17 Year Olds, This One's For You: "The Power of Your Developing Heart"
My remarks took the form of an essay I'm calling "The Power of Your Developing Heart." I spoke about what it was like to be an apathetic teenager of the 1980s, and how studying Russian put me on the track to writing a book about memory and forgetting.
"The Power of Your Developing Heart"
As an alum and as mother of children approaching your age, I am very pleased to be here.
And to congratulate you on your induction into the cum laude society. It is a sign that you made a decision to take your academic life here seriously, a wonderful harbinger of your future success.
Okay, let’s pause for a vocabulary moment – and you probably think I’m going to ask you about harbinger.
I’m not. The essential vocabulary here is success. Anyone here brave enough to try to define it? Does it mean money? Happiness? Fame? Does it mean achieving a specific goal, however small?
You can have success buying onions at the grocery store. But that’s not all you want out of life, is it?
The word success is tricky. You might spend your whole life asking yourself the question, What the heck does it mean? And still not come up with a satisfying definition.
When I was your age I thought success meant becoming a lawyer. It seemed like a nice safe way to redeem my family from genteel poverty – not to mention that a hit television drama of the time called LA Law made being a lawyer look really fun.
But when I was thinking those thoughts as a student here, that conception of a future me—the one where I would have a job of any kind—felt very, very far away.
I went to K-O during Ronald Regan’s second term as president. It was a time when people wore a lot of pastels and had big, frosty hair—girls and boys. We watched John Hughes movies about disaffected suburban youth and no one talked – or, as high school students, really knew – about global warming, terrorism, or the Internet. [Global warming was already known to scientists and politicians and we'd probably heard of it.]
We felt like maybe there would never again be events of historical significance. The 60s were over. Vietnam and likely all war? Over. Our cars, our leaders, our music—everything felt like it was in decline.
My generation was constantly being accused of apathy, though I look back and see that people in my age group helped bring about divestment from apartheid South Africa, nuclear disarmament, and we did have some degree of passion in our lives. Watch Dirty Dancing and you’ll see what I mean.
It was the Cold War. We didn’t really understand that it was ending at the time. Just as I felt like I would be a teenager forever, it seemed like we would never get to the end of our stand-off with the Soviet Union. Eternal stasis. That was how the world felt to me. It would be the US fighting with the Soviets, and me fighting with my parents, forever.
It was a sign of the times that several of us in my class signed up to study Russian in college at Doc Serow’s suggestion. And this is what I want to talk to you about tonight. I’m going to tell you a story now about what I learned from studying Russian and it’s my hope that this story will leave you with wisdom about what it means to have an intellectual life after K-O.
But first I have to say, Gosh, I loved Doc Serow. We all did. I’m sure you guys do too. Just getting an email from her about this dinner was a thrill. For me, she was a teacher who gave you a sense that the path to a glamorous future of smart people doing amazing things wearing great clothes was just around the corner. When we read Marx, Doc Serow made Marxists sound so brainy and cool, I went out and bought a black turtleneck that very day. You felt, under Doc Serow’s gaze, that people could really make lives for themselves that mattered.
So when she said we’d open a lot of options for ourselves if we studied Russian in college, I signed up the minute after I’d unpacked my bags Freshman Year.
Unfortunately, I had no idea my college had one of the top three Russian programs in the country. I had no idea I’d signed up for essentially Russian language boot camp. But I had. It was me and a bunch of Russian majors all secretly planning on careers in the CIA, I realize now.
I should tell you that I went to college in New York City. But even if I’d gone to college in the frozen plains of Nebraska, there are about a thousand more exciting things I could have been doing than sitting in a booth in the language lab, my poor little ears covered up by noise-cancelling headphones, repeating “strazvitye” over and over under my breath.
However. By the end of a year, I was conversational. I was translating poetry by Anna Akmatova—someone all my Russian major classmates seemed excited about—I had never heard of her.
It astounds me to remember that I could actually speak Russian at that point in my life, because after I sprained my wrist playing Ultimate Frisbee my sophomore year and fell behind in my task of writing out and committing to memory 45 flash cards three times a week on top of hours of other Russian homework, practice, not to mention work in other classes….I had to ask, Why am I doing this to myself?
Between the fall of 1989 when I’d started Russian and the fall of 1990 when I quit, the Berlin Wall had come down and the Soviet Union had lost hold of its republics, reverting back to being plain old Russia after so many years of Empire. It was exciting! It called everything into question.
So I turned in a drop form at the registrar’s office and committed fully to Ultimate Frisbee. We traveled. We went to parties. The women on my team were tough and cool and they would lay out in New York City’s Riverside Park even though the fields we played on were seeded with broken glass.
This was the adventure I’d been waiting for. Life with a capital L.
But back to Russian, because you see, after I dropped it, something very strange happened to me. Happened to my brain really.
Within a year of my quitting, I forgot every single syllable of Russian I had learned.
I couldn’t even tell you the letters of the alphabet. I couldn’t say “How are you?” let alone using multiple verb moods, as in, “We would have gone to the coffee shop if only the boys had not been late.” The only phrase I remember now is “Gde va aftobusa?” which means “Where is the bus going?” (According to my Russian hairdresser, I’ve remembered that incorrectly.)
So what did I learn from my study of Russian? I learned is that my brain is capable of the act of forgetting on a scale so enormous, it’s like a mental version of the Permian extinction.
I’ve just had published – last week! – a book about time, emotion, and the human brain—a YA time travel romance. It’s called I Remember You and I have to say as an aside that a) it’s basically set at Kingswood and b) you should read it…or at least buy it ☺.
In order to tell the story of this book, I spent a great deal of time trying to understand how memory and brain function connect, how it might have been possible for a man dying in a future war to travel back in time—not physically, mind you, but neurologically—to haunt his younger self via the brain. To come back to his high school life, the time he felt loved and safe, the place he wants to relive before he dies.
In order to write this story in a way that felt like it could be plausible, I did a lot of research on the human brain. On memory. On forgetting. I came to it with a built-in curiosity about forgetting – about the brain’s power to do this crazy destructive thing.
And it occurs to me that maybe my experience of forgetting Russian was my gateway into this story.
I think this story was my way of dramatizing the question that had been bugging me since I realized I could no longer say very simple Russian words: How do we choose what memories we hold onto?
And the short version of the answer based on the research that I did is this: No one really knows. Brain function is a medical research frontier.
But one well established fact is that if you learn something but don’t go back to it over and over and over again, you forget it. You have to continually call it to mind, breaking the memory apart to store it and then asking your brain to find all the component parts so you can put it back together again.
Here’s something else neuroscientists actually know: If a memory is attached to emotions, you’re more likely to hold onto it. In other words, if you care. If you’re interested. Say, if I’d learned Russian because it was the language of my grandparents, or because I’d always found Russia to be fascinating. If I loved the sound of the language. Or even was learning it while falling in love—or fighting dramatically—with someone in my class.
In other words, if I wasn’t an apathetic suburban teenager of the 1980s, maybe the language would have stuck.
But the fact was, I didn’t care about Russian. After quitting, I never looked back. I can still feel the motion of an Ultimate Frisbee forehand flick, but I can’t read the most basic Russian words.
And why am I telling this to you? How is this connected to you and the honor you are receiving tonight? It’s just this—
You’re here tonight because you are a good student. You can digest information, process ideas, conceptualize arguments, compute and manipulate numbers, design and run experiments – I’m guessing each and every one of you has been equipped with some killer 21st century skills.
And yet all those skills pale in comparison to the power of your developing heart. The power you carry inside your soul. That’s where memory originates. That’s where intellectual power resides. I will never forget all sorts of things that happened to me when I was your age. As a YA writer, I’m in the business of sifting through them, returning to them, analyzing them, recreating them. Like the soldier in my story, I come back here. To this place and time. This is where my brain wants to be.
Someday, your brain will let you know where you want to be as well. And you’d better let it. Because for better or for worse, as a human being, you’ve been equipped with a human brain. The ideas and information you are learning now, and will continue to ingest in college, will help you find success in life only if they are ones you are actually interested in.
So sure, explore. Take Swahili. You might end up living and working in Africa. Or you might just have a funny story to tell one day at a cum laude dinner. And you certainly might learn something you weren’t expecting to the way I did—heck it might lead to a novel.
But also, remember that you will not be a teenager or even a young adult forever. Things do end. The Berlin Wall did come down. Apartheid collapsed. Big hair went out of style.
Finding out what it is you care to learn, and putting that at the forefront of your mind is essential.
Coming back to our vocabulary lesson, I have one last thing to say: Harbinger shmarbinger.
Study the map of your heart and the success you choose to pursue will be yours for the taking.