Bruce Hornsby and the revelation

by Laurel Ring, Florida

I am not a morning person. I woke up this morning in the same mood as usual — tired, grumpy and a little fragile. I usually listen to satellite radio on the way to work, but this morning it was hard to find something I really liked, so I plugged in my iPod and set it on the “Favorites” playlist. After a few ’80s New Wave songs, I was treated to an instant mood lifter: “The Valley Road” by Bruce Hornsby and the Range. There is something about that song (and many others of his), especially the piano accompaniment. It is incredible, to say the least.

In the typical morning drive stream of consciousness way, I started thinking about the four years of piano lessons I took in elementary and middle school. I liked the idea of playing the piano much more than actually doing it, but I never thought about why I didn’t enjoy it as much as other things I did, like ballet, singing or acting. Looking back this morning, I realized at least part of the reason was that it did not involve self-expression. I had to play the piece exactly as it was written and pay attention to the timing, etc., with no outlet for individual expression or talent. This bored and frustrated me. [I do understand those things come later for the people who passionately pursue it to a high level (like Bruce Hornsby!), but they don’t when you’re 11 years old and are learning “Turkey in the Straw.”]

This started me thinking about other things that might share the same characteristics, and here is the grand revelation: this is the reason I never liked math or science.

Holy crap.

You’re probably wondering why this is so profound, but bear with me. Growing up in the “computer age,” it always seemed that students who liked and were good at math and science were considered to be a little smarter than those who excelled at language arts, history and fine arts. It’s not that I was bad at math – in fact, I was probably better than most – I just did not like it. Every second spent in a math, chemistry or physics class was torture for me. Numbers and formulas were not interesting at all, and this morning I realized it’s because I did not find any room for creativity in it. I am an artist and a storyteller, and there were no stories in math and certain sciences, just formulas. Is it a surprise that the higher math discipline in which I performed the best was analytical geometry? At least we got to graph pretty flowers.

I also found that being good at and concentrating on language and social arts and not liking the sciences was viewed as “girly” and shallow. (And let’s be clear here: I am not saying the reason I disliked math is because I am a girl. That’s silly, but some people do believe girls aren’t good at math. I knew plenty of girls who liked and were good at math and science.) The attitude is that anyone can be good at language and social arts, but it takes a truly smart person to be good at math and science. The math and science professions are also viewed as more prestigious and desirable. In my senior year of high school, a friend asked me what I wanted to do in a career. I said I wanted to do something creative, like interior design or creative direction for a magazine. My friend (who happened to be very good at math and science) looked at me with a funny expression and said, “Really? With your intellect, I would have thought you would want to be something like a doctor or an engineer. Why would you want to waste your time on being creative?”

Lesson here: math & science=smart, good, and contributing to society; creativity & art=not living up to your potential.

I do not wish to imply that all sciences are devoid of creativity and self-expression. Some areas encourage individual thought and originality. I just never found that to be true for me. Does this have implications for the way math and science are taught? Could more students be reached if the need for expression is tapped into and addressed? If I had found those subjects to allow for some creativity or expression, I might have liked them better and put in more effort.

Thank you, Bruce Hornsby, for leading me down the “Valley Road” this morning to an epiphany. I spent many years feeling like a second-class intellectual, but I am not less smart than someone who is fascinated by math and science. They simply are not interesting to me. I need outlets that value self-expression and creativity; others need formulas and order. My career is not less relevant because I create communications campaigns and graphics instead of bridges or x-rays. There are many different ways of seeing the world and contributing to it, and the right side of my brain says I am doing just fine.

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