When I was in fourth and fifth grade, you could say I was many things — including the dumbest kid in the Talented and Gifted Students program.
Despite my horrific performances in just about anything involving math, every Tuesday I’d go with the other kids in the program out to a special trailer in the school’s courtyard, where we’d do things like learn about Greek mythology, or build bridges out of toothpicks. I was excellent with remembering the intricacies of the Greek myths, but not so great at constructing a toothpick bridge. Luckily that was a team project, so I just stuck the toothpicks where the other kids told me to.
As the bridge project shows, usually my math issues flew under the radar. But then, one day, we had to sound the depths of the sea.
At some point around that age, I’d absolutely fallen in love with whales. I’ve always felt something strange and emotional when watching documentaries about them. I think it’s the surreal way they float through the ocean like dirigibles in the sky. Something about that sight fills me with awe more than almost any other image I can think of. I had dreams of swimming underwater below a whale, just watching it move past me. On library days, I’d check out any book I could find about cetaceans. Soon, I could rattle off facts like length, weight, blubber thickness, and so on, the way other kids did baseball stats. Besides my Barbies, I had a selection of hard rubber whale figurines that I cherished. I decided that, in addition to being a famous writer, I also wanted to be a marine biologist.
When the gifted program teacher announced we’d be doing a unit on oceanography, I took it as great news.
The following Tuesday, we arrived in the trailer to find shoeboxes on our desks. They had their lids on, a small slit cut into the top. Our teacher handed out popsicle sticks and told us to put the stick in the slit and, without looking, graph the changes we felt in the elevation of the hardened cement that had been poured into our box — this was a simulation of what a ship’s sonar did when it scanned the ocean floor.
The other kids got right to it. I did, too…and soon realized I had no idea whatsoever how to translate the feeling of bumps and rises in a shoebox onto some really scientific-looking graph paper with numbers and units of depth.
I don’t remember what happened in the end, but I have fragmented visions of my clumsy handwriting on a printed green grid, and hot, frustrated tears brimming up in my eyes. To this day, whenever I think of uneven cement in a shoebox (which, admittedly, isn’t often), I shudder.
The next week, our teacher announced that we were going to watch a series of short films featuring real-life oceanographers and marine biologists.
She turned on the TV and pressed “Play” on the VCR. Out blared the discordant music of a slightly warped cassette tape, and we plunged into the world of the scientists I hoped to one day consider my colleagues.
What struck me most was the bleakness of their ship’s interior. Exposed metal walls, Spartan sleeping areas. It also seemed that though there were a lot of oceanographers and marine biologists on the ship, there weren’t many toilets — and those toilets seemed pretty small and uncomfortable. This made me, a kid with nascent IBS, uncomfortable.
And I knew it wasn’t the most important thing about the film, but I was also concerned by how the scientists dressed. I asked the teacher why they always had on sloppy flannel shirts and stained, badly-fitting pants. She laughed and said, “What do you expect them to wear? They’re getting sprayed by the ocean, changing into dive suits, and dissecting fish all day.”
As I watched them continue to do their scientist things on screen, a small part of me died. With the overabundance of math and the lack of aesthetics and creature comforts, I had the sinking suspicion that marine biologist was not the career choice for me.
Still, I’ve never stopped feeling moved — even shaken — by the sight of cetaceans.
A few Christmases past, we were at my in-laws’ and I found myself alone for a while in front of the TV. Suddenly, a documentary came on. It was about bowhead (Greenland right) whales — my favorite whales of all. About a half hour later, my husband and father-in-law found me staring at what seemed to them a rather ordinary nature documentary, with tears rolling down my cheeks.
Whales continue to be a big part of my life today. Here, for example, is some of the decor in my son’s room (the kickass mobile was a gift from my sister, who grew up with me in all my whale-craziness):
And when he’s a little older, I can’t wait to take him to see this wonderful whale sculpture I discovered randomly displayed in a small Parisian park.