It was the summer before tenth grade and I sat across the patio table from my mom, passing her half a watermelon and a spoon. “Well, it’s going ok,” I said, “But I still don’t really understand about cay-shuns and ann-yuns.” My parents chuckled at my mispronunciation of “anion”, a sign of the silent chemistry learning experience I was having in my online summer course. My parents had tried to arrange that my dad, who’d been a biochem major, could teach me basic chemistry over the summer so that I might skip to the advanced chemistry course a year early. Unfortunately, the science department insisted instead that I take a class online. I completed the course, which involved a lot of multiple choice quizzes and zero practical lab experienced, with flying colors.
But when I got to advanced chemistry that fall, I was completely lost. I had a heavy courseload that year and chemistry was stressing me out a lot. We met with the science department again said that maybe I could drop the chemistry course for the year, do some studying on my own with my dad, and then try chemistry again the next year. I’m certain that the department told me that this is why they make it so difficult for people to try to skip courses and I would not be allowed to register for chemistry again if I dropped it now. I want to say that they banished me from all science courses at the school. But realistically i think it may have just been that they made me feel so crummy about the whole thing that I steered clear of science for the rest of my time there, having completed the bare requirements already. (To be clear, I think this was mostly based on the philosophy of a single teacher, but who knows.)
I’d always enjoyed science. As a homeschooler, science lessons meant walking to the children’s science museum and learning about flotation and fluid dynamics through rubber ducks. It meant throwing rainbow animal balloon structures off the roof of our house to prepare for the yearly community “egg drop” event. (The most satisfying part of that experience being of course when my older brother’s submission, an egg covered in a ball consisting solely of a pound of rubber bands, spiraled ribbons of yolk into the air in its multiple rebounds. My elegant aircraft had glided down smoothly.) And to this day I remember multiple verses of the song “Plate Tectonics Rocks” composed by my 8th grade public school teacher.
Covered by my AP math and computer science classes, I was able to finish college continuing my science-free streak. At that point I wasn’t explicitly trying to avoid it, I was just drawn to other courses at first. I almost took intro astronomy about 3 times but it never quite fit and I put it off. Because life is messy, I only really went to 5 semesters of college before I graduated, so I finished with about the minimum in every direction. By the end of college, several of my friends being premed, bio majors, or just folks who had been curious about organic chemistry, I definitely thought of myself as the one who just didn’t do science. Not that I had anything against it per se. I just had started seeing it as a door I had closed, an area of ignorance that felt intimidating and insurmountable to me at that point.
And then, in summer 2015, about a month before starting my graduate work in food studies, I received a message that I had been selected as the graduate research assistant in agroecology. I didn’t know what agroecological was, but it sounded sciency.
The research assistant application had not given the option to apply for specific positions, but if it had, that would have been the one position I wouldn’t have applied for. Simply because I would have assumed I would be the least qualified person they could find. I googled the definition of agroecology and accepted the position. I decided that the worst thing that could happen at that point would be that I would be embarrassingly fired during fall semester when they realized how little I knew.
When I got to school I was pretty nervous to meet the professor I’d be working with. I’ve completely blacked out the nothingness answer I gave when he asked me what types of questions and areas within agroecological I was interested in. It was a relief to learn that my first assignments were essentially: measuring dirt into brown paper bags; and looking at photos and telling a computer what was a leaf and what was the sky. Still sure that there was some kind of mistake, I designed shiny business cards with my name and this new title on them to convince myself and everyone else. Because few things in this world provide more solid proof than a small piece of cardboard I had printed at FedEx.
I figured I’d better sit up front in Basic Agroecology, and actually make use of the textbook. I read every single article. Overtime my research assistant assignments became more complex, involving more reading and analysis of agroecological literature and helping to design a compost system for our small campus’s food waste.
At the beginning of second semester I found myself faced with an internship opportunity working with a pretty awesome agroecologist at an organization I admired. Incredibly, it had resulted from a late-night what-have-i-got-to-lose email filed through a contact form on the organization’s website that had sat silently in the cyber abyss for two months. Once again, I felt unqualified and never would have applied for that specific internship work if doing so had been an option. But once again, it seemed like for whatever reason someone had believed in me. And they hadn’t even seen my business cards.
Over the next few months I struggled through articles referencing concepts within plant breeding and biotechnology that felt way over my head. There were many moments I thought about turning myself in, confessing my ignorance, telling them I’d forged my business cards or something. But given the circumstances, I realized that no one more qualified than me had shown up. I could either step up and learn what I felt like I needed to know to sort through things, or the work just wasn’t going to get done. What came out of that internship was ultimately published in an online journal for life scientists with yours truly as an author.
So here I am in rural Zambia working as an agroforestry extension agent. I’m at the nearby school one day, talking to some teachers about the school garden and what sorts of things I’m doing in the community. One of the teachers asks how I’m settling in. He’s from a different part of the province near a big town. Where we are now is 50k from a paved road. He tells me that when he first moved way out here six years ago to teach, he hated it. He thought he’d never stay once he had enough experience that he’d be able to find a job somewhere else. But then he saw that pattern: new teachers being sent to rural areas, gaining experience, and then leaving as better teachers headed to schools in cities. He told me that he said to himself — someone has to stay for these kids. They matter. So he’s still here.
We keep chatting as students in forest green uniforms pound stakes into the ground for the garden fence in the field around us. It comes up that the school has been approved to expand into a high school. Part of the deal is that in January they need to start offering a year-long course on agricultural sciences. Unfortunately, they don’t have anyone with the knowledge or time to teach it or write the curriculum. “oOo. I think I can actually design and teach that for you.” “Ok that’s great,” they say, “you will do it.”
Biking home I feel excited. And then the metaphorical bushpath drops out from under me and the familiar feelings of secret self doubt sink into my internal monologue. I’m not qualified for this. I walk into a school and they just hand me a high school course!??? Is it just because I’m a foreigner/white/from the US they think I’m capable of teaching anything?
But before I’d left the school, I’d met a bunch of the kids who will be in the course next year. I asked what kinds of things they want to learn about and if they had any immediate questions for me. A female student raised her hand and said “Well miss, I really like agricultural sciences, but I’m afraid I don’t understand much. Can you tell me…”
We spent about an hour with a free for all of questions about everything from ‘What does it mean if a plants leaves are yellow?’ to ‘What are the differences between seeds you buy and ones you save yourself?’ For the most part I had pretty solid answers. (Where I am fuzzy, I think teaching this course will be a great way to fill in gaps I still have in my own knowledge.) The thing is, the habit of impostor syndrome runs deep, but I actually know stuff now. I’ve got 3/4 of a master’s degree on relevant stuff, and while I was not taking science courses in undergrad, I actually racked up multiple pedagogy courses. Plus if you include bits and pieces, I’ve got a few years of fairly diverse teaching experience.
I am not an expert, and there are many people out there more qualified than me, but believe it or not, I think I actually am qualified for this. I am grateful to the mentors I’ve had in my time in grad school, especially for helping me to realize that one can study scientific perspectives to serve as one of but many ways of being a thinker.
Teaching a high school class about agriculture, here in rural Zambia sounds pretty thrilling to me. Especially if i have the freedom to make it an agroecology/food studies type class. I only hope to give students a curriculum that is respectful of the realities they face growing up in agricultural communities in the global south in this day and age, while also being honest about the full range of options they have in their roles as farmer-citizens.
My brainstorms are running rampant but I’m sure I’ll have time to share those types of thoughts later. For now there’s still a lot of unknown logistics here. How much leeway will I have to design the course? How many students will I have? How many hours a week will the class be? The one thing I do know, is the grade the course will be for. In the beautiful way that life winks at you: yes, it’s 10th.
And I can tell you, if there’s any student who feels she is in over her head and wants to drop it, I’ll encourage her to stay. And if she really must go, I’ll make sure she knows before she does that it will never be too late for her to keep learning what she doesn’t know. Truly, that’s all any of us can ever do.