Mount St. Helens and the Paths Not Travelled

This morning, I came across a wonderful series of blog posts on the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens over at Dana Hunter’s Rosetta Stones blog. Her enthusiasm for the subject matter is infectious, and sent me right back to my own childhood fascination with the event. I remember my family going to the interpretive centre thereabouts of 1990 and my awe at the incomprehensible devastation still rawly evident on the landscape. For a while, vulcanology and plate tectonics joined my abiding interest in paleontology, faltering only when I exhausted the supply of kid-friendly geology books in the local library. I still get giddy at the sight of folded mountain strata; it’s one of the reasons I miss living in the midst of a mountain range.

My excitement in reading those blog posts carried with it some anger.

As a small child, I had a deep and abiding interest in science. It started and stopped at the library. While my parents never actually discouraged me, it never went beyond that. Neither of them shared the interest; my mother did basic chemistry with us, like red cabbage acid/base detection, but it always tied back in one way or another to cooking or school. The difference between the toys given to my brother and I didn’t help – for whatever reason, it was my brother who got the rock tumbler and the rock guides. Given the unreliability of memory, I’m hesitant to cry sexism, but it’s suggestive when one considers he was also the one that got the space-themed building sets and walkie-talkies and Transformers – things I vastly preferred to my stuffed toys, Barbies and Anne of Green Gables collections. While I had access to all that neat stuff through him, it was clear that none of it was really mine to explore.

Though my parents didn’t outright discourage me, others did. Conversations with one of my grandmothers about my interests frequently devolved to defending against her criticism. She was equally scornful of my desire to become a paleontologist and my love of science fiction, both of which laid the groundwork for my enduring interest in evolutionary biology. The same grandmother commented loudly on my ‘childbearing hips’ when I was 16 (I still treasure her spluttering indignation when I declared an utter disinterest in ever having kids). Lest one think that last a non sequiter, my mother battled her way through a chemical technology diploma, leveraged it into a career, and became a housewife the instant I was born. The net message was that science was okay to read about, but wasn’t anything I had any serious business doing.

This had repercussions as I drew to the close of my grade school years and began to transition into university. Somewhere along the line, I internalized that it mattered more that I was good at English and social studies than at biology. I also internalized that I was bad at math, never interrogating why I had begun to think of it as a tedious struggle. When I picked which sciences to carry on with through high school, I chose biology because I was good at it and had managed to hold onto my interest, while chemistry was a default choice – I had built up physics into an opaque mass of mathematical formulae and couldn’t conceive of remotely succeeding at it. The fact that I was able to pull up my math grade with only a bit of extra work for the provincial diploma exams is telling. There’s no reason why I couldn’t have done better at it in earlier years beyond a circular, nonsensical conviction that I couldn’t because I couldn’t. There’s also no reason why I couldn’t have done the same with chemistry, which I managed to maintain decent grades in despite my conviction to the contrary, or why I had to discount physics entirely.

As an adult, it troubles me that in my progress from elementary to high school, I went from being the kid who could do every subject effortlessly to the art/English/social studies kid with math and science anxieties, and I can pinpoint no reason whatsoever that relates to my actual capabilities or interests. I seem to have absorbed the message that I should be bad at math and science and directed my energies accordingly. It also troubles me that, beyond disapproval when my grades slipped, no-one ever bothered to ask what was going on. Silence is too easily construed as assent.

While I was expected to go on to post-secondary, the details were left for me to figure out. Uncertain and intimidated, I invariably took the path of least resistance. In my first year, I let myself be scared off from pursuing biology despite a continuing interest, and that was it. It never even occurred to me to look at computer science or anything remotely related, though I had taught myself HTML and worked briefly for a small web development company at the end of Grade 12. Instead, I pursued a degree in English and Classics, for no better reason than it was safe and I had no idea what else to do with myself. I had no-one to talk to about it, didn’t really know how to voice it, and had no clue what else was out there or how to go about finding out.

Now, I’m left with visiting dinosaur museums and reading pop science books. It’s no longer practical for me to spend another four years on a second bachelor’s degree to explore in depth the difference between my actual intellectual capabilities and the artificial limits I see constraining my younger self. Adulthood and its associated responsibilities come with their own limits.

The closest I’ve been able to come is the Masters in Digital Humanities I’m now wrapping up. It’s the only thing my younger self desired that I’ve been able to bring to fruition, and I only knew it even exists because my undergraduate degree coincided with the program’s start and promotion. Even then, it took me several years and walking an employment knife edge to believe not only that I could do it, but that it was worthwhile. It’s taken me the duration of this degree to understand why I didn’t pursue it earlier, never mind start peeling back the timidity that characterized my bachelor’s degree.

I have some deep regrets about the journey that got me here, but I’m proud that I’ve been able to build on that halting HTML.

Even if I still think dinosaurs are cooler.