May 8, 2007
“Life goes by so fast that it is all memory”… Tennessee Williams
Our daughter rides the subway from her apartment in Brooklyn to the NYU baccalaureate at Madison Square Garden, carrying her mortarboard but wearing the purple gown over her party clothes, ready for a quick change later. Congratulations are offered at almost every stop along the way.
We are subway riders too, from downtown to midtown, less conspicuous as parents of the graduate; a modest NYU Proud Parent pin on the jacket. From our seats high in the rafters, we establish contact with her by cellular phone, so we can almost make her out, waving from the front row. Her early arrival paid off in this prime location among her 2,000 classmates.
It takes nearly an hour for the students to file into Madison Square Garden, filling the entire arena floor row by purple row. Of course we are most looking forward to the discrete few seconds when our own daughter crosses the stage for her diploma, but there is something to be said for the vastness of the collective experience as we see it from high in the rafters.
The graduation speaker is Joseph LeDoux, Director of the Center for Neural Science at New York University. His work explores questions of brain, memory, and emotion; how the brain forms memories of life’s significant emotional events; like the one we are having today; how memory knits together one’s past, present and future into a unique personal identity. He opens with that first quote I mentioned from Tennessee Williams.
Doesn’t every graduation speaker invite the audience to remember? To bring memories forward to this day; to take memories of this day into future life? To reflect on who you were when you came here, how you have changed, and to speculate about who you will be in the future? I can’t think of one who hasn’t. And he does that, speaking of how in his own life he arrived in New York City from rural Louisiana with a mix of sadness and anticipation, loss as well as gain, risking what is known for what is not. But uniquely, his field of study is the concrete neurological structures and chemical processes that perceive, record, store and retrieve memories.
It’s not the last we hear from Joseph LeDoux today. After the speeches and the long parade of students one by one across the stage — and we do have our four seconds of delirious joy — he returns again, this time with a Stratocaster and three other musicians, ready to perform as “The Amygdaloids”, a band named after the amygdala, that small almond shaped structure in the limbic system of the brain which is central to the interwoven processes of fear and memory.
The Amygdaloids are a rock and roll band made up entirely of neural scientists. They have a long scientific history together, but only in the last year or so did they discover their common love of rock and roll, and put together this band to spread knowledge of the brain and its workings through music. It’s their first performance at Madison Square Garden.
From “All in a Nut”, one of the songs they perform this day: “Why, why, why do we feel so afraid?/ Don’t have to look very far/ Don’t get stuck in a rut/ Don’t have to look very hard/ It’s all in a nut, in your brain.”
The student audience is increasingly animated as they wind up “All in a Nut” and segue into “Emotional Brain” — and then, somewhere toward the front of the crowd, someone starts the wave — who knows how many people it takes to start such a thing in motion, row by row, front to back then back to front in a huge human wave of motion, leaping from seats, hands thrown in the air, purple hats and white programs undulating. The wave moves at least three times through the student body on the arena floor before it spreads to the parents around the perimeter. Fortuitously, while patiently waiting for two thousand names other than Kaitlin’s to be called, I had fiddled with the settings on my digital camera, remembering that it had the capability of taking video clips, and as the second student wave began, I captured it on video.
So the memory of this day is forever held in motion.
Searching for our daughter in this purple crowd, I am remembering the first look of her clear blue eyes on a summer day in 1985, the whole person within her just beginning to unfold. When I was pregnant with her, the thing to be concerned about was folic acid. Folic acid was believed to be crucial to the early formation of the neural tube, so fundamental to every subsequent building block of development. So I loved her brain into being along with everything else. The precocious three year old who was grief –stricken when she grasped that history means we will all be dead someday became the four year old who braved a rope bridge. The third grader paralyzed with anxiety in a new school became the high school journalist who did not come home until late in the evening of September 11, 2001 because she had stories to report. The high school reporter became the confident young woman who flew to New York City on her own, hailed a cab to the NYU dorm, and four years later rode the subway to Madison Square Garden to graduate Cum Laude in English and American Literature, and Journalism and Mass Communication, with departmental honors. She denies starting the WAVE, by the way, but claims to know who did.
After we came home, I posted my little NYU WAVE video on Youtube. Within a few days I had an email from Joseph LeDoux, asking permission to include my clip in a compilation from that performance: “The Amygdaloids Play Madison Square Garden, May 8, 2007”. See the video at the link below. Look for our kid in the front row and my name in the video credits!! I will never forget this day.