My students are embarking on an annual journey at our school we call the Academic Exposition, or Expo, which is a big research paper and presentation. We take a day at school for everyone to show their stuff and all the parents come to see what their children have learned. It is an arduous journey to say the least.
In past years, the Expo has not been well guided, leaving the students with their topics and a stack of notecards and expecting them to find their way out of the academic wilderness on their own. This year, we decided to be more directive and instructive on the journey, the idea being to make it more meaningful for them (and us) and maybe even a little fun. Being a good guide, I’m learning (again), is hard work.
At the heart of research lies the adage that your paper is only as good as your question. Both the middle school English teacher and I sat with each of our charges individually to hammer out their vague interests into specific and hopefully interesting questions. The topics ranged from concussions in sports to CNC 3-D printing technology to why we turn prisons into tourist attractions to epilepsy. The last one came from Pete, one of my students who lives with epilepsy and, because of his changing teenage body, has had a very hard year regulating his medication and controlling his seizures. When we sat down for his conference he said, “My question is, ‘How close are we to finding a cure for epilepsy?’”
All I could think was, “Not close enough.”
Yesterday during class, we spent time in the computer lab so they could look for sources. As we searched, he found a rather extensive list of people in history who had epilepsy. He called out across the room, “Mr. B-C, Alexander the Great had epilepsy.” As the others surfed and searched, our time was punctuated by his continual uncovering of this geneology of sorts: Napoleon Bonaparte, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent Van Gogh – at which point I said, “Do you feel like you need to go paint something?”
“Mr. B-C,” he said, “Theodore Roosevelt!”
One of the other students, weary of the role call, responded, “You know, Pete, not everyone in the world has epilepsy.”
He was undaunted. “But – Theodore Roosevelt.”
Discovery that he was of the house and lineage of people who were known for more than the disease they shared in common was encouraging, even life-giving to this bright young man. He was beginning to understand he belonged to a group that mattered. He was not alone in his struggle, nor in his seizures. I thought of Hemingway’s old man, fighting with the fish and feeling the pain of his bone spur, only to be comforted by the thought that Joe DiMaggio understood how he hurt. The validation that our pain and our wounds are not unique is one of the most profound invitations to community that we receive.
So Pete’s exposition appears to be to go out and find himself, or at least his kinfolk, out there in the great unknown, to find those in whom he recognizes himself, or – better yet – those who help him see his epilepsy as something other than his most defining word. Perhaps, in another generation, a kid will look up from his or her own discovery and say to the teacher, “Hey! Pete had epilepsy, too!”