Saturday, June 14, 2014

Little Geniuses.

Once a year, a group of anointed explorers converges on my workplace for one week. They are paleontologists, nanoscientists, conservationists, photographers, and adventurers, and they talk to us about what they have been working on.

One of them is a 17-year-old named Jack Andraka who has come up with a paper sensor designed to detect pancreatic and other cancers. The talk he gave this week was not unlike his TED talk: He describes his wild teenage optimism in seeking a new method of detection for this very deadly cancer that had taken away a family friend who had been like an uncle to him; his rejection by 199 of the 200 academics he emailed about his idea; and his eventual success, at age 15, in creating a prototype thanks to the one scientist who agreed to help him.

Andraka’s story, and the way he tells it, is designed to inspire: If an outsider, a kid who “didn’t even know what a pancreas was,” can come up with a potentially groundbreaking, life-saving innovation, why can’t you? Why can’t we open up the scientific journals that are so expensive to access, and make all of this knowledge available so that others can have the same chance at contributing?

The talk did inspire me. But it also pulled at me so hard that I had to hold back tears, and it wasn’t because of the death, the deaths, that enabled him to go on this great, seemingly impossible quest. It was because of the loneliness. His talk in the auditorium this week was a little more raw than the TED one. He talked about how he spent an entire summer holed up alone in his room, causing his mother to worry that he was isolating himself too much, researching proteins that might be early detection markers for pancreatic cancer. He talked about how his biology teacher didn’t like him because he tried to bring scientific papers and stuff that was outside the curriculum into her class. On the stage, he no longer had the nice shiny TED look; his hair was untrimmed, his face less roundly youthful. He is deeply, deeply nerdy—I mean, the kid was sneaking nanotubes into biology class—and also openly gay.

Now, I do not know this person at all. Maybe he had a great social experience in high school. But my sense, watching him talk, was that it had to be pretty devastatingly lonely to be that brilliant, that sweetly different, that full of grief, and that willing to abandon yourself and most of your free time to something so esoteric. When a teenager (or anyone, for that matter) is touched by a tragedy or some other highly unpleasant state of being human, turns inward, and becomes obsessive, why does it seem like that combination of states must turn into something destructive? That’s what we tend hear about, anyway. I loved that he turned it into something beautiful. I wished I’d had the imagination and the fortitude to do the same at so many points in my life. That’s what made the tears come.

It also reminded me of an episode that happened in my junior year of high school in Western Civilization class. This class was supposed to be an “honors” class, but it slowly became apparent that we were learning nothing at all outside of the reading and research we were required to do on our own. The classes were taken up mostly by two things, in my memory: watching videos about cathedrals, and listening to our teacher talk unrestrained about stuff that had nothing to do with history. Mr. C was a relatively tall, big man with a belly, a mustache somewhere between horseshoe and walrus, and a very sharp, incisive way of speaking. His way of holding forth made you feel—in the beginning—that it might be important to listen, because something was going to be revealed. He would punctuate his lectures, which often had nothing at all to do with history, with questions to the group. “Who here has ever had a dream?” he would ask, and we raised our hands, and then waited for the point.

Later, we learned not to bother raising our hands or waiting for the point.

I do not remember much of anything that Mr. C said in class except for this: “How old are all of you? 15, 16? Right now, you are at your peak. It will never be better than this.” I remember thinking, “Well that is extremely disappointing news. Also, what does this have to do with western civ?”

Toward the end of the semester, a kid named Jordan had taken to sitting in the back of the class on the floor, backpack in front of him, and sleeping either slumped over or with his head lolled back against the wall. This was typical teen behavior made slightly untypical by the fact that Jordan was an academic prodigy. He was the kid who got a perfect score on his SATs before we were even supposed to take the SATs. He was brilliant in English, he was brilliant in math. He was brilliant in everything. No matter how smart you were, and I was “honors” smart too, tracked into the same classes, Jordan was a type of smart that 99 percent of other 16-year-olds would never achieve, much less understand, and I think most of us knew that even then.

So when a kid like Jordan sat at the back of class sleeping, it was amusingly refreshing, because kids like us who got placed in those classes tended not to be the ones sleeping at the back of class. But it was also a little unnerving, because he was signaling a truth that was sort of scandalous for this particular track at this particular school at this particular time: this class and this teacher were an absolute fucking joke.

Mr. C tolerated this open act of defiance from Jordan for I don’t know how long before he finally got sick of it. One day, he began yelling. Jordan ignored it at first, but then he was roused to perform a sleepy, casual and yet brutal takedown of Mr. C as a teacher. It was something along the lines of I don’t need to take this class, you have nothing to teach me, I am learning nothing here that I can’t learn from a book. Et cetera. Mr. C lost it. I think spittle formed as he ordered Jordan out of the classroom. The kid picked up his backpack and walked out. I had never seen Jordan act remotely disrespectful, and had never seen a teacher so boldly—no, deservedly—challenged, and it was kind of thrilling but also a little sad. All of us, including Mr. C, were wasting our time in that room, and there was really nothing to be done about it.*

Predictably, Jordan went on to Harvard and then became both a math professor and fiction author. It just so happens that I had this high school memory as he is promoting his new bestselling book. He has come to the same conclusion, apparently, that Jack Andraka already has about genius: It may be that only a handful of people will ever reach the upper echelons of science or math or any other given pursuit, but that doesn’t mean that we should close off encouragement or information sources to people just because they don’t have the same amount of specialness early on.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, he said, “[T]he older I get, the more I see how many brilliant people in the world weren't Doogie Howser-like prodigies; didn't shine in Math Olympiad; didn't go to the inner circle of elite colleges. I'm embarrassed that I didn't understand at 13 that it would be this way. But when they keep telling you you're the best, you start to believe you're the best. One of the most painful aspects of teaching mathematics is seeing my students damaged by the cult of the genius.”

We need these messages, especially in this country, given our slipping rank in science and math. But when you no longer possess even the specialness conferred by pure youth, and you are still (still!) trying to live up to your potential, whatever that may be, listening to someone like Jack Andraka can feel a little more bittersweet than inspiring. The rest of us, the little geniuses, blessed with brains and maybe education if we're lucky, have so little time, and maybe less clarity, in figuring out what to Do. Our contributions might not make an impact on the level of a life-saving innovation, but it's still up to us to take them seriously, and when it comes to the smart whippersnapper coming up behind you, to get the hell out of the way.

*Okay so now there is a discussion on Facebook among people who had this teacher and it's possible I'm being a bit harsh on Mr. C. Not everyone felt that his class was a "waste of time," I can only speak for myself. And even then, it's not like I was just burning with frustration at not learning enough about western civ. Anyway, the point of recalling the incident in his class, which I sort of fail to make clear in this post, was that it came to mind as I was thinking, what is it like when you're so young and yet on a different level than most everybody else, and when even your teacher just doesn't get you?

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