Wednesday, November 19, 2008

I Decided to Forgo Orgo (and that has made all the difference)

Today I caught up with a colleague whose daughter is in her first year of medical school. While we watched students throw bowls in the ceramics studio, he shared with me that she was struggling with her anatomy class, and really questioning herself. You may not know this, I told him, but:

Once upon a time I was Pre-Med. I wanted to be a doctor as far back as I can remember. Both of my parents are in the medical profession, and I grew up around hospitals and clinics, with many dinner-table conversations about anatomy and symptoms. And because our father occasionally brought home drug company freebies, my brothers and sisters and I also sported pencil holders, bags, and notepads imprinted with birth control brands and STD treatments.

One of my favorite household books to peruse was a thick purple Pediatrics text. I consulted it when I was curious and when I suffered vague ailments. My use of this tome as a resource for diagnoses from scarlet fever to neurofibromatosis was tiresome to my parents and led my mother to plead with my father to throw out or hide the book forever. I was their favorite hypochondriac. And only a favorite because I was their daughter and they had to love me.

At one point in high school I narrowed my ambition to Neonatologist: I wanted to care for sick and premature infants. A March of Dimes summer internship in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit quickly taught me it was the nurses, not so much the doctors, who bonded with the babies. I filed that observation away.

In high school I was what I would describe a "generalist." I claimed neither the sciences nor the humanities as my true passions; a glimpse at my transcript suggested I was adept in most disciplines except for Typing.

Continuing on my Pre-Medical trajectory, with the only hiccup that I spelled my career intentions "medecine" everywhere on my college early admissions application (causing my father a near conniption fit and my application a heavy dose of Wite-Out), I declared my major Biology and flew across the country to begin my undergraduate odyssey.

I quickly discovered that one needed not be a sciences major to be Pre-Med. One needed only to take Pre-Med courses, including Math, Biology, Chemistry, and Organic Chemistry. Therefore, I was a Biology major for only the summer preceding my matriculation into college, and thereafter Undeclared until second semester of my junior year, when I literally counted the credits I had accrued in each of my favorite subject areas to determine where my major would fall: History, by default. And because I was never a true historian, having treated my college course selection like ordering from a tapas restaurant menu, even my senior thesis was not "historical" enough.

My sense about my Liberal Arts Education was that it was for exploring that which could only be learned there; I wanted to know about Sociology and Political Science and African-American Studies. Pre-Med requirements were just that: requirements. I resented my required math course, a repeat of high school calculus and a waste of precious time I could be spending taking Anthropology, Art History, and Gender Studies courses--disciplines which were non-existent in high school. Chemistry constituted another unenlightening duplication of high school science, save for the labs, marked by anxiety-inducing titrations and laborious write-ups. Our lab T.A. had a long pinkie fingernail on each hand, I remember. Someone suggested it was for scooping cocaine. That I remember, instead of anything much about Chemistry.

Due to credits earned from Advanced Placement exams, I had the option of taking higher level Biology courses in lieu of Intro Bio, so I chose Genetics and Reproductive Biology. I excelled in neither course, happy to sit atop the curve versus beat it, but I loved the learning. I was required to kill some mice for the lab portion (I tried to get fellow students to do my dirty work, but hired assassins were not allowed); my technique was terrible, making the experience all the more traumatic for me and the hapless rodents. Nevertheless, I successfully in-vitro fertilized a mouse. An uncomfortable highlight from Reproductive Biology was viewing film clips of Masters' and Johnson's research on human sexual response. In a lecture hall full of hundreds of peers seated in uncomfortable chairs we watched men and women climax on camera.

By junior year I had knocked out three of four of the year-long course requirements for medical school. I saved the worst for last: The Infamous Organic Chemistry, separator of wheat from chaff, weeder of wimps not fit for physicianhood. I had heard of its horrors: hours of memorization, flash cards, endless formulae, and cramming for exams. There was no part of me that wanted any part of Orgo, except the part of me that wanted to help people, care for people, heal people.

I made it impossible for myself to take Orgo my junior year, as I planned to take second semester off to study abroad in Italy. My moment of truth came that spring: in which courses would I enroll my senior year, with which destination in mind? Having only recently declared my major History, having added some intriguing History of Education classes onto the list of possibilities, and knowing this was my last year of the luxury that is Liberal Arts, Orgo was looking more and more like an intrusion into What I Really Wanted to Be Doing.

But this was no minor decision: Forgoing Orgo was about changing my identity. I was for so many years, to myself at the very least, She Who Would Become a Doctor. Without that, I was She Who Would Wonder...What the Hell She Would Become. I reassured myself that I could take Organic Chemistry somewhere else, some other time, if being a doctor was truly my goal, after all.

I think in the back of my mind, however, I knew I was giving myself permission to consider other options. So throughout my senior year of college, besides throwing the proverbial caution to the wind in Oh So Many Ways, I reflected on who I was and what I had been doing.

I was a Freshman Counselor (and not a perfect one, mind you!). I was the big sister to four younger siblings. I was a Big Sister to a local girl suffering from leukemia. I had volunteered in a school for pregnant teens and in the emergency room. I had joined a Children's Theatre Troupe.

Truths emerged: I enjoyed relationships. I enjoyed mentoring others. I didn't relish lab research, nor research in general. I didn't like competing with my peers for grades. I had a passion for learning that was about discovery and sharing versus delving deeper on my own.

My parents, doctor and nurse, weren't fazed by hints that I might veer from my pre-medical track. They had never pressured me to follow their career paths; looking back, I am not sure they ever explicitly persuaded or dissuaded me from that goal. They consistently demonstrated faith in my ability to lead myself in the right direction.

By the winter of my senior year, it had become clear to me that I was redefining myself. And I will never forget the relief and excitement expressed by my mother when I mentioned that I might try teaching.

I applied for Teach for America and was accepted, despite my inability to explain how airplanes fly during the interview ("Something to do with thrust?" I suggested. Now, I will never forget Bernoulli's Principle). In an ironic twist of fate, my Pre-Med adventure minus Orgo deemed me "qualified" in the eyes of TFA to teach middle or high school science. So my first teaching assignment was 7th Grade Science Teacher at Abraham Lincoln Multicultural Middle School in Washington, D.C.

In essence, I have never looked back. I am a teacher; I am an educator, and that has always felt right, even when I have been called a "Chicken-Legged White Bitch," even when my students have hated me, even when I have floundered. That is not to say that the smell of hospitals doesn't get to me in a visceral, familiar, where-I-belong kind of way. That watching ER doesn't make me wonder What If?

I have rationalized my choice of education over medicine as being, to a certain extent, about lifestyle. But it's not lost on me that I now know women who are doctors, who work part-time, who have more money AND more time with their children while they are helping people and improving the world.

Nevertheless, it's the relationships I grow daily in my career that sustain me and justify my choice to work with young adults and other people who believe that teaching is art as well as science, that teaching is a verb not always attached to subject matter as indirect object. I teach. Every day, in every context.

It's clear, to a certain extent, that I don't know what I will do next.

But being an educator? Well, that's just become non-negotiable.


Sara said...

I love your writing, Jen. And the only thing I remember from orgo lab is that our teacher taught us how to make crack- comes in handy in Baltimore :)

me said...

What a beautiful piece.

Mama Deb said...

You rock :)

Were we perhaps friends in a past life, or is it in my future to live in S.D.? Because either way, I see wine drinking and befriending in our past or our future. Funny how sometimes I have to remind myself that I've only met you in person once!
(Wow..that probably sounds way more psycho to people who have no idea what I'm talking about. Haha)

But are a lovely person with so much depth and heart. Your students are very lucky.

cdl said...

Bill was very moved by this and sent it to me. I am crying. It is such an articulate, humble, funny, soulful chronicle of finding your own path.
I already knew that you are an inspiring teacher. You are also an inspiring writer.
This would make a wonderful graduation speech -- better yet, print it and give it to every college-bound senior.
With appreciation, Carol

Anonymous said...

Nicely written. Though I think the "enjoying relationships" part has everything to do with medicine and nothing to do with selection for medical school!! --colleen