On going back to school


I am at Mini College, a kind of week-long summer school intensive for university alums, and I am remembering back to who I was twenty years ago. Thinking, if I had known then what life had in store for me, I would never have done it. But the person I am now would never have wanted it any other way. There’s probably a lesson in there somewhere, but I have no idea what it is.

In graduate school, I was an English major, the kind of thing that gets sneered at. Get a useful degree! people say. Don’t go into debt for an English degree, you moron!

It is true that I paid off my college debt only a few years ago.

I take copious notes during my Mini College classes—about disease mechanism, about microfluidics, about the use of fruit flies in scientific investigation. I see what the naysayers mean. A laboratory on a chip! the microfluidics instructor says, and that is surely an amazing thing. A green laboratory, quick results, less waste, less expense. Useful objects of tangible value. These things will make our lives better. A poem has never saved anyone’s life, at least not in a way that can be measured using empirical methodology.

My daughter was born sixteen years ago with a devastating neurological disease, and at the time I wondered why the hell I couldn’t have gone into neurology, where I could have made a difference. I was certainly smart enough. But it wasn’t my passion, a word that I have come to distrust and despise. I could have learned to love neuroscience as much as I love words; in fact, I have learned, researching what the doctors have told me over all the long years, determined to understand why her disease is what it is and what I can do to ameliorate it. A research project that has lasted sixteen years.

At Mini College the scientists enthusiastically describe their research. The protein scientist does the protein dance. Maybe, in the future, there will be better treatments for my daughter’s disease.

If I had gone into science—I thought about taking a chemistry degree for a while, and I often wish I had—I would have been motivated to cure Jessica’s disease. Right now. That would have been my battle cry. Right now. Scientists spend so much time and so many resources on other diseases that I despair of anyone finding the time and money to focus on something as rare as the disease my daughter has. But if I had had the requisite training, I would have made it my personal crusade, if I had gone into the hard sciences like everyone told me I should have.

“What did you learn at Mini College?” my daughter asks.

“That we all need to sleep better and get more exercise,” I say. “To help our brains stay healthy.”

“But what did you learn,” she persists. She wants to know the moral of the story, the truth I came away with.

I think of the art-and-design instructor, who is not developing a cure for Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s but who looks for the pattern in chaos. The philosophy instructor who wants us to think about social good versus individual advantage.

All of them are like my daughter, looking for the truth. The scientists and the philosophers, each in his or her own way.

“I learned that scientists are very cruel to fruit flies,” I say, and describe some of the experiments, and I admit to a slight discomfort. Doing that to living creatures, even fruit flies, has to be bad karma. Not that I believe in karma, or god, or anything of the sort. But I have the idea that the scientists need the philosophers or we might all meet the same end as the fruit flies.

I would do anything to cure my daughter, and for the first time I realize how dangerous a creed that is, and how fortunate it is that in the end my work is the artist’s work: to make order out of chaos, to tell the stories of our lives.