Casting Off Ill-Fitting Labels

I DIDN'T become a scientist.

"You should drop math and science," my high school advisor, herself a math teacher, told me. "You're the artsy-craftsy type."

Her words settled into my 15-year-old mind with the finality of a death knell. Surely she was right. Only the week before, my algebra teacher had shrugged in despair when I failed to grasp her third explanation of an algebraic concept.

"If you can't understand it by now, you never will," she said.

A quarter century later, I don't question my teachers' sincerity. What gives me pause is their certainty that they could and should predict my future, even if they were right.

In college I became an English major, of course. But my roommate, Sarah, majored in biology. She was excellent in mathematics. I am remembering all of this, I suppose, because Sarah is flying east this week from her home in Vancouver, British Columbia, for our 20th college reunion. Why lie? She became an environmental planner. I teach writing.

But there is more to it than that. Those math teachers were not only right; they were also completely wrong. They were right that I was better at writing, at drawing, at reading novels than I was at understanding algebra. They were wrong to compartmentalize me in such a tidy little box. It got me worried, and worry, I have seen over and over in my teaching, gets in the way of learning. Worse, it gets in the way of fun.

Sarah and I had fun. We caught a black painted turtle in the cemetery pond and kept him in an aquarium in our room. He liked lettuce scraps from the cafeteria and stray earthworms we picked up off the slick city sidewalks in rainstorms.

We bought a green parrot who systematically destroyed the back of our wicker chair with his beak. He used to sit on my shoulder, cock his head, and groom my eyebrows. In the evenings, I would look up from my reading and get lost in watching the turtle's expert eating of a worm or the way the parrot's gray eyelids came up from the bottom and down from the top as he dozed.

Each year we entered the annual raft race, for which you had to construct a raft for under $5 and get from one bridge to another while still afloat. Our first attempt was made out of plastic cider jugs tied together with rope. Wearing long Indian skirts, we clambered aboard and tried to harness the wind with black umbrellas. The jugs were improperly tied and began drifting off behind us, one by one, as we sank gradually beneath the surface. We were awarded the prize for the Most Unsightly Craft that year , and for the Worst Constructed another.

In high school, I hadn't had so much fun. I worried a lot about what I was bad at and whether I would ever be good enough at anything. I relied on other people to tell me what I could and couldn't do, and they did not disappoint me. It is only now that I realize I could have resisted their labels and refused to be so narrowly defined. Back then, though, it didn't occur to me to take their judgments as anything less than truth.

But in college, there no longer seemed to be such a clear division between artsy-craftsy types and scientists. I forgot to worry about what I was good or bad at as Sarah and I sank beneath the waves in the raft race or talked until 2 a.m. about the fundamental mysteries underlying English and biology. There were things, we realized, you couldn't explain. People, for instance.

When Sarah flies in from Vancouver, we're going to walk by the river, visit the cemetery where we found the turtle, and talk all night. I hope I will discover that neither of us has lost the habit of staring at things or of just being amazed. And I hope neither of us has acquired the habit of forming quick judgments, of separating the artsy-craftsy types from the mathematical geniuses.

I have children now, an 11-year-old daughter and an eight-year-old son. I'm wary of telling them what their strengths and weaknesses are or what they ought to avoid. I hope they'll grow up knowing there's no predicting how it will all come out. I want them to expect surprises.

I do read them lots of books. I'm an English teacher, after all, the artsy-craftsy type. But I plan to tell Sarah how my children and I find turtles and collect earthworms in the rain. In the spring we bring frog eggs inside and study tadpoles. Last summer, we raised monarch butterflies from eggs no bigger than grains of salt we found on the underside of milkweed leaves.

Sarah probably will fill me in about her forays into art. She's studying printmaking in her spare time. The walls of my study are covered with her beautiful silk-screened calendars, each featuring a bird she studied while getting her Ph.D. in biology.

Then we'll spend hours complaining about our jobs. She'll moan about bureaucracies; I'll groan about the number of students who come, all worried, to tell me how awful their writing is, and what their teachers said they were terrible at.

But I'll tell Sarah how I sometimes ask a student, "What if your teacher was wrong?"

Usually the student is quiet for a moment, then shakes his or her head earnestly and says, "Oh no. I really am terrible at writing."

Here, there might be another silence. Eventually the student, perhaps uncomfortable with the absence of conversation, looks up at me. I'll raise my eyebrows. "Let's wait and see," I'll answer.

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