Tuesday, June 3, 2008

My Defining Moment: The Black Box

A defining moment is one that can change the course of your life, change your thinking, and open the world to you in new ways. If you are perceptive, you might have several defining moments in your life. Often, you don’t realize it is a defining moment until days, weeks, months, or years after.

I wanted to tell you about my first, adult, defining moment. I didn’t know it was a defining moment at the time, it just seemed like an experience.

I was an average student in high school – entirely undistinguished and unformed. I drifted through Tenafly High in a cloud of painful self-consciousness, the typical self-doubting adolescent haze.

Chemistry class was the bane of senior year, with the difficult hurdle of its pass/fail chem labs. The first lab was the famous “Black Box.” Away from our prying eyes, Mr. Colombo, our chem teacher, (in my memory, forever wearing his beige lab coat) put an object into a black wood box and nailed it shut. Using the principles of scientific observation we had to figure out what was inside The Black Box.

For one week we could hold it, weigh it, shake it, smell it, listen to it. We could do anything but throw it, or open it. Among ourselves we talked and talked, in study hall, in the cafeteria, at the football game, at gym, in the library, on the phone, as we walked to school in the mornings and home in the evenings, trying to collectively put our observations together and guess what was inside The Black Box.

After a few days, everyone decided it was an empty film canister. Back in 1969 (!) cameras used film, and the film came on a metal canister.

This didn’t make any sense to me at all. A film canister was even, it was light, and it didn't wobble. Whenever I held the box, the object had an uneven roll and an uneven weight, it tilted and seemed to fall on its heavy side, causing it to wobble.

But who was I to think it could be something else, me, Liza Dunkel, not an honors student, me against 120 classmates.

I tried desperately to imagine what it could be. Then, one day during class, my eyes settled on a row of acid bottles. The glass stopper of an acid, or poison bottle, is thick and rounded on the bottom, with a thin plaque to grip it on top. Placed on its side, it rolled and wobbled unevenly. Bingo.

I told my best friend, Janet Feigelson, the super smart star of the honors classes, about my idea of the acid bottle stopper. I told Sharon Goldstein and Mark Jay and other smart kids. They shook their heads. “No way," they said, "It’s a film canister."

No one heard me because I was “just” Liza Dunkel, a nobody.

Everyone wrote up their labs in the little blue books, laying out the arguments about why it was a film canister. For awhile, I actually considered joining everyone, because I could not believe that I could figure out something so different from 120 other people. I had so little confidence in myself, how could I possibly be right? And what if they were all right and I was the only one in the entire senior class who flunked the first chem lab?

But in the end, I just couldn’t do it. I had heard and felt the object tilt. A film canister doesn’t tilt.

Finally, the big day arrived for the great opening of The Black Box.

I had chemistry first period. Standing beside the stack of graded blue lab books, Mr. Columbo smiled at us and shook his head. “What a bunch of dummies,” he said. Everyone groaned. He proceeded to toy with us, lifting off the top of the Black Box looking inside and replacing the top.

“In all of the senior class, there was only one person who guessed correctly what was in the Black Box.”

My head and heart were pounding. Could I be this person? Could it be me? No! I wasn’t smart. How could I alone have figured it out and no one else? No, it must be someone else.

“And that person…is sitting right here in the front row!” he shouted, pointing at me! I screamed with joy amidst the uproar in the room as he held up the glass stopper of an acid bottle.

After class, the word flew through the halls of Tenafly High. I floated with happiness for the rest of the day as I was congratulated (even by Eddie Harris) and looked at with new eyes.

Maybe I was smart, after all. Could I even be, special? The Black Box was the first lesson I had about the need to believe in myself, to listen to myself, to rely on what I thought was true. The Black Box was a premonition of great things to come. It wouldn’t be until college that I would realize my great potential.

Remember children to seize your defining moments and make them yours. I wish you a lifetime of defining moments.

No comments: