Meditations in an Emergency

“One never need leave the confines of New York to get all the greenery one wishes—I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life.” – Frank O’Hara, “Meditations in an Emergency,” 1957

There are those at the Academy who would have you believe that IMSA is doomed, that her students are unmotivated, that her faculty are not innovative, that her leadership is lacking. I’ve heard countless students complain about IMSA. Acronym’s own Senior Speaks series is often cited as a crown jewel of the “students complaining about IMSA” genre. Over the years, students have said that IMSA has lost its innovative spark, have told administrators that they aren’t paying enough attention to student needs, and that IMSA has given them nothing. Beyond that, seniors and underclassmen alike always enjoy a good cathartic session of ripping down their sophomoric fantasies of a perfect IMSA.

Perhaps more disheartening than iconoclastic seventeen year olds with nothing to lose complaining is the faculty that seem to have nothing but contempt for the Academy. Adults from all departments, including some of IMSA’s oldest and most well-respected faculty, will take many an opportunity to discuss the faults of students. Among the ones I’ve personally heard are “Your class would fail if I taught at the level I taught five or six years ago,” referring to one of the most popular classes here, “Why would someone redesign curriculum to better teach students who would never be motivated to learn the content?” discussing a subject that students attempted to help reinvigorate, and “It isn’t even a real class,” referring to a science core class.

I’m certain that you can imagine people who might have said these things because the voices that deride the Academy are often the loudest. They all tell the same narrative: that the Academy was great and has lost its way. I do not – I cannot believe this story. I refuse to accept that IMSA isn’t home to countless people actively making the world a better place. So I’d like to offer a different narrative, the narrative that I see every day.

For me, IMSA is a place where the fantasy of a pioneering learning community comes true. There are two specific anecdotes that always come to mind when someone brings up classes they loved. The first is a friend describing their experience in Graph Theory with Dr. Prince. This overstressed, tired first semester senior lit up when he pulled out graph theory homework. Once, he even muttered the phrase, “I don’t care about anything else, I need to know the answer to this graph theory problem,” as he shuffled to a study room where he would fill a four foot by six foot white board with a complex proof – for extra credit he did not need.

The second anecdote is one of my own. I had the privilege to participate in Seminar in Biology: Bioinformatics taught by the incredible Sarah O’Leary. In that class, ten seniors spent four hours a week learning about a field that is literally reinvented every few months. We learned about genome comparison, protein fold prediction, and the tools required to accurately model those phenomena and more. The main function of that class was to explore concepts and aid in the creation of teacher resources for high school and undergraduate level bioinformatics courses. This is ludicrously impressive, largely because there is no precedent for it. Every bioinformatics text available today is either written at the graduate level or written to be easily digestible to the general public. There is a very high need for material existing at this introductory academic level. And an IMSA class tried to create some of that high need material before concluding with an independent research project.

What these two stories and the ideals they represent are perfect examples of the IMSA mission coming true every day. IMSA is the kind of place where a senior in high school can find an interest in protein folding around people with the knowledge and resources to push him to pursue it. It’s the kind of place where seniors can go to bed at night dreaming of mathematical proofs in a field that isn’t even taught at most universities. Perhaps I’m reading too far into those examples. Perhaps they aren’t representative of a common IMSA experience. There’s a gut feeling, though, that a lot of people have heard these stories or at least stories like them. Maybe you’re lucky enough to have one of these stories happen to you.

Even if classes haven’t gone well for you, there are other pathways that students take to find a fire that ignites their passion. At IMSA, I am confronted every day by people engaged in the act of pushing human knowledge forward. The SIR program is a cornerstone of that intellectual curiosity. I could roll out stats about the number of people engaged in research—which are rather impressive, if you ask me—but that would be missing the point. Having never done an SIR, I only know it through the hearing my friends describe their projects. I have, countless times, been in awe of what my peers can do given the opportunity. One friend described his SIR in some bioinformatics field as teaching him more than any other class has. Every time I ask him about it, he lights up with this glow of excitement. Imagine a young kid—6 or 7—being told that they’re going out to their favorite restaurant. When I asked him why he’s always so excited to talk about his SIR, he tells me that it taught him, to borrow his words, “to be an autodidact.”

Another friend described her project in pharmaceutical cancer research. She continued her research into college. Describing her experience moving into her new lab space to me, she told the story of a new graduate assistant in her lab. The assistant had been told to go talk to someone in the lab to get caught up on the project. My friend happened to be the most senior member of this project since she had been working on it for three years. When the new graduate assistant asked my friend “Where can I get caught up with this project? Who’s been here the longest?” and my plucky nineteen-year-old friend said “I have,” you can imagine what must have run through his head. My friend didn’t waste the opportunity to remind the new guy to “respect me for the work I have put into this project or get out of my lab.”

Going beyond the rigorous research, I’ve also had friends do Independent Studies that sparked a light of passionate inquiry. My roommate reads modernist German philosophy in German. A friend modeled ballistics trajectories in Mathematica and was able to change the model based on wind, initial velocity, and humidity. Another friend once told me about his Independent Study in the history of aerospace engineering. Naturally in this field, old Russian documents prove quite useful since Russia was half of the race that put people on the moon. That friend was taking Russian, so he was the one who read the documents. In Russian. This is a seventeen-year-old reading about aerospace engineering during the Cold War in Russian. I can safely say that no other high school level program in the country has the capability to provide that opportunity.

The best part about the Academy is, without a doubt, the opportunity it provides academically. There are more and more elite high schools, but we are still easily ranked among them. IMSA does have one leg up above most of those other elites, though. I’d like to paint a portrait of the curved bench just outside the CAC office and a little ways south of the Main Entrance. At that bench, you will find a community space where seniors congregate. The seniors work, hang out, and procrastinate at that bench every single day. Most days, you’ll find people lying on top of each other, napping and relaxing. Most people would see this as teenage couples being necessarily physical. I’d agree if the vast majority of these human piles were not completely platonic. Nearly all of them are simply friends who wish that bench weren’t as hard. The Senior U-Bench is a family room for the two hundred or so seniors who pass through IMSA every year.

I would discredit that whole phenomenon as being a uniquely senior thing, not noteworthy at all, if it weren’t common to all classes at IMSA. The IMSA community feeds on places where we can act as each others’ family, a group of loving, like-minded individuals. The over-worked, over-tired juniors make the Old Caf couches their home, sleeping on, with, and around each other. The sophomores mingle and slowly start to lean on each other throughout the year in the TV pit. Even the faculty succumb to this need for community space. The English team’s office regularly turns into more of a team kitchen and dining room, as every day they take lunch together, sometimes getting work done. Sometimes not. Almost always together, though.

When I look around IMSA, I see nothing but community spaces and people excited to learn. Teachers and administrators greet students as colleagues, not as a product or as anything less than vital members of the IMSA community. Teachers come in excited to see students; students are excited to have class with their favorite teachers. I do not understand the people who come to classes here every day and decide that IMSA simply is bad.

It is an inherently toxic and shameful exercise to diminish a student who comes to school excited to learn, to tell them that they aren’t good enough or that their school isn’t good enough, or that their class isn’t good enough. I’ve had numerous teachers and dozens of peers tell me exactly that: “our class isn’t as good as 2014,” “students aren’t as good as they were five years ago,” “IMSA just isn’t what it claims to be.” While a critical and honest stance on IMSA’s current situation is healthy and beneficial, it is imperative that we shed this language from our vocabulary because it removes all possibility for a growth mindset. If we constantly perform downward comparisons comparing the past to the present or from IMSA to another school, we allow ourselves to settle for less than we are capable of accomplishing. So…

To the teachers who think IMSA’s best days are behind us: you’re dead wrong. Look at the excitement of a student talking about their research or their internship. Students are excited to be here and excited to learn. Any day the Academy ignites people to want to push human knowledge forward, we fulfill our mission to its fullest extent.

To the teachers who think you shouldn’t put effort into curriculum because students will cheat: if you engage with students and listen to where they would like to take their own learning, you will see results. Learning is a fluid and collaborative process, not a set of teaching instructions.

To the students who claim that IMSA has given them nothing: you’re dead wrong. Look around at the friends you made here and the things you learned. Where else can a half-educated teenager be given a chance to push the bounds of human knowledge and help labs doing cutting edge research? Who else trusts a sixteen year old to sequence bacterial DNA and form meaningful conclusions?

People haven’t let go of those signs that they don’t regret life. They are grabbing them with both hands and they are holding on tight. All you have to do to notice is open your eyes and your heart and listen to the people around you. Sometimes it’s not as obvious as a student shouting “I love my SIR!” Sometimes it’s a quieter excitement. It’s a girl smiling at favorite teacher and having a conversation in the hall. It’s a guy staying up late to make sure his SIR analysis is correct. It’s roommates lying down on top of each other to take a nap, leaving their bags open and their laptops out. It’s a teacher staying till nine to make sure his students know the material. Most of all, though, it’s anyone who tries to make IMSA that little bit better.

Here’s to advancing the human condition.

1 Comment on "Meditations in an Emergency"

  1. As a senior, I complain about IMSA as much as the next person. In reality, I do appreciate everything it has given me, but I have found the benefits lie more in the residential/people aspect than in the “school” aspect. The problem, in short, is grades. For me, personally, I learned more and was happier sophomore year before I realized my gpa wasn’t good enough to get into amazing colleges. This, in part, lead to a breakdown junior year and an unhealthy obsession over my grades, which lead to a level of anxiety that was paralyzing. Anything short of perfection would lead me into a panic. Because of this, I have taken the easiest classes possible to ensure straight A’s rather than take classes that actually interest me or would challenge me. This isn’t necessarily IMSA’s fault, but if teachers want their classes to interest us and teach us, an increased workload in either difficulty or quantity is not going to change anything.

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