Child stars aren't supposed to be well-adjusted mathematicians with happy families. But here we are.
Winnie Cooper eats a crepe and, like I creep, I eat a crepe too, crushin’ hard on the crepe-eating Cooper. Of course it’s not really Winnie Cooper sitting next to me in Soho’s La Mercerie in a bright-red dress with matching red-lipstick. It’s Danica McKellar, the now 43-year-old actress who played the coolest girl ever on The Wonder Years. Decades removed from the show, McKellar is still — this becomes clear quickly — very cool.
Maybe you didn’t know this but after she outgrew the role that made her famous — and after a brief, weird moment as a Maxim sexpot — McKellar, who graduated summa cum laude in mathematics from UCLA, has an Erdos number of 4, and helped develop the Chayes-McKellar-Winn Theorem, emerged as a passionate (and best-selling) advocate for math and science education. That theorem (famous, but less famous than McKellar herself) has to do with percolation and Gibbs states multiplicity for ferromagnetic Ashkin–Teller models on Z2. McKellar can explains this without reference materials, but she’s nice so she doesn’t.
For the last decade, she’s been pushing math as hard as banks push high-interest loans — and precisely because banks push high-interest loans. “You don’t have to know math to get by in this, but you know who’s really good at math? Credit card companies, banks, every corporation you’ll ever enter into a contract with,” McKellar says. She views math literacy as a way to push back on corporations. The empowerment she preaches in not rhetorical. It’s practical. As I said, she’s very cool.
Though most of her oeuvre has targeted middle school girls with titles like Girls Get Curves: Geometry Takes Shape and Math Doesn’t Suck: How to Survive Middle School Math Without Losing Your Mind or Breaking a Nail, her two latest books, a board book called Bathtime Mathtime, and a graphic novel-textbook mashup called Please Don’t Open This Math Book, are aimed at younger kids.
“I want to inspire girls not to aspire to be that cute girl that takes selfie,” she tells me, “They can aspire to be the cute young woman who’s wearing a fabulous suit and heels bought with the money made at a fabulous job.”
McKellar points to studies that have shown that, even when there’s no qualitative difference in math skills, girls routinely rate themselves less math competent. This is an educational issue and a cultural problemAnd, yes, McKellar knows that talking to kids — or talking kids out of preconceptions — is extremely hard. She has a seven-year old son, Draco, who she is homeschooling with her ex-husband, composer Mike Verta. Does this make her seem intense? Yeah, a bit. The fact that she does all this while shooting Hallmark movies, mostly in Canada, and picking up voice gigs (she is M’gann M’orzz in Young Justice and the villain Frost in DC Super Hero Girls) is downright intimidating. She manages her time better than me and, in all likelihood, better than you.
Naturally, the bit I’m incredulous about is the homeschooling with an ex-husband thing, which she slips gently into conversation.
“I do all the math, science experiments, grammar and reading comprehension,” she explains. “My ex is an amazing piano player and computer guy so, they do computers and music, plus creative writing.” She pauses then adds, “Draco loves writing about robots.”
Yeah, sure, but let’s focus on the ex-husband part for a second. I mean, the idea of homeschooling is daunting to me, but to be both a co-parent with your ex and a co-teacher seems, well, extra daunting. McKellar shrugs. She doesn’t seem all that interested in what things seem like. She seems very interested in — and very aware of — how things are. This is an admirable trait that makes her life tips (she has a few) actionable and wise.“I have two pieces of advice for people getting a divorce,” she tells me. “Number one: Don’t bad mouth each other or the new partners ever, ever. That just puts the kid in the middle. Number two: Be generous with your ex, in every way you can be.” For McKellar that means coordinating lesson plans so Draco can learn piano from the guy who wrote the score for Independents’ Day. Life is what you make it.A
I wonder how McKellar balances labor-intensive homeschooling, writing about math, eating crepes whilst promoting a book she’s written about math, voice-acting and carrying the success or failure of TV movies like Hallmark’s Love in Design, which she just wrapped. I asked her about it expecting the sort of response that successful people give, something non-chalant that ultimately turns out to mean, “I have hired help.” But that’s not the response I get because that’s not the sort of response the former coolest girl in the world would ever give. Danica McKellar is either rarely disingenuous or a far better actress than Meryl Streep. She radiates a sort of effortless Hollywood affability, pauses and then gives me a satisfying answer. “I don’t do anything social ever,” she says, cheerily. “This is the time of my life that I’m not going to have much downtime. I could if I decided not to spend as much time with my son as I do, but I won’t give that up, no matter how busy I get work-wise.”
The conversation ends not long after that. And it feels complete in a way that most interviews don’t. She slips out of the booth, straightens her dress, and gives me a solid handshake. This is the last I’ll see of her. She must return to her life as a home-schooler in the hills of Los Angeles. But as she walks out to the waiting SUV, I can’t help but think: There goes a cute young woman who’s wearing a fabulous suit and heels bought with money made at a fabulous job.