actress - turned - mathematician's books, the bestselling Math Doesn't Suck: How to Survive Middle-School Math without Losing Your Mind or Breaking a Nail (now in paperback) and the new one, aimed at slightly older girls. Both books featured a sassy-looking McKellar and a teen-mag aesthetic. ("Do You Pick Supportive Friends? Take This Quiz!" and "What Guys Really Think About Smart Girls!") When I paged through I saw headings like, "Can a guy be too cute? The Function Graph" and "When He Doesn't Call Back: Factorials." "I'm a middle-school teacher," said one young woman, "and I really want to get girls more involved." "I just think she's hot," said a creepy nerd in his mid-thirties.McKellar, when she stepped up, looked exactly like Winnie Cooper. Attired in a fitted purple jersey dress and gold hoop earrings, it was hard to believe she was 33 - which is, I guess, the point. She had a bubbly, girlish speaking style and a SoCal intonation and peppered her speech with "hecks" and "goshes." "I was scared of math," she began frankly, explaining she didn't see herself as fitting the stereotype of the math nerd and doubting her early successes. "When a girl fails at math, it's like confirmation of what she already believes about herself." McKellar explained that she wants to show that math is for everyone, "that you can be that girly girl who wears four-inch heels and is good at math" - and that "being smart doesn't make you a nerd, whatever that even means!" Math, she said, "is like exercise for your mind," and useful in more contexts than most girls understand. "If you want to open a cute little boutique? You're going to need math! I even have a section on unexpected careers that require math, like designing," she said. Despite McKellar's enthusiasm, the audience - with the exception of one elderly man with a none-too-clean iron-gray ponytail who guffawed indiscriminately throughout - remained stony-faced. ("Do you remember math tests?" she asked confidentially at one point. Silence. "Well, I sure do!" she continued pluckily.) The reading portion, because it's a math text, was necessarily brief. Then, of course, questions. "I'm a teacher," said the first speaker. "Are you going to continue with the series and do pre-calc, calculus and trig, too?" McKellar said she might. "I'm also a teacher," said the next. "And I'm already seeing girls feeling really discouraged by seventh grade. " "I'm a middle-school teacher, too," said a third. "are you going to be doing any speaking at schools?" A guy asked if she was encouraged by the recent reports that girls were as good at math as boys. "Those statistics are nothing new," said McKellar heatedly. "It's not a question of ability; girls just don't see themselves as able to compete at a high level." Someone asked about her speech before Congress for funding for scholarships for women. "The truth is, scholarships aren't the problem, really," said McKellar. "By college, it's too late - women don't think of themselves as mathematicians, end of story. They're not applying for those scholarships." "Don't you think it's unfair to be focusing on girls when kids across the board are struggling with math?" asked one guy aggressively. "Well, lots of boys read the book," said McKellar defensively. She went on to say that textbooks had always been geared towards a male sensiblity, so this was more about redressing a balance. "When is The Wonder Years coming out on DVD?" demanded an old man with a mustache and a Nascar cap. McKellar very graciously replied that she didn't know but that "I've heard there are bootlegs out there, but they're illegal." As the customers lined up, marshaled strictly by the B&N employees, to have their books signed, I heard an 11-year-old girl say, shyly, "I like your book. It made math fun." McKellar beamed with pleasure. At that same moment, I noticed a group of young guys pass by the picture window in front of which the actress and math genius was standing and give her rear end a thorough and unabashed once-over. The two things, combined, seemed like a pretty good window into the one-time Maxim model's life. Kiss My Math, indeed.
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