“Lake Shore Drive: Middle school” is the second installment in a series on the myth of coming of age. Read Part 1.
Each morning, Lake Shore Drive welcomed me to 330 W Webster Avenue, the address of my K-12 school. Here, as a middle schooler, I learned much more than academic lessons. I learned how to strut down Clark Street as if I paved the thing myself and enter the Starbucks on Dickens to order a venti iced ristretto — I mean, un café serré — with an extra shot and half-pump of vanilla. “And that’s poured, not shaken.” Come along and take ownership of the me-first mentality, asserting that you’re more important than others because of the people you know. I learned that people had their places in the world, and the lens through which I saw reality no longer was as pure. At least we had 5 a.m. baseball practice to bond over the next morning. Someone was always late and we’d all have to run suicides, but it was all in good spirits. Oh, wait. Left-handed players can’t be shortstops. So the bench was my place.
But there is another face to learning that is purer, and that is the spirit of learning for learning itself, the quality of intellectual vitality that is supposed to pervade institutions of higher learning. When I think about this, I recall times in middle school when I spent many days building circuits for the fun of it. There was a sense of reward in hobbies and everyday activities. There was a certain thirst for knowledge that does not seem as common anymore, and my theory is that this transition takes place over time as people start to become more practical and pragmatic with their outlooks. What is the extent to which this is the case, and how common is the phenomenon?
“How long?” It is the question I ask myself each time I wake up. No, I am not asking when the pandemic will be over, although that is its own question, but when will I come back to life? When will I ever return to that boy who loved the spirit of learning and living life for the sake of it? Instead of being inclined to spend hours on end building circuits, that’s now something I’d have to force myself to do. At times, it seems that school is making me less intellectual, as I pore over various texts, extracting the meaning like I’m isolating a chemical compound and reporting the findings back to my class so that I sound smart. I’m merely trying to consume knowledge or strategies to improve my own writing. I’m not consuming for the experience. And with the litany of distractions in this world, it is almost as if my “reading muscles” have atrophied, making it a slog to get through verbose sections of text.
Growing up caught me off guard — I’ll admit that — but it wasn’t always like this. Consider the fall of 2014. Like everyone else, I took my classes, got my grades and wrote my papers — but despite my typical English, algebra and social studies assignments, I was still lacking something at school, in my life, even then. The “lacking” wasn’t as strong, but I felt something coming, as if the vitality in my life was escaping like blood that is allowed to flow from an artery. I had to make a move to capture my sense of wonder while the blood was still there. Studying astrophysics would be my way of stemming this loss.
Amid thinking about ways to pursue my interests in middle school, luckily enough, I got an opportunity to speak with our school’s principal. He hosted a town hall for my classmates when I was in seventh grade to learn the perspectives of the students and our concerns. Our classes were suspended and we all gathered in the hallway before the principal. As usual, he was respectful and open to our opinions as students on the positives and negatives of the school. Since I had been contemplating the curriculum of the school so much, I decided to ask him a question. I said, “Has the science department ever considered integrating astronomy and astrophysical theories into the current curriculum?” The principal answered with an authentically enthusiastic tone. He acknowledged that I had brought up a good point and told us all about a high school elective that I would like; it covered topics of astronomy, cosmology, metaphysics and epistemology.
After the town hall, the principal wanted to speak with me some more, and before I knew it, I had the opportunity to go see the new sci-fi action film “Interstellar” with the high school students of the very elective he had described. Not long thereafter, I typed up the first Astrophysics Club announcement, which I would later email to the middle school and announce to the Friday K-12 assembly that we call Morning Ex.
It was not long before at least once a month a lower schooler would come up to me in the hallways and try to learn about astronomy. “Astrophysics!” they’d yell, after which they’d find amusement in trying to stump me with difficult questions: “If the universe is expanding, what is it expanding into?” “Why did you say yesterday that you can’t divide by zero?” “Why does there have to be a gravitational constant? Who chose that number?” These keen lower schoolers now saw science not as just a subject matter, but a fascinating, limitless way of life, and the fact that I had had this impact on them was something bigger than a club, and I had done more than my job. Their excited gesticulations and facial expressions reminded me of when I was in first grade and would run out to the field to see high school physics classes shoot rockets into the sky. Those high schoolers were larger than life to me, and I was beginning to understand the experience from a reversed perspective. It never got old. I loved to relive the awe that inspires the youth, for I felt their wonder again as I once had, and I truly felt like I had done something with my life to bring so much passion to these people just as I was inspired when I was their age.
However, unlike the lower schoolers, I now had something to lose by asking questions myself. As I started to gain a reputation for my knowledge on astronomy and astrophysics, I became far less willing to ask questions in my biology class. I can’t help but wonder if I still behave the same way subconsciously. For example, in my math class last quarter, I assumed that my counterparts were versed well in the subject material, so when I was put into breakout rooms to solve problems with them, I did not try to help them, and they did not try to help me. Even if the problem was monumentally difficult, even unsolvable, none of us would say a thing to give the slightest indication that we had no idea what we were doing. Indeed, as we grow up, knowing gets in the way of learning. Nobody, I imagine, wants to admit to others that they don’t know what others think they already know, and I already am concerned that I’ll trap myself into a corner if I make it far enough in my career. That will be the day that I truly stop learning.
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