climbing the ladder

Every now and again people ask me why I am putting myself through the hell of being a working college student – at age 37 — when I already have a career.

This is my answer. This is why I am studying science.

I’m sorry I missed out on going to school earlier. Actually, I’m not. Because when I was 18 I wanted, God help me, to be a professional actor. I would have gone to college to study theatre.

But I wasn’t meant to be an actor. The idea seems ridiculous to me now. I think I chose that field in part because the only teacher who inspired me in high school was a drama teacher. So I wasted a good 10 or 15 years on a dream that went nowhere.

My twenties were miserable and unfulfilled. I spent them working in malls and chain bookstores. I did lots of shows with my small town’s local community theatre, but I wasn’t cast the one time I auditioned somewhere else. Eventually the community theatre I had worked with folded. After that my dreams just festered.

I gave them up gratefully when I found something else I could call myself: writer. Writing saved me. It was something I’d always done remarkably well, but that never really mattered to me. But I traded in an identity as something I wanted to be but never was for something that I was but never wanted to be.

And I pursued writing professionally. I became a self-supporting freelance writer in about three months. The poor fish, after a years on land, had at last found a lake to swim in.

In my late twenties I found myself with a lucrative and interesting job, a gracious and comfortable home, a car that got me where I needed to go, and a mother and sister who loved me. A comfortable lot. But I was still unhappy. So I decided that my writing wasn’t fulfilling enough, that I wanted to expand into international reportage, and that I also needed the credibility of a four-year degree. So I went to college as a freshman — at age 34. I wanted to major in political science or economics, and write for one of the crusading, baddie-fighting organizations like Indymedia.

But that’s not what happened. What changed my course? My first astronomy class. Isn’t that a corny thing to say? But it’s what happened. It was just an intro class taught at the community college. It wasn’t the material that did it. It wasn’t the teacher, either. I’d loved science all my life, and being thrilled by it was nothing new. My childhood hero was Carl Sagan, who for all his square and goofy media persona is one of the most gifted science writers the human race has yet produced. What happened was that I asked myself for the first time why I never became a scientist, when I loved science so much.

And I had no answer.

But I think I’ve got some suspicions. I hated high school and dropped out. I never had academic success there, and was an undisciplined, unruly kid from a very dysfunctional family. Theatre was the first thing that spoke to me in the desolation of my life as a young person. Like a lot of young people, I had a caring teacher who changed my life. If that teacher had taught history instead of theatre, who knows – maybe I’d have ended up trying (and failing) to pursue history. But I ended up taking a long and clueless detour through theatre. (And LOL, isn’t a long and clueless detour through something one of the great passages to wisdom?)

That isn’t to say theatre was a total wash. I have a good singing voice, and I enjoyed musical theatre. Through theatre, I discovered that I have a strong urge to sing and perform. Even now, when I am settled on pursuing science in some way, I still want to sing.

I didn’t become a scientist because I was an academic washout from a family ill-equipped to handle a mouthy, angry, intelligent young woman who rejected their values. I didn’t become a scientist because I didn’t take well to math as a young person, so I and everyone around me discounted my ability to do it. I didn’t become a scientist because of the many truly awful teachers and boring classes I endured that made me turn away from learning, towards art and peformance. I didn’t become a scientist because my family didn’t recognize the importance of a college education, and never encouraged me in that direction in the slightest. I didn’t become a scientist because my meaningful encounters with the natural world happened when I was alone; I never had a mentor. I didn’t become a scientist because I thought I was an artist, and it stupidly never ocurred to me that someone could somehow be both.

Carl Sagan’s books demonstrated the beauty and value of science to me at an early age. But somehow I never saw Dr. Sagan’s work as something that I myself could do. I had the chemistry set and the telescope and the homemade model rocket, but I somehow never made the vital connection between science and my own life.

I don’t know all the reasons why I didn’t get on the science track. Some of these reasons may be wrong. Maybe I never became a scientist because it simply never ocurred to me that I could be one. Until astronomy class.

In college, where I’d come to become a better writer, were all the classes that you needed to take to move up the ladder of science. All around me were teachers who had advanced degrees in math and science – all of them perfectly normal people who did not seem to be on another intellectual level than I was on. And laid out before me, four times a week, was all the lovely science of astronomy class, a meal so rich and nourishing that it energized me into a whole new life. The birth and death of stars. The parts of the sun, parsed and labeled and sometimes even photographed in all their majesty. Herbig-Haro objects. Brown dwarfs. Exoplanets.

If I wanted to have a seat at that banquet, it seemed all I needed to do was pull up a chair at the table. All I needed to do was take the classes! And hey — for the majority of the time one spends becoming a scientist, taking classes is what you do. Stars do not shoot out of your ass. Angels do not crown you with laurels. There is no parade. You are not anointed at birth, set aside to be raised in a Science Colony for Future Scientists. You take classes.

I dropped all my plans to study economics or poli sci. I signed up for chemistry and math. At 34 years of age, I tested into beginning algebra.

I’m now 37. I can’t wow anybody with my mathematical ability. I make good grades in math due to sheer discipline and devotion, but I am unremarkable when it comes to mathematical aptitude. But I’ve taken first-semester calculus and two semesters of college chemistry. After many math failures in high school, I learned algebra properly at 34, and three years later I find myself doing integral calculus. (Oh my God, did I just write that? Am I really me?) I’ve got three more semesters of calculus to go, a few more of chemistry (maybe more than a few – turns out that out of absolutely nowhere, I deeply love chemistry and am really good at it). Next month I’ll take Cal II.

I read a lot of science blogs. I am so jealous of people my age (or younger) who already have their Ph.D., who already do science or teach science (or both) and then blog about it, obviously only to make me jealous. But though I am on the lower rungs and they are high above me, we are on the same ladder.

And still I climb. It feels like madness to do this in my 30s — exhilarating, magnificent madness. I am older than everyone I take classes with, but still ahead of the game. The young people I go to school with, who knows where life will take them in 10 years? Like so many undergraduates, they may be studying what their parents want them to, studying something that will mystify them in ten years, just as the theatre mystifies me now.

But me? I am in school because I want with all my heart to be there. I am there because college is where I want to be, though it all but overwhelms me with the expense and the time and the sheer expenditure of mental and emotional energy. Sick and exhausted and broke I limp on, forcing more and more higher math into my poor head and dreaming of science. With every year that passes I am, at last, more fully myself and still climbing, still climbing, up the ladder of knowledge.

And where does writing fit into this life? In the same places that it did Sagan’s, or does Jared Diamond’s, or Richard Dawkins’, or Roger Penrose’s. Science and writing, it seems to me, are wonderful companions. No matter what I become down the road, I was a writer first and best and always.

It is hard to do what you love. It takes more work than doing what is simply available. But it is the right thing to do. And in the end it is the most practical choice.

– Cary Tennis



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