Today featured an interesting juxtaposition.
So, for undergraduates to graduate with honors in my college, students need to 1- have a GPA above a certain threshold, and 2- complete a research project and undergo an oral examination. [An oral examination for UNDERGRADUATE WORK]. That oral examination runs very similarly to graduate defenses: there is a presentation of the work, questions can be asked, then the student is examined by the committee, which then deliberates and determines whether or not the student has performed well enough to have earned the honors designation.
Anyway. This afternoon, I presented undergraduate research project to my committee and defended my thesis before them. The thought of “defending” my work, of proving that it holds up to scrutiny and measures up to the standards, the thought of having to validate the worth of my labor and prove my knowledge before a number of superiors is a stark contrast to what is perhaps the greatest lesson I have learned this semester and throughout the rest of my college career:
In the grand scheme of things, I don’t actually know anything.
As I’ve said recently, the more I learn, the more I’m finding there is to learn. Rather than feeling entitled and empowered by my education, I am overwhelmed and humbled at how much there is that is still unknown. I am more aware of how much I need the help and support of others, of how little I would have been able to achieve without them. I have found that this environment that encourages me to think broadly, and deeply, and much, has brought me high to see the expanses of knowledge, and brought me down again to know that the world is so much greater than can be grasped.
Sometimes I find the huge unknown to be daunting, and terrifying. Sometimes I find it adventurous and exciting. Defending my thesis today and sharing what I’ve learned felt almost silly in the face of countless other mysteries, and thought the process of getting to the end of this work was long and difficult, there was an end, and a mystery resolved, and despite the mysteries that still lie ahead, I find courage in knowing that there are ways to solve them.
I spent this past Saturday afternoon with Drew at the Museum of Natural History on campus. We picked up one of the scavenger hunts from the welcome desk and spent the majority of the afternoon in the same two exhibits trying to find everything on the list.
Some of the things we had to find were easy and obvious, like the slimy salamander and green tree frog underneath the log. Others took a bit more time - the banded water snake, the brown thrasher, the bobcat. Some of the security guards helped us find the hummingbird, and the snail, and the giant swallowtail. The cave crickets would have been impossible to find without a flashlight. We spent maybe twenty minutes scouring the backdrop painting in the Hammock looking for the cardinal; Drew finally found it on the far back wall, hidden behind a lot of (fake) foliage.
Fun fact: There’s a barn own hidden in the Cave exhibit. If you walk in from the Hammock and look up above the plaque describing cave formations, you should find it. Up, and slightly left-ish. It’s lit.
In our previous trips to the museum, we would mostly pass through the exhibits, maybe stopping to reread the plaques and flip through the informational panels. But we learned so much in those few hours we spent in the Hammock and the Cave, finding out where things were hidden, learning what they had to offer, realizing there were so many things we had neither seen nor noticed before.
How many other things do we fail to see because we never take the time to look? I am finding that the more I learn, the less I seem to know, about my research, about Gainesville, about my friends, about my life. There is so much here that can still be done, can still be known.
There are four weeks between now and when I graduate. I don’t even know how long I have between now and having to relocate myself, and I don’t mean move out of my dorm and move back home, but actually establishing myself where I’ll have a job and a life without my family and without the friends I’ve made in the last four-and-a-half years, in a place that is completely new to me.
And I know I will always have the chance to make more friends, adjust to new places, make a new home. And I am excited and very ready to stop being a student, to actually put my knowledge to use towards something that is not my transcript, and to move on to new things.
There are just other things that I find that I am not ready to let go of quite yet.
The noise in the hall was hushed yet abuzz. As I walked down the hallway looking at the other doors as I tried to form so some sort of idea for our homeroom’s door cover. Looking at the other 8th graders 7th graders and finally 5th an 6th as I walked down the hall towards the art room to find yellow paint for the other group that was painting a pumpkin. Next Friday was the big rival game and I was fairly excited for I had never had the liberty to have this much school spirit. Let alone see if we could keep a winning streak of 16 years.
As I continued down the hall to the art room finally arriving to find no teacher and no yellow paint. Quickly leaving as more people came in searching for supplies that most likely was in the hands of another group. I left to go ask another group if they had yellow paint. For it was an important thing, the yellow paint. While walking back to the main hallway passing the office to see I only had 20 minutes left of 6th period I speed up my pace passing some of my 7th grade friends working on their door. I found a group with yellow paint after a little asking around and took it the people decorating the pumpkin. Talking to them, as my partner for the door was busy doing homework for it was a study period. Soon the bell rang and we were left with the mess of paint. Trying quickly to clean up the mess that was all over the lab tables, we were late for our next period, but after getting a pass went on with our day.
The next day my partner, an odd interesting fun loving girl who had had volunteered, and I began the work for our door. Going to the office to retrieve some light blue paper, and taping the large sheet so that it covered the door completely. We began to sketch our ideas for the door. A mustang vs. a falcon, our hope that the mustang will reign supreme. We continued to work turning in a paper to the office requesting cutouts, and letters so we could finish the next day, that of which we presumed the project to be due. Again as always the bell rang, and I found myself off on my to art class as I did every single day since the beginning of the 2nd 6 week grading period.
The next day we continued, picking up the cutouts, formulating a plan for putting them on the door, and managing to glue the wrong side of the letters nearly every time. People coming in and out slowed us, and our hands constantly hitting the door caused people to believe we were knocking. But we finished, with gluey hands and a messed up “L”, but it was finished. We cleaned up returned the glue and continued to talk in the hallway until the bell rang.
After finishing the door, the next day we finished the pumpkin. Again acquiring paints as we had none, brushes and pallets as we ran from the science room to the art room and back. Finishing the pumpkin, a night setting a lone house with one lit window and a grave yard in front. We cleaned the lab table, washed off the pallets and ran back to the art room to return them. As I ran down the adjacent hallway I felt weirdly free. For a break in my usual schedule had occurred that week, and I had been able to see how much pride we had in our little school district. I also felt free due to breaking those simple rules you learn in elementary school. ‘You shouldn’t take without asking. No talking in the halls.’ Those little rules that you obey without thinking.
And of course I had never felt as oddly free as I did running down those halls. That feeling that everything was alright, that everything was done and for 30 seconds we could be carefree. For breaking a rule such as ‘no running in the hall’. A rule that had brought me many problems in the past. It felt good for a break and that feeling as though there were fewer rules. Only to go back to what you had been doing before the next day. That little feeling of excitement and freedom. The feeling as though I could run down those halls and for 10 seconds everything was just fine, I could keep going and nothing could stop me.
But again the bell rang, and I snapped out my daze to join the crowd and continue on with my usual routine.
Within the day to day trenches of life it is pretty easy to get bogged down by all the petty little frustrations which seem to creep into all of our lives. It can be a dangerous, slippery slope if we let those frustrations become our reality. November, however, is a time of thanksgiving; a time to reflect not on those petty frustrations, but on all of those things that save us, that lift our lives up and keep us moving forward. These are often overlooked and taken for granted so it is important, especially at this time of year, to take inventory of all you have to be grateful for. David Foster Wallace illustrates this point beautifully in his speech This Is Water through a parable about fish:
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”
Like the fish, we tend to overlook the most important realities and not see what is around us for what it truly is.
Today, I was lucky enough to take a step back and admire the beautiful reality around me. I have chosen to become a teacher, which in today’s day and age comes not with accolades but at best confusion, and at worst, condescension. In New Jersey especially, teachers are taken for granted. Throughout my college career training to become a teacher I have been asked more times than I can count, “Are you sure you want to be a teacher?” with a special mix of pity and repulsion. To those who have asked this (yes, some of them teachers themselves), you just don’t understand.
Teaching is special; teaching is magic. This notion I have is reaffirmed every time I work with my students in the marching band. I get to watch young people grow not just into performers, but into young adults. While the path to success may be strewn with blood, sweat, and tears the view from the finish line looking back is pretty amazing and makes it all worth it. I have spent countless hours of my scant free time working and writing. While other 22 year olds are laying on a beach, I’m in my front yard with a flag and a notepad. But, if I’m going to be completely honest, I wouldn’t have it any other way. You see, the things that are merely thoughts roaming around in my mind in June, I give to my girls and they make it come alive on the field past my wildest imaginations. When I see the gratitude in their eyes at the end of the season and look back on all the laughs and inside jokes, there isn’t a doubt in my mind that I would want to be anywhere else in the world but on the side of the field cheering them on.
You see, teaching is not like any other profession. Nobody thanks you for giving them a burger or selling them a shirt and truly means it. But students will thank you and they will mean it. I know, without a shadow of a doubt that I have made a difference and impacted lives for the better. It is in this that I am truly blessed to be a part of such an amazing organization and on the path to such an amazing and rewarding career. So in this thanksgiving season, look around you and ask yourself, what am I overlooking? How is the water?