written by Michael Heiss
I’m sitting in a room full of middle school students at the summer school that I teach at, and they’re writing memoirs. I have been planning for this first writing experience since I arrived a week ago. Since the program began, my colleagues, who teach other subjects like biology, logic, fast-paced mathematics, and even neuroscience, have asked me, “Are they going to be able to write memoirs?” I smiled and nodded, but inside I quietly wondered, “Are your kids going to be able to dissect sheep brains in your biology class?” “Are your students going to be able to determine the radius of orbital movements in your astrophysics class?” I know they know the answers to these questions, so I wondered why they felt the need to ask me. Of course these students are going to be able to write memoirs. Just because people are young doesn’t mean they can’t be introspective or reflective. Needless to say, it bothered me. Is writing about one’s self really harder than doing science and math? From the way these teachers of tangible fields inquisitioned me, I would guess the answer is “Yes.”
The questions they asked raised questions in me. My students are all high-achieving superkids, but have they ever really been asked to think about themselves, their lives, their challenges? I would assume that some may keep a journal or a diary, but that’s private, and writing a memoir is not writing a diary. Could they really do it?
The experience triggered an emotional response I hadn’t experienced teaching undergrads. I began to ask myself if I prepared them enough. I sweated. I read over my lessons, my syllabus. I read them again. But as the academic week began, and I watched these young minds, who had never read a personal essay, never read creative nonfiction, and never been asked “why” about themselves, succeeded, I knew that I was teaching them well. My fears subsided, and in their wake was left a realization: “These mathematicians and scientists might be afraid of engaging the unknown world inside themselves.” It made me feel good, and it made me feel that writing personal essays were just as important, maybe more important, than all of the other subjects combined. Science, Math, Engineering – these are subjects with questions that lead to answers. Right or wrong, they feel concrete. Finite. If it’s wrong, why is it wrong? Of course there are unknowns, but there is a trail that they can follow. When examining the self, there is no right or wrong – just a sea of grey and lots of cause and effect. It’s personal, and one person’s journey is never the same.
Looking ahead, in three weeks when this program is finished, these thirteen young minds will walk out of this classroom with a better sense of self and the experience of being able to look at themselves and understand why and how the things they’ve done have happened, and I feel good about that. They’re all going into math and science fields, and maybe they’ll make some amazing breakthroughs because they know they can conquer the unknown. They’ve already done it once.