When I was six, my dad signed me up for a marine biology class at the community college. There were courses available to elementary school kids on Saturday mornings. The old Hardie Building was just a few blocks from the ocean in Beverly, MA. I remember walking down to the beach to collect seawater for an experiment. I liked beachcombing along the way because the instructor would tell true stories about the things we stumbled across, like that mermaid purses weren’t just an extension of a dried up, pile of seaweed. They were egg cases for small sharks.
When we got the seawater back to the school, we boiled it in a beaker until all that was left in the glass was salt. I can’t imagine we were allowed to taste it in a laboratory, but somehow I ate it. And my mind was blown. The salt in the ocean can be separated from the water and it can be used for other purposes. I felt both a sense of wonder and joy.
But I completely lost that sense of wonder and joy in high school. I struggled with math, and I didn’t have the foundation to understand the complex equations that supported chemistry and physics. It wasn’t enough to show up for group study sessions before tests. I needed help. I needed an adult who would give me space to ask all of the questions that I was ashamed to ask in front of the math geniuses. I needed instruction from someone who was confident that I’d eventually get it
. And I needed a few other kids who were in the same predicament to work things out with. But I didn’t ask for help. I felt like I was too far gone to catch up. I remember getting the equivalent of my final grade for physics in sophomore year. The narrative statement read something like, “If we hadn’t chosen to give an alternative final for physics this year, Kate likely would have failed.”
And as I pulled away from math, I found wonder and joy in writing, art, music, and literature. I immersed myself in those projects. If there was an assignment to draw a poster for the French Resistance, or trace a genealogy thread, I was on it. It was as if I’d flipped a switch in my brain. Now we’re going to take the energy you were funneling into science and apply it to your creative pursuits. You’re an artist now.
In order to be good at something
, I thought I had to make a choice between science and art, logic and creativity. I adapted to this way of thinking and let it shape my identity.
The land is my home. But the sea is where my heart lets loose.
It wasn’t until college, when the math and science requirements for my degree were pretty minimal, that the repair job began. I took a pair of geology classes, and soon I learned that my favorite places in the world are where the rock meets the water and that rocks tell the story of geological time. It might be a metaphor for the type of stories I gravitate toward, but I love the feeling of being on the edge between two worlds. When I stand on the rocks at the Headlands in the town where The Line Tender
takes place, I always want to jump into the ocean below. I would probably die! But there is something about standing on the gray, craggy earth, staring at the sea. The ocean waves steal my attention, like a beautiful topaz that formed in the vein of a rock. The land is my home. But the sea is where my heart lets loose. I wish I could breathe down there.
In grad school, while studying to become a teacher, I dissected my math deficiencies with a very patient professor and a room full of fellow math-phobes in a statistics class. Years later, I worked for an educational publisher that designed curricula specifically for kids who struggle with math, and I could see myself in those kids who had lost the feeling of wonder and joy when they were trying to make sense of fractions and algebra.
I read books to my sons about Jane Goodall and Jacques Cousteau, and every Tuesday, my family left the Science Times section of the newspaper on my placemat at the breakfast table. I started listening to science podcasts. As time passed, I was like an ecosystem that was beginning to regenerate. Where the water met the rocks, kelp and other algae took root again, and the rockfish and snails came back.
In the beginning of The Line Tender
, the main character, Lucy, feels distant from math and science in much the same way I did. She admits to her best friend, Fred, that she doesn’t like equations but says, “if you could tell science like a story, I’d pay attention.”
Later in the book, Lucy follows the trail of her late mother’s shark research to learn more about the white sharks that are appearing off Massachusetts. She uses her drawings to help her understand shark anatomy — how serrated teeth are made for tearing meat and how a shark’s fins work together to propel the fish forward. To create her illustrations, Lucy needs to have biological understanding and observation skills.
In the same scene where Lucy suggests that science should be told like a story, she dismisses Fred for explaining proportion in mathematical terms. However, Lucy shows a keen understanding of proportion at the end of the story when she says, "I knew this shark. I scrubbed one hundred attempts clean with my eraser, trying to get the right distance between the fins or the right amount of muscular girth."
Lucy is able to draw realistic-looking sharks because her understanding of proportion is solid. She uses scientific, mathematical, and artistic methods to gather knowledge. Science, math, and art are working together to help Lucy make sense of sharks.
But scientific and artistic exploration is also a means to human connection in the book. When Lucy collaborates with Fred on the field guide, he marvels at how realistic her drawings are and she is delighted by the stories he tells about sea creatures. Lucy feels bound to her late mother in a new way by tracing the research and drawing the shark anatomy that her mother studied so closely. Lucy also enlists her father, her neighbor, and a friend of her parents’ to help with her project, taking them across state lines and well past the limits of superficial connection. Lucy’s work becomes a means for building a new family.
I’m pretty sure that my six-year-old self understood the link between science and art completely when she marveled at egg cases and tasted sea salt. Children instinctively make sense of the world with whatever tools they have. As adults, it would be good for us to remember to open the door for wonder and joy more often, and to honor the way the children in our lives recognize it so readily.
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grew up in Massachusetts and lives in Minneapolis, MN, with her family. The Line Tender
is her first novel.