When I was a college student, I took one semester of chemistry. It was my first semester after transferring from my itty-bitty Christian liberal arts school, and for some reason, despite having no interest in science and no background in chemistry, I had signed up for this class. Somehow I made an A. I was totally uninterested in the subject matter.
Uninterested, that is, until the last class. Dr. X mentioned various chemicals in the brain, including serotonin.
Serotonin! My brain perked up. I knew what serotonin was. My doctor had me on a SSRI for depression, and my nutritionist had explained how SSRIs worked and what serotonin did in the brain. But most importantly, whatever chemical actions it was doing, it was doing in MY brain. Suddenly chemistry wasn’t some abstract concept with confusing little diagrams of letters and symbols; it was real, it was exciting, and it was happening in me, somewhere below the brown hair and scalp and skull. Why hadn’t he mentioned this before?
I’ve never been interested in science or math. I made good grades because I studied. But science was my hardest class, and math was the class I privately voted Most Likely to Bore Me.
Which is why, when I dreamed up my current WIP’s teenage protagonist, Cady, it surprised me that she enjoyed science and math. It also filled me with dread: how was I ever going to think like Cady? And if she was supposed to be brilliant in those fields, was I going to come across as faking all my knowledge of science and math?
I had research to do. So I started reading. To my surprise, I enjoyed some of my reading. I’m currently working through Here’s Looking at Euclid, by Alex Bellos, and discovering all the math I wasn’t taught.
And I discovered why I hadn’t enjoyed these topics before. My well-meaning teachers had ruined some of the most fascinating subjects possible. How? By forgetting to tell us the stories and the people behind the concepts.
(In their defense, they had to stuff a lot of information in our heads and were up against hormones, high school melodrama, and our long history of being told the lie that “math is boring” and the equally fallacious lie that “girls excel at language, boys excel at math.” These poor teachers had the prospect of standardized testing looming over them, as well as our desire to do well on the ACT and SAT. So naturally, they skipped the fluffy stories in favor of equations.)
There are people who are intrigued by concepts. E=MC² makes them jump up and down with joy (or at least perks their interest).
Then there are people like me who adore stories. I’m only interested in Einstein’s theory of relativity when I get to hear more about Einstein and less about his theory. The person interests me more. I’m far more interested in geometry after reading about the Sierpinski carpet and the Menger sponge and the woman who constructed a level 3 Menger sponge with 66,000+ business cards.
Why wasn’t I interested in math? Because, in trying to explain the conception, the teachers weren’t talking in a language I understood. They weren’t connecting my interests–language, history, people–with the topic. It’s not really their fault, considering the outside-imposed limitations of the classroom. But it’s still a shame that I’m only now, at age 37, understanding the joys of topics like neuroscience and geometry.
It seems to me that there’s a lesson here for me as a writer. Often, when I communicate with people in real life, I use the language that comes naturally to me; my illustrations come from books and stories, art and history. But I’m surrounded by people who aren’t very interested in those things and who don’t have the same educational background in the liberal arts. My illustrations don’t connect with them.
It makes communication difficult. Sometimes, after a church service, I tell my husband, “It’s like we’re speaking two different languages!” I’m using words in one way (a way that makes sense to me) and other people are misunderstanding because those words mean something different to them. My husband nods. “It took me a while to understand how you think and talk about issues,” he’s told me.
It’s not just inside church, either. It happens in politics, in law, in literary criticism. (Literary critic Harold Bloom has complained that no one understands what he meant when he claimed Shakespeare “invented” the human.) It happens when people of different religions talk to each other and when religious people talk to non-religious people. For example, when well-meaning Christians start throwing churchy terms at people who aren’t into church, it’s unnecessarily confusing. (Not to mention a turnoff. If I ever do that, please point it out to me. Jesus didn’t use clichés, and I don’t want to, either.)
I’m not certain that the other people understand that there is miscommunication going on. So the impetus is on me, I guess. I’ll have to become bilingual and learn to use their language, even if I’m never fully comfortable with it.
How about you? Have you had to become “bilingual” to communicate with other people in your life? How did you do it?