My Grade School Science Project

I’m in fifth grade.
I have a Dorothy Hamill haircut. I’m wearing a brown corduroy skirt and a white turtleneck sweater with red and blue stripes. My left arm is resting across my stomach while my right hand holds the index card from which I’m reading.

A microphone secured in its stand is a foot away from me, as is the plain wooden desk upon which I’ve placed the cardboard model of a forearm and hand I made. It’s decorated with multi-colored, coiled telephone wire, which represented the nerves that thread through human arms and hands. Behind me, taped to the chalkboard, are drawings I made with colored pencils: a close-up of the brain, of a neuron, and one larger depiction of the entire central nervous system.
Recently I was browsing through old photographs and happened upon a stash from the 1970s, including a handful from the presentation I made for this fifth grade science project. Alongside two girls from my grade—Dawn and Deanna—we researched the nervous system and, as a capstone to our research, made a presentation of our findings at a local community college. When I saw the photos from that presentation, I felt the irony of this in my gut.
I researched the central nervous system. I talked about neurons, their protective covers, and the signals sent from the brain. Back in grammar school.
When I looked at the girl in the picture, I got wistful. She has no idea that she’s talking about the very part of her body that will malfunction when she’s in her forties, that her own nervous system will turn on itself and weaponize its immune system in a civil war that will transform hot summer days into hell and stairs into torturous slogs.
At the time the photo is taken, the girl in the picture is fascinated with how and why someone has dreams, and with why you don’t really run when you are doing so in your dreams. The girl in the photo is also a mediocre, yet super-enthusiastic gymnast, a wretched softball player who plays in the outfield, and an enthusiastic Boston Red Sox fan. Taller than almost everyone in her class, she also loves writing short stories and binging on books as quickly as potato chips.
She has no idea that, in years to come, she will worry that an incurable disease of the central nervous system will imperil the things that she loves. She has no idea that her very own brain—like the one she sketched out in blue and red pencil on an oversized piece of paper—will start sending inaccurate and confusing messages along the nerves of her arms, hands and spinal cord. But that girl in the photo, the one whose eye are looking down, will eventually look up from that index card. She will look out into the room of 1970s college students, and then past them and into her future.
Decades later, she will again be looking out at a classroom filled with college students, but they will be her students and she will be their teacher. She won’t have all the answers about the central nervous system—about her own central nervous system, about how to fix the errant messages her damaged nerves are receiving—but she will know that there will be writing, that there will be reading, and there will be Red Sox.
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Meredith O’Brien

Meredith O’Brien is a Boston area writer and journalism lecturer. She is a die-hard Red Sox fan who has three college-aged kids and two noisy dogs. Her fourth book is “Uncomfortably Numb: A Memoir,” about her MS experience. Follow her on Twitter or visit her website.