In high school I was that kid. Who constructed a dresser-sized wood masterpiece out of plywood and stained it with mahogany finish… for a creative project about “my odyssey.” Most people got by with a paper, or a handily done poster. Not me. I made my dad tote that masterpiece of a chest all the way from my house to school. I coded books from front to back with a rainbow of colors. For that, I still remember the opening words of Ellen Foster. And one year when we were asked to devise a “personal project” — a capstone of the IB program– I had the grand idea of planting a big ol’ garden. I remember how it was a dream drawing up that project proposal and thinking about all the vegetables I wanted to plant, all the flowers I would buy. Not worried (or at all aware) of how much money, time, pure sweat, and joy that garden would gift and challenge me with, I drew up a plan that was ambitious to say the least. But no one ever stopped me.
I think about those projects a lot these days. I wonder mostly why my teachers never ever looked at me once and said YOU ARE CRAZY, child. What are you doing? I think about the smug glances my parents would give me. They never said no. But there were definitely those side glances. Those there she goes again moments. Yep, that’s our daughter.
Henrico wasn’t the richest school. We didn’t have a gazillion AP classes. But I had teachers who never ever ever told me no, even though they probably were thinking in the back of their minds where the heck is this kid coming from….? I know they worried. But they let me learn and do things as I wanted to. When I came up with these big elaborate projects for simple assignments, they just let me do it. When my classmates got snarky, they defended me. When my classmates grew complimentary, they humbled me.
I realize now how lucky I was. In high school, my teachers placed no limits on what I could do.
It is ironic to me then that as I sit at Harvard, a place filled with more opportunity than I ever could have imagined, more places to go, more people to meet than I ever could have guessed… it’s here that I suddenly feel limited.
In high school explaining the ways of the world was possible, an (attempted) explanation born of naiveté and optimism perhaps, but a possibility nonetheless.
Age and Harvard have gifted me (for better or worse) with more pragmatism. And some brevity too. I realize now how enormous the challenges of the world are. I’ve been frustrated by the push to pare down these problems, these big questions into simple, quantifiable variables that I can study. But I do realize the necessity.
Put simply, last year when I walked into a professor’s office and he asked me what I wanted to study, I said: the world. He chuckled. That’s what you say now.
But in high school, that wasn’t too weighty a proposition. The world wasn’t too big. Trying to explain it wasn’t an impossible feat. In college (and with age), it is enormous, spanning far wider than I ever could have imagined from my little room on Greenbrooke Drive. The people that fill it, the stories both told and untold, the conflicts, the wars, the peaceful resolutions, the problems still not fixed. The world is huge and while I knew that on some intellectual level as a high school student, youth kept me from really believing it.
The hard lesson of this year so far has been realizing that even as I have so many BIG questions, for now I must focus on just one. In a clutter crisis of a world inundated by news and social media and boundless human interactions, that is TOUGH. And narrowing my work here as an undergraduate to just one question is not easy. And while I am grateful for what this is teaching me, boy do I miss high school.
For now, I must leave you with two quotes that have been helping me in this process, as relayed to me by the anchor from the show I worked on this past summer– Fareed Zakaria… as was once told to him by his mentor (and former Harvard Professor), Samuel Huntington.
“You have to find a big independent variable and a big dependent variable.
If you’re trying to explain something trivial, who cares?”
“If you tell people the world is complicated, you’re not doing your job as a social scientist. They already know its complicated, your job is to distill it, simplify it, and give them a sense of what is the single, or what are the couple, of powerful causes that explain this powerful phenomenon.”