I’m standing in front of a classroom.
I’m standing in front of a classroom and a boy, twelve maybe, comes up and asks me, “Miss, can I wash my face,” and I laugh and point to the real teacher and say, “no, I’m not in charge, I’m just visiting,” and he walks over to her and she tells him yes and to hurry back before class starts. There are about ten kids in this classroom, fewer than I’ve faced down previously. I do science outreach stuff—I talk about what I do and where I see my career going and how I knew I wanted to do it and how to get there. I’ve done 14-year olds and 11-year olds and 12-year olds again; I’m old hat, but it’s always new.
There’s a kid sitting down in the first row. He has a unibrow and a serious face; has his legs crossed. There’s no one else within five feet of him. There’s a girl sitting on a table to the side, swinging her legs and talking loudly. A group of boys against the far wall. One girl in the very back, holding court with a posse around her. She’s louder; she’s demanding questions of me, and when another teacher comes in, she argues him down like he’s a little brother and a parent’s in the room, seeing how much she can get away with. I’m mildly worried. I like my classrooms to be more under control.
It’s so… obvious, you know? It’s astonishing how obvious the state of a classroom is, from the moment you walk in. From where kids sit, to how they look at you. To how kids address you, to how teachers talk to you. It’s so different from classroom to classroom: from when a teacher walks in and introduces a speaker, to when silence falls for the first time and the teacher can jump in with a prompt or leave a visitor to their own devices. The most telling is when a student speaks out of turn or hasn’t listened to the instructions. Will the teacher completely ignore it? Will they be reprimanded? Will the teacher be bulldozed? Will the reprimand be forceful? Will the reprimand be funny?
And the kids. I’m always wrestling with the dichotomy that we could either grow into something entirely new as we get older, or we just become a polished version of who we’ve always been. I should have gone to the classrooms. Because while it’s not like they’re all going to be the same people when they’re older, there are differences, and they’re so obvious. There are kids who sit in the front; there are kids who sit in the back. There are kids who are shy, and kids who are not. There are kids who misbehave and kids who don’t; kids who care and kids who are more interested in poking at each other; kids with privilege and kids without; kids who have friends and kids without; kids who are leaders and kids who are independent. And many of these are so visible, right away, to an outsider.
And so many of these differences are not obvious, as well.
It’s a bit overwhelming, being in front of a classroom. My last visit was a “career day” in my favorite format, which is that the students assemble a list of questions and try to guess what career I’m in. I then tell them about my work in a little summary at the end. It’s my favorite because it’s in front of a classroom, I don’t have to prepare much, and everyone is interested and engaged. You do this for 4-6 classrooms, 15-20 minutes each, rotating between classrooms. I’ve done this for two to three schools now, with 11 to 14-year olds.
In some classrooms, the questions just keep on coming. No questions are repeated, the questions are quick, and the kids ask insightful ones. The teachers play the game too, give prompts when it gets a little quiet, call out people who aren’t paying attention who I don’t even notice. There was a teacher in trainers (sneakers) with sports clothes, who bounced up from where she was sitting and said: “Did I just hear the “W” word? Did you just say ‘werewolves’? No? Well, that’s probably because I couldn’t hear over Jonathan talking over there!” I’ve been in classrooms where the teacher was on their laptop, and I was entirely responsible for engaging everyone. When I walked into an art classroom, the teacher was having all of his students do a wiggle, “everyone stand up, let’s do a 30-second wiggle to get us all ready for the next speaker!”. I’ve had teachers bemoan, “come on, guys, don’t be asleep! Ask some questions!”
The same kids raise their hands over and over again. A lot of boys, a few girls. (When one of the students walks me between classrooms, the girls all have interesting things to say. They’re not the same ones who raise their hands.) There are always a few students directly in front of me, who are usually murmuring to each other. There are usually a lot of hands in the air, and usually I’m the one who picks the next person to call on. There’s a lot of noise and usually a few kids goofing off who are pulling other students’ attention. I don’t know that I’d remember everyone I called on: there’s too much stimulation for that.
It’s a struggle to keep eye contact with everyone. The kids who ask the questions, yes, easy. But half of the class doesn’t ask anything, and I never look at them. My attention is often drawn to the kids who are acting out, to try to get them to stop. But I’m ignoring the kids who are watching intently, the ones with the attentive eyes. I’ll swing back to them every once in a while, the ones who are always listening. The ones who alternate between whispering with their friends and don’t talk, I can never remember who they were.
The interaction between adults and kids is fascinating. How the teachers will listen to what I’m saying and interpret it, and how they’ll frame it to the students. It’s very odd to present to both, because I talk to a 30-year-old about my work in a very different way than I do to a 10-year old. It’s like that slightly jarring sensation of reading a book meant for public audiences, and seeing in your head how it’d be written as a scientific review paper (this is a new experience and I’m quite enjoying the strangeness.) Of seeing what would have been said if the concepts weren’t being simplified and simultaneously questioning how well the simplification has been done.
One little boy guessed I was a neuroscientist almost immediately. He knew about PhD programs and was very quick with the questions. When I was driving home with the outreach supervisor later, she told me that that little boy was “obviously very smart.” And I was startled, because I had been thinking: that little boy “obviously has a parent who’s in science.”
There is a difference, and that difference in wording struck me because it reflects distinctive world experiences and expectations. Where I am, almost everyone is very smart. People have large differences in their knowledge bases, primarily because of age and field. But it’s hardly a foreign situation to find someone who doesn’t know enough, because they’re switching fields or they’ve just started that part of their education. The solution is to have them work on it (… they’re almost always already working on it); how much you know does not reflect your general intelligence.
The boy was interested in science and had resources who were preparing him to move in that direction. And when one teacher asked his students who was planning to go to university, the third of the students who raised their hands were the ones with, “computer programmer” and “physiotherapist” already on their tongues, with a good understanding of what education was next and what they would need to do.
But… intelligence. What expectations would lead you to expect that a boy who would ask sophisticated questions was intelligent above all else?
… Oh, I see, perhaps that is the most obvious response.
Why is it not my instinctual one, if this is an instinctual response and not something reflecting a specific worldview? (But it is an instinctual response, isn’t it. When I tell people I’m at Cambridge, people are very impressed. The loud girl from before, she told me: “oh, you must be a smartie, then.” Fun fact: when people say they went to college in “Boston”, they either went to a school you haven’t heard of, or more likely, they’re from Harvard. People treat you differently—I treat people differently—when they say.)
I think one reason this response doesn’t immediately occur to me because I’m in an environment where intelligence is moderately controlled for. I mean “control” in the scientific sense, in that everyone is about the same level, so this can’t be the factor that is causing differences in people’s success rates. There are of course differences in peoples’ intelligences here—there are people who pick things up faster, make connections better, are particularly well skilled at something irrespective of the amount of time they’ve spent on it. But everyone’s smart. Age and field are the main determinants of knowledge.
What I know is that I have a friend who knew she wanted to be a scientist from when she was in elementary school. She is an only child and was homeschooled until high school, with a mother who heartily encouraged extracurricular teachings about science specifically, catering to her daughter’s interests. This friend applied to a special magnet school and started doing research when she was in high school. She participated in world science competitions before coming to college.
This friend is far ahead on the career track, and she was taking graduate-level classes at MIT when she was a junior. Very smart, yes. Also had a lot of extra time to work on these skills? Yes.
If you know what you want to do early, and you have people who will help you do it, and people who will encourage you to do it… yes, you are going to do well. I’m fascinated by what intelligence is and how we conceive of it as a society, but what I’m told over and over is: you need to be intelligent enough, and then you just need to know what you want to do and have the resources and discipline to do it.
When I present at career days, I’m usually the only scientist, because the organizers make an effort to include a range of careers. It’s been fun because I’ve gotten to meet hair dressers, bank managers, police officers, people running their own businesses, construction workers, and journalists, who are not normally people I’d have the opportunity to talk to. (Except on airplanes. I wish people would talk to each other more on subways: I feel like that would be my optimum situation. Get to meet a whole bunch of really different people, but you’re also not chained to them for hours.) On this latest round, I was following a rota with submariners in the classroom in front of me. One of the teachers told me after we had both presented: “It’s good that they can see a career they can get into when they’re 16, and a career like yours where they’re in school until they’re in their late twenties. For a lot of them, they’re not going to see an example of this anywhere else.”
Oh no. Because if this is the only time that those kids are going to hear about being a scientist, I know I wouldn’t have been able to make it. I needed my parents pushing me in the math-and-science direction every step of the way, or I wouldn’t have bothered. My favorite subject from elementary school to high school was English, and my hardest for the same period of time was math. (And of course they expected me to go to college. When I was in my first semester at Wellesley and I wanted to quit, I knew I had to stick through it because it simply was not imaginable that I not get a college degree from somewhere.)
I hear amazing success stories from some of my acquaintances who came from very underprivileged backgrounds, but they’re overwhelmingly the minority. The post-career day survey asked me if I thought I’d “made a difference,” and while I’m certainly glad to have gone, I don’t know.
One of my first Tinder dates (… it really was an excellent experience) was an interesting guy. It’s so funny because depending on where I start with this story, people have amusingly different impressions of him. But I’ll start with the worst and move from there, because that’s how I usually tell it.
All right, so it was one of those beautifully sunny weekends in Cambridge of which we’ve had approximately three. (People actually do know which specific weekend I’m talking about when I mention it :)). We walked to a park and sat down, and the first thing he did was roll a joint and start smoking marijuana. This was the first time I’d ever seen this done in front of me. He smoked continuously throughout our two-hour long conversation and just kept on rolling them as we went along.
At this point, people are horrified and say this was the worst date ever and they give me their sympathies. But it wasn’t, is the thing. This was by far the weirdest thing about the date, but it was a good one.
He was my age, and starting his first year of undergrad. He literally knew almost as much neuroscience as I do, and he was starting his first year of undergrad. He knew how to read scientific papers, he had specific ideas about these papers, he knew what research he wanted to do, he was able to evaluate my research in the context of the neuroscience literature, he knew the basics of computational neuroscience and psychology, and it basically felt like a graduate school interview. And he was telling me how nice it was to actually have an intelligent conversation with a date, and I was sitting there boggling at him like: how do you know all this stuff. Did you learn it on your own. Obviously. I could not have learned it if I didn’t take four years of classes on it. And had a lot of research experience. And encouraging teachers and discouraging failures and lots and lots of time in which I was doing nothing but being a student. In which learning these things was my job.
He’d had a rougher upbringing. “I don’t drink anymore; I was addicted for a while, don’t want to get back into it. This,” he said, gesturing to the joint, “is my only vice now.”
And that sounds terrible, and when I lead with that people never let me get to the rest of it, and tell me to definitely not go on a second date. I had someone ask me if I wanted to “fix him,” which I thought never happened outside of movies and was intensely bizarre to me. No, I don’t want to fix him, he’s figured out what he wants to do just fine, and that never had anything to do with me anyway. I seriously respect him because he figured out what he wanted to do and did all the groundwork on the side, and I know that what he’s done is HARD to do, because I’ve done it with all of this extra help and it still was hard.
Funny thing, though. He emphasized that he was lucky. That he was lucky that he was naturally inclined to this stuff, that he was one of those people who read encyclopedias for fun, that he was lucky he was able to get to where he is. I feel immensely lucky; some part of me was going: you can’t feel immensely lucky, you started out with less than I have so you’re like a success story or something, not lucky. And that thought—raw—just makes me laugh and laugh and laugh.
Because we’re not the victims in our own stories, are we? We’re the heroes. We’re not some poor downtrodden souls who were so oppressed and underprivileged: we overcome our challenges, some more than others but none of us don’t have any, and we’re the lucky ones, and we’re going to go back and try to help the others along. We’re equals, now—we both made it. There’s no more charity that should be given; we give the charity to others, we’re the ones, the same.
Something that I like about how we see ourselves is that everyone is the individual. He didn’t have any expectations for how I would behave or was expected to overcome, and likewise he didn’t have any expectations for how someone in a similar situation to his should have acted; there was only the way that he personally had acted in the situation he was in to get to where he was. And if you see it that way—you hold the metric stick to yourself rather than comparing across others—you see how the past can kind of become irrelevant, in a way. Yes, I did it, but this is who I am now, and I’m looking towards the future and engage me with what I’m interested in. When I was talking to peers who had overcome eating disorders, that was their primary advice as well: don’t talk to people about their eating disorders, talk to them about their goals, what they’re interested in. Don’t forget they’re a person.
This is not intuitive for me. But this is what I like people to do—I’m always confused at myself when I bring up past bad situations, because it’s useless to talk about it now, and I’d much rather redirect my thoughts to goals and things I care about than obsessing over problems or difficulties in the past. I still feel like people should be given extra admiration and kudos for strength shown in the past. But I do have to remember that we’re equals now, that it’s pretty much irrelevant given we’re both here. Do I want people with more privilege / less problems than me to think I’m a success story because I overcame whatever I overcame, and look at me now? No. Meet me as I am; that’s what I care about.
It’s so interesting, compassion, charity, empathy, equality. I feel like I can’t be the only one with the wrong intuitions about this, who thinks of herself as the hero of her own story but forgets that everyone else is the hero in theirs. I wonder too whether it’s useful to think about these things—doubtless, if one wants to improve everyone’s chances from the outset, but how important is it that everyone is able to think about others in a framework that lets them give the proper encouragement, proper responses? …Important. I’m not there. But individual responsibility and awareness; that’s useful, I think, in the context of eventual change.
Here’s another one. One of the teachers at this school is responsible for a lot of the special education. She was telling me how she was working with a student who is nearly blind, and so is going to need someone to help him all throughout schooling, though he is very bright. He didn’t like her at first, she said, because she made him work, and previously everyone did stuff for him. But he likes her now, she said, he keeps on saying they make a good team. “Excellent,” I tell her, and nod. The purpose of what she does, she reiterates, is to make sure these students are ready for the outside world. I nod again. There isn’t much that I don’t find interesting these days (it happened the other day, that I was actually completely uninterested in the conversation, didn’t feel like I wanted to pull anything out of it, and the rarity was startling). I found it interesting that she told me why she did her job, what she found meaningful, her approach and goals, shared a concrete example with the goal of making me more aware of challenges that can be faced, and then told me about a restaurant I’m interested in going to in all within a ten-minute conversation in the staff room. In the context of my heroes discussion, she told me how she’s helping others and she also in a roundabout way told me how this boy thinks of himself, and how it’s been worth it to him to do his own work despite the fact that usually people do stuff for him and it’s easier.
My public outreach experience: 5/5, highly recommended, would do again. I learned that I enjoy being in front of a classroom (I’d always said I wanted to teach. It’s comforting to realize that if you put me in front of a classroom, if you have me give a 20-minute presentation to 90 people (a new record for me), if you give me a private student: I’m happy.) I learned that there are many selling points to my job / future job, and that it’s not as standard, just-follow-these-steps-1-2-3 as I usually feel it is given where I went to college. I learned that classrooms are fascinating places, in the interaction between students and students-and-teachers and teachers-and-adults, and in how much information is available from just one of these interactions.
We all stand in front of classrooms every day.