This week, I was reminded what it was like in the first moments and days when I became hungry for knowledge. Not that my hunger has been satisfied in Snickers bar fashion, but it has evolved since I first read Frankenstein and fell in love with books and words and writing. This week, though, I got to see that hunger arise in someone else.
I have been reading Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks with my English students for the last eight weeks. Skloot’s book tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, a woman who gave birth to the first line of immortal cells. Henrietta died of cervical cancer, and a small sample of those cancer cells managed to live on in the lab–the first cells to survive in culture.
The cells reproduced at astounding rates, and they were used in all kinds of tests. Henrietta’s cells were involved in the polio vaccine, they have been to space, and they are still alive and being used in labs today–known simply as HeLa cells (from the first two letters of her first and last name). In spite of how important these discoveries were, Henrietta died without knowing that her cells survived, and her family was never compensated–financially or medically–for Henrietta’s contributions to the field.
Buried underneath this story of cells and medicine, is a story about education and a hunger for knowledge. Skloot’s journey is founded on her hunger–her desire to know the story of Henrietta Lacks. Additionally, Skloot spends most of her time in the book with Deborah, Henrietta’s daughter. Deborah wants only to learn about her mother, but Deborah is a nervous and flighty character because she doesn’t understand so much about what she has endured. Toward the end of the book, Deborah tells the author that she wants to go to school, take her placement tests, take her remedial courses, and then take college classes so that she can understand what happened to her mother. Deborah can’t afford it, though. She was hungry, but she couldn’t eat.
She tells Rebecca, “It’s too late for Henrietta’s children. . . . This story ain’t about us anymore. It’s about the new Lacks children.” And the next generation of Lacks children did well for themselves–high school diplomas, Penn State admission, graduate school, and so on.
I’m not gonna lie…I was tearing up at the end.
Now, as some of you know, I teach at an open-access institution in Fayetteville, NC. That means that a lot of my students are there for a second-chance. These are the folks who dropped out of high school, flunked out of their first attempt at college, or served time. These are the mothers and fathers, the veterans, and the full-time students paying for night classes. This group is as diverse in its own right as any flagship institution.
And they are back in school because, like Deborah, they have lived enough life to understand the value of education. We are only ready to start learning when we realize we are infinitely ignorant–that we know a lot, but it isn’t close to everything. Learning happens when we realize that we don’t know a whole lot about the world and the universe. It’s in that moment of realization that we feel as small as we will ever feel, and all we want is to feel bigger. The only way to feel bigger, in that cosmic sense, is to fill up on knowledge.
The second week of this semester, my student Jim told me he had never read a book cover-to-cover. Jim is in his late-30s to early-40s, he served some time back in the 90s (which, according to him, was the best time to be in prison), and he has never ever read a book.
Jim is hungry, and he’s decided it’s time to fill up.
Are you hungry?