What Jane Taught Me (Hint: Take the Weird Classes in College!)
On March 12th, National Geographic will premiere it’s new bio-documentary Jane, about the legendary and iconic Miss Jane Goodall, Ultimate Conservationist and Queen of Primatology. Thinking again about Goodall sent me spiraling back to memories from my college years when I first learned of her work, her pioneering studies on chimpanzee behavior. I can still rattle off a sizable list of absolutely useless things that I remember (the term ‘opposable thumbs’ comes to mind), nuggets of information that I still think are absolutely fascinating with regard to her life’s work.
View the trailer here: JANE.
…This was SO ME in my twenties!
See, I was once an anthropology major (among the many majors I cycled through) and in those wandering years between ages 19 and 22, I became obsessed with traveling the world and studying other cultures. I also thought for awhile that I wanted to be a therapist and so I found myself taking a handful of Behavioral Science classes, too. They changed the way I would understand other people and why they do what they do, especially on a worldlier scale. I still use what I learned, even if it’s mostly subsconsciously. I did it this morning when I watched a man and his wife arguing over whether or not they needed to carry a jacket for their toddler to the beach on a sunny day. (The wife wanted to, the husband said they didn’t need one. I’ll get to that in a minute.)
Taking the Primatology 101 option was something way, way out of my wheelhouse in 1993 when I was a sophomore, so of course I chose it… because WHY NOT? That’s what college is for. It gives you a chance to take radical and unusual electives with no obligation whatsoever to pursue interests in those areas, areas that might or (more likely) might not serve you in the later parts of your life. I got an A+ in the class which started me thinking about joining the Peace Corps. I also took Beginning American Sign Language and interestingly, I excelled at that as well, so for a minute I thought about being a teacher in a school for the deaf, or studying gorillas, I didn’t know which. I took Psycholinguistics, the study of how the brain processes language, and absolutely hated that one, receiving a D-, which ended my hopes of ever being a speech pathologist. I took a class called Experimental Psychology, which you would think I would’ve enjoyed because of my near-obsession with studying behavior, but I actually didn’t. The lab requirements it entailed, the demands for data accumulation and number-crunching (ug-math!) assured me immediately that I would never want a job doing scientific research of any kind. (One experiment had me at a stop sign counting the number of people who rolled through it versus the number of people who came to a complete stop. Yuck, right?) We won’t even talk about all the math and science classes I was forced to take against my will. I failed Introductory Statistics at least three times, dropped Basic Chemistry, and withdrew every single time I tried to attempt Fundamentals of Physics. All told, I gained a new appreciation for failing classes that I was actually having to pay for, which made me try a little harder, at least. There’s your argument against free Junior College right there.
It certainly taught me about what I wanted to be when I <finally> grew up.
I took a class called Feminist Literary Theory and we studied, among other things, the parallels between Gone With the Wind and Wuthering Heights. To say I was OBSESSED is an understatement. I loved that class, and I got a B+ if I recall. The professor was a raging, passionate feminist who grew up making 1970s protest activism cool before it was ever really cool. She was a woman who didn’t shave her armpits or her legs. Gah! Clearly, I have never forgotten her.
Everything I yearn for today in a female protagonist… I learned from her.
I took a racquetball class and a step aerobics class, too, which might account for the only time in my life I exercised on a daily basis. Pretty sure I was a solid B student for both. I took a class on Creative Writing, which gifted me the only skills I might actually have, and the only formal training in writing I’ve ever received. A+ for that one as well, same for the class on Classic American Literature. Can you see how they shaped me even though I never majored in English? It was Urban Sociology my Junior year that taught me about “crowd dynamics” and why stampedes often happen. I bet you didn’t even know that was a real class. It is, and I absolutely loved it. Even now, I’ve never forgotten how to apply what I learned to situations when there are simply too many people crowded into a small space. When I was a Senior, I took a meteorology class too, and although I don’t remember what exactly piqued my interest, I’ve had a near obsession with visiting Sao Paolo, Brazil ever since and I remember absolutely clearly that this obsession started in Meteorology 101.
Most memorably, I enrolled in Anthropology of the Bible during my Junior year. My professor wore Birkenstocks way before they were cool and he had a long gnarly, unkempt beard. I can’t remember his name but he described himself as an Animist, an ‘anti-religion’ where there were no deities or divine gods to speak of, just the spirits of the trees and the animals all around us, sharing our energies with one another. In this class, he taught the Christian bible like an ordinary world history book, explaining all the ways Jesus’ life was different from what the Bible asserts, extracting the core pillars of Christianity from the text and teaching us about what His life would’ve been like if He were just a regular dude growing up in the Middle East. I learned about the Gnostic Gospels, the Divine Feminine, sacred geometry and other other-worldly concepts I’d never been exposed to growing up in my small, boring hometown in the Bible Belt. My final paper was actually my rejection of my professor’s theory that Mary Magdalene and Jesus were probably married and had a baby (way before The DaVinci Code got everybody thinking it, too). Being a child of the First Baptist Church like I was, these ideas made my brain explode. He gave me an A and a lot of indulgence, writing a note to me at the bottom of my paper that assured me that as time passed, it would become less important that I accept truths and more important that I simply ask important questions.
That should be the motto of every university.
I might seriously have become an anthropologist during those years. I certainly discussed it with my parents many times. They vehemently discouraged me, knowing I would probably be poor for a good long time if I did and all the while I would be required to finish tremendous amounts of expensive higher level courses. I dug in my heels and took almost the entire catalogue of Social Science classes my school offered, and it wasn’t until the Archaeology track that I finally reconsidered my journey. Survey work sifting through sand and silt in the Dog River way up the Mobile Delta in the hot June summer did me in. I changed my major after that one class, but I still think about how my life would’ve turned out if I’d stayed in that fascinating field. I miss it still. Ultimately, I found myself satiating those old pleasures by settling for being a history teacher instead of a history researcher. There are definite regrets about my decisions, I admit it to myself every day of my life.
I also thought about learning how to tattoo after a henna experience I had in Morocco when I was 23. That urge passed, and thankfully I abandoned the idea before the Drop/Add deadlines.
Back to Miss Goodall.
Jane will be a must-see for me. It’s all the never-before-seen video footage of her original 1960s chimpanzee studies, when she was a budding naturalist still in her twenties. For me, it will be like seeing old, long-lost home movies of myself that someone suddenly found in my grandma’s attic. She is 83 now, and is still the most famous and well-respected scientist of our time, in my opinion. I want to be her when I am 83. My son has never heard of her. My high school students have never heard of her. My friends, if they’ve heard of her at all, they still know absolutely nothing about her. (I don’t know what classes they were taking in college, but I suppose Primatology wasn’t one of them.) I guess that’s what college is for, in part. To take weird classes, to learn from those obscure people who made momentous contributions to the global dialogue of life, and to teach us about ourselves and what makes us most happy. Hopefully a lucky few of us also discover that we can make a living doing what makes us most happy, too.
I wish we could exist in that limitless state of learning forever.
Back to The Husband, The Wife and The Jacket.
See, I observed that the chances were pretty good that they wouldn’t actually need the jacket for the baby. As I watched the humans in their natural environment, I hypothesized that the male should let the female take it along anyway. Know why? Because IF things go downhill IF the baby gets cold, it’s the female who will instinctually have to nurture the baby’s misery, not the male. The breakdown, if it comes, will fall on Mom, and subconsciously she knows this, so she is way more invested in taking all the necessary precautions. Dad is living the logic of the here and now, like males protectors do. They come at their problem from totally different perspectives and carry completely different burdens. So I thought to myself, Let her take the jacket, Dad, as I watched them bicker their way towards the beach, jacket in hand. Thanks, Dr. Whatever from Sociology 101. You’ve taught me more than you’ll ever realize.
Don’t miss your chance, kids. To every teenager about to embark on those exciting college years, I challenge you to find the strangest, most fabulous professor on campus and sign up for whatever he’s offering. Be brave, be adventurous! It will change you, it will make you smarter, it will give you the most amazing stories to tell your kids one day. Are you a math and science person? Take a Glass and Pottery class. Are you an engineering student? Learn Belly Dancing. Got a hole in your schedule? Fill it with a class on History of Horror Movies. Get out of your comfort zone at all costs! That’s what college is for! The gift of education, any kind of education that brings enlightenment in all its forms, is something you should seek out with all your might.