On January 18th, 2020, St. John’s College hosted its premiere TEDx event on the Annapolis campus. Contrasting the dreary and drizzling overcast, the banner on stage in the Francis Scott Key auditorium was comprised of multicolored ribbons. Though sparing and unglamorous, this well befits the St. John’s aesthetic: less glitz, more substance, more soul. (Socrates would be pleased).
The theme for this TEDx event was On Second Thought, a testament to the Johnnie project that is examining and reexamining our assumptions, preconceptions, and postconceptions. On the docket for this day were talks ranging from quantum physics to mental health to the setbacks and triumphs of African-American education; speakers included current students, alumni, and faculty.
Each talk intrigued. Proportions of research to anecdote to whimsy varied from speaker to speaker: Justin Horm, Senior Network Manager, drew attention to the unseen proliferation of personal data, both private and public, and cautioned against passivity in online data sharing. Nancy Hilton, senior, presented a riveting alternative to our gender-based athletic divisions.
But there was a moment—or rather, a sequence of moments, an arc—that gave unexpected testimony to the St. John’s community spirit. It began when Sylvie McKnight-Milles, freshman, took the stage. She was to deliver a talk on the spooky, captivating realm of quantum physics. Nerves oscillating, she opened her talk with a metaphor:
“Picture yourself walking to the mailbox to fetch the morning paper. You get out of bed, make your morning coffee, and trudge out the door and down the driveway in your bathrobe. You bend down and pick up the paper, wrapped in its plastic sheath, and mentally prepare yourself to read…”
She froze here, evidently having forgotten her script. She asked the facilitators if she might start again.
“Go ahead,” answered one camera-manning silhouette.
Sylvie cleared her throat and resumed once more from the beginning.
“Picture yourself walking to the mailbox to fetch the morning paper,” her voice had lost an ounce or so of confidence, but she continued, “you get out of bed, make your morning coffee, and trudge out the door and down the driveway in your bathrobe. You bend down and pick up the paper, wrapped in its plastic sheath, and mentally prepare yourself to read…”
Again, her amygdala had other plans. ‘Fight or flight’ overriding once more, Sylvie hastened backstage to gather her script. With quivering fingers, she held out the words before her, and just as she parted her lips for a third attempt, a deluge of lights ambushed the stage—some technical fluke from the light booth, innocent, unintended, but horrendously timed. It was too much, and Sylvie was overcome, choking out an apology as she departed from the stage.
A collective grief came in the form of audience-wide groan. Whispers ensued willing for her return; murmurs of compassion and sympathy. The hosts returned to the stage to announce that we would be released to our lunch break early, then reconvene afterwards for the remaining talks.
As a graduate of St. John’s, this moment was not unfamiliar. I am brought to memories of mathematics tutorials—moments of paralysis during demonstrations at the chalkboard, where some logic in a proof had been neglected, or some clerical error had stalled progression, or some amygdalan interference had hindered the presentation. Often these moments blossomed into collaboration exercises. A student would offer a hint from the table (“Go back to the last step and work your way through again”), or join their peer at the chalkboard, temporarily relieving the presenter from the isolation of performance. Demonstrations were never about performance, though. They were simply another way to engage with the material, a common point of visual contact. That being said, one couldn’t help but feel the baking heat of a metaphorical spotlight when breaking from the conversation table.
Was it possible for an entire audience to collaborate this way? To meet Sylvie in the midst of her presentation, one hoard of hands to help guide her chalk?
As it turns out, for this audience, the answer was yes.
I sat down with Sylvie to ask her about that moment of paralysis and the ones immediately following.
“I was nervous, but well-prepared. I had spent three months working on my presentation… When the lights malfunctioned, I immediately thought about the active-shooter protocol I’d read in one of our safety manuals. One way to discretely indicate to an auditorium full of people that there is an active shooter is by making a distinct signal with the lights. So, with that association in mind, I panicked,” she shared.
When Sylvie left the stage, she was devastated. The facilitators scrambled to keep the audience from getting restless, perhaps anticipating hurled fruits. Instead, they hurled fortitude. Sylvie describes being inundated with support from classmates, alumni, friends, and strangers. From hugs to back pats to anonymous notes from audience members, encouragement came in startling and sundry forms.
“I didn’t know the world could be so kind,” she reflected. Sylvie explained to me that she’d graduated from a highly competitive secondary school. She was valedictorian of her class amid an academic culture that loathed intellectual prowess, that coveted primacy; anyone achieving excellence was an adversary.
Among the crowd of impromptu paracletes was St. John’s President Pano Kanelos. He approached Sylvie and shared with her a story of his own similar setback.
She recounts his words: “I left the stage, too. Except, I didn’t get back up and try again. And I hope that you will. The theme of this conference, On Second Thought, also means second chances.”
“It felt like people were trying to build me up, without any self-interest at all,” Sylvie adds, “They didn’t want anything in return, only for me to finish what I’d started.”
And finish indeed she did. Later in the afternoon, the moment Sylvie returned to the stage was met with a chorus of thunderous praise. Cheers and applause saturated the auditorium.
“Hello again,” Sylvie began. “I just wanted to start by thanking you all very much for your support.”
“Picture yourself walking to the mailbox to fetch the morning paper…”
And then, unbelievably, another snafu: the presentation slides cascaded forward to the end.
This time, Sylvie was ready.
“Well,” she conceded, “that’s quantum interference for you.”
Laughter bubbled all around.
“I’ll just continue while they sort that out. Now where was I? Ah, right, the morning paper. You get out of bed, make your morning coffee, and trudge out the door and down the driveway in your bathrobe. You bend down and pick up the paper, wrapped in its plastic sheath, and mentally prepare yourself to read. You are ready to check the latest sports scores and to see if humanity is still (reasonably) intact.”
Sylvie had caught her stride.
“It seems simple, right? Every one of your actions directly and immediately led to the next. You got up, you walked, you picked up the paper. Easy. Time flowed in one direction. But what happens if you travel as close to the speed of light as you can? If you take a proverbial step back from time. This is, admittedly, very difficult to conceptualize, but I’ll ask you to bear with me for the time being. It will be worth it.”
Dear reader, it was worth it.
The best we can do regarding outcomes and behaviors in the quantum realm is speak in probabilities, not certainties. And the moment Sylvie stumbled could have either been an end or a hurdle.
Sylvie chose ‘hurdle’, and received a standing ovation the moment she reached the finish line. And that reception embodied the spirit of the St. John’s community—joy, intellectual and otherwise, bookending a breakthrough.
When asked if her triumph has impacted her confidence in the Johnnie classroom, she smiled and said: “Yes. I’m now less concerned with perfectionism, and I know that making mistakes usually leads to a better understanding. And I see now more than ever that our classroom is comprised of individuals acting not as individuals, but as parts of a whole.” ⚖