Different: Stories about standing out in a crowd

This week, we present two stories about being different, and the ways our differences can become our strengths.

Part 1: Growing up, Amanda Gorman is determined to eliminate her speech impediment.

Called the "next great figure of poetry in the US," 19-year-old Amanda Gorman is the first ever Youth Poet Laureate of the United States of America and a Moth GrandSLAM champion. Her first poetry book, "The One For Whom Food Is Not Enough," was published in 2015. A Harvard sophomore, she has worked as a U.N. Youth Delegate in New York City, a HERlead Fellow with girl leaders in D.C. and London, and an Ambassador for the feminist platform School of Doodle. She has been featured in the New York Times, The Boston Globe, and Teen Vogue. At 16, she founded the community project One Pen One Page, which promotes storytelling and youth activism.

Part 2: An aspiring scientist brought up in a family of artists, Elisa Schaum feels like a black sheep.

An oceanographer turned evolutionary biologist, Elisa Schaum investigates what makes some phytoplankton populations better at evolving under climate change than others. She does this because phytoplankton are breathtakingly beautiful, and because they pretty much rule the world: they produce half of the oxygen that we breathe, fuel food-webs and their activities determine whether the oceans can take up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. She is just now coming to the end of a position as an associate research fellow at the University of Exeter’s Satellite Campus for Strange People (more formally known as Penryn Campus), and is about to start a junior professorship at the University of Hamburg. Her life pre-science involved a lot of music and dancing. She also likes to write fairly horrific poetry (or, preferably, read splendid poetry) in her free time. Originally from Belgium, she has lived and worked in the Netherlands, Germany, France, South Africa, Italy, New Zealand and the UK.


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Amanda Gorman

“Errr.  Awrrr.  Come on, Amanda, you can do it.  Awrrr, matey.”  These were how dinners were spent at my mom’s house on a weeknight, her, on one hand, saying words like ‘hamburger’ and ‘awrrr, matey,’ trying to teach her five-year-old daughter, me, how to say the ‘r' sound and me just failing miserably.  Then you have my twin sister on the other hand, Gabrielle, who’s is just bored out of her mind and looking at us like we’re crazy, because we are. 

It was also at this table that my mom would remind us of life morals like, “You can do anything,” and, “You each have your own superpower,” which I knew was a baldfaced lie. 

Let me give you some background.  When I was in elementary school, I was so small the teachers would put rocks in my pockets so the wind wouldn’t blow me away.  My mom took me to the UCLA Medical Center to get myself weighed and the doctor said, “We’re not sure she has enough fat to go through puberty yet.  We’ll wait and see.” 

On the other hand, my sister is basically Mrs. Incredible.  By the time she was two she could do Chinese splits, she could run five miles without stopping or sweating.  And I'll give you another example.  She learned how to do a backflip on her first try on accident, on cement. 

Of all of these things, the thing I was most upset about is we’re twins.  We were born at the same time, which means we were both born early and prematurely, which means we both had ear infections and which meant that we both had an auditory processing disorder, which means we basically heard things differently, which also meant that we both had speech impediments.  We talked very differently than the children around us.  But of course it was my sister Gabby Douglas, Mrs. Incredible Gabrielle Gorman, who overcame her speech impediment before I even made any progress. 

So I’m here trying to ‘arr’ and ‘hamburger,’ whatever and my sister is just there eating her cornbread and she's like, “You know, Amanda, you should do what I did to learn the ‘r' sound.  I just imagined a movie in my head of me saying the word and I figured it all out.” 

What my sister doesn’t get in sound she makes up by thinking in motion.  She thinks in pictures which makes her a fantastic director.  I, on the other hand, think in words, like snapshots of letter,s which means I’m screwed.  Because you can memorize the dictionary, but that doesn’t mean you can really pronounce it correctly. 

And my mom she's, “Hey, hey, hey.  You both have your own strengths.  Amanda, until we work out this whole speech impediment thing, tell people the truth that you were born this way.”

So I do and that works for a little bit, but now I’m in middle school and I’m going through puberty.  Thank God, or not.  I don't really know.  Suddenly, people just don’t want to hear I was born this way anymore. 

I remember this one white mother coming up to me and she has a pink crop top that says, “This is what a feminist looks like.”  She has obviously really fake blond hair and I remember she's the mom that owns all the condos in Santa Monica. 

She's like, “Amanda, your voice is so interesting.  Where are you from?”

I’m like, “Los Angeles.” 

And she's like, “Where are you really from?” 

I laugh inside because I know we’re about to play that ‘game’, the game where a white person is like, “So where are your parents’ from?”  Then I’m like, “Chicago.” 

“And their parents?” 


“And their parents?” 


“And their parents?” 

“Child, I don't know.” 

And I have to explain to this poor, ignorant, white mother how the transatlantic slave trade works in the great migration. 

Amanda Gorman tells her story at the Oberon Theatre in Cambridge, MA. Photo by Kate Flock.

Amanda Gorman tells her story at the Oberon Theatre in Cambridge, MA. Photo by Kate Flock.

Now, every now and then so that I can avoid reciting Roots by Alex Haley, I just tell these people I’m from wherever they think I’m from, which some days is London, other days it’s Nigeria, and some taxi cabs it’s Ethiopia.  But most of the time it’s New York, which tells you how little we actually really know about accents. 

Now, I’m in ninth grade and I’m just through with it.  I am done.  I’m done lying about where I come from and who I am and why I sound this way so I decide I’m going to just eliminate my speech impediment. 

This is a lot easier said than done because speech pathology or the study of speech and sound is a science.  It’s a clinical practice that people study so hard, but I ain’t got money for that stuff.  Also, it sounds really easy like, oh, how about you just call up your best friend who, I don't know, can say the ‘r' sound.  They can help you out a little bit. 

But actually with the ‘r' sound, most speech pathologists recognize it as the most difficult letter to describe to another person in the English language. 

Let’s do an exercise.  I want everybody to close their eyes.  Yes, you in the front row.  Thank you.  Okay. 

I want you to imagine saying the ‘m’ sound.  And imagine how you would tell someone to say that sound.  Maybe you'd say, “Oh, rub your lips together like you're putting on Chapstick, like you're humming.”  Easy, right?

Keep them closed.  Thank you. 

Now, I want you to imagine saying the ‘err’ sound and how you would describe that to someone.  It’s a bit more complicated. 

Open your eyes.  Awesome.  So that was the same as you would have with my mom because she was just stunted. 

Anyways, I get to this point.  I’m looking on Wikipedia and I figure out Sidney Poitier, the first black man to win Best Actor at the Academy Awards got rid of his Bahamian accent in six months just by listening to the radio and recording himself.  I was like, “I’m going to be Sidney Poitier, except the female version and cuter.” 

And I’m like, “I’m going to watch YouTube videos where they're describing how to say ‘l’ versus ‘r' to Asian immigrants.  I’m going to stick my tongue to a popsicle stick to make it a bit stronger.  And I’m going to record myself,” and I do stuff like recording myself saying the lines from Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone.  Nothing gave me greater pleasure than when I could say the names of the heroes and the villains which all have Rs in them, like Harry, Ron, Hermione, or Lord Voldemort, Draco, Dursley, it was like J.K. Rowling wrote that all for me. 

Then my next greatest challenge was singing Aaron Burr from the Hamilton musical.  “How are you?  Aaron Burr, sir.”  Okay, I was done.  That was just too hard. 

But the more I worked at it, the more that I felt that my speech was my own villain, my own Aaron Burr, it was tripping me up when I was on stage performing poetry, or when I was saying my own last name which was Gorman, or when I was telling people that I went to Harvard.  Of course it came out all garbled because of my voice and they just assume, “She's black.  It’s Howard.” 

Turns out it wouldn’t take me six months to overcome my speech impediment.  It would take me six years. 

Photo by Kate Flock.

Photo by Kate Flock.

Now, I’m a freshman in college.  I’m about to perform a poem in front of like 250 young women, and it’s a poem about feminism which is the worst for me because it has words like ‘girl,’ ‘world,’ ‘earth.’  I’m like should I just say young female, but that’s like exclusionary.  I could say like globe, but that doesn’t really make sense. 

I feel like I’m about to vomit because I've also gotten eight minutes or so to write this poem and memorize it in front of this huge crowd. 

I get on stage and I hear voices in my head and my sister telling me to think about everything in motion, and I just take a deep breath and I do my poem.  Something miraculous happens.  I don't think like my sister in pictures but I think like myself in words.  Like even when I’m looking out at the audience I can see the letters in my head.  I can see a snapshot of the page.  And every time I’m saying a line the words with ‘r' in it pop in front of my head in bright, bold red as if warning me, “Danger!  Here it comes.  Prepare yourself.” 

All of a sudden, I can say ‘girl’ with more power than I've ever said before, power even in itself.  And sure, my speech still messes up a little bit but, for the first time, I’m okay with it. 

I get off stage and immediately zooms down this nine-year-old girl and she has deep brown hair and she tells me, “I have that same exact speech impediment and hearing it on stage was so powerful.” 

Wow!  She thought my work was powerful not despite my speech impediment but because of it, because I was still speaking up and empowering others.  If that power is not super, I don't know what is.  Thank you.


Part 2: Elisa Schaum

I’m going to tell you a mainly true story about my family and about science.  See, everybody in my family, apart from me, is an artist of some kind.  So we have the musicians and the photographers and the authors and the sculptors.  If you want to name me any kind of weird artistry, I can find your cousin who does it.  Seriously. 

But what they have in common is that they make things and they make things so that they are beautiful and something for us to look at and to wonder about.  That’s something they have in common. 

The other thing they have in common is that they do these things mainly based on too much booze, too much coffee, and too little sleep. 

They also, another thing, the third thing they have in common is that they all think that, logically, all offspring must follow suit into their world, into their slightly dark world where a good story means that everybody is a little bit lost and completely naked. 

So imagine my childhood.  Any of my friends, as soon as their parents met my parents, nobody was ever allowed back to play with me.  And can you blame them? 

Another really important thing about my family is that we have this really strong gypsy heritage, particularly on my mom’s side.  What this means is that everybody, apart from me, has this luscious, dark curly hair, and also that the supernatural and the ghosts are all over the place. 

Most of the ghosts aren’t the nice kind so, one day, I was playing in a house that had burned down in a different village as you do when you need some peace and quiet from your noisy, noisy family.  I see these shadows moving about the wall and it really spooks me because I am the only person in that house.  So I run and I find my mother and I tell her that I’m really scared.  I see these shadows and I think that there is at least one ghost in that building. 

Obviously, what I want my mom to say is something along the lines of, “Oh, don’t be a silly chicken.  Ghosts don’t exist.”  Instead, she looks at me and she looks me in the eye and she says, “Well, of course there are ghosts there.  I can see them in your eyes and I can feel the darkness lingering on you.”  I love my mom. 

Then she goes on and she asks me if the ghosts have ever spoken to me but, disappointingly, the ghosts never spoke to me.  And if they did, I could not hear them.  So that part of the heritage seems to have passed me by in a Mendelian freak accident, just like those beautiful hair. 

The other thing that seems to have skipped me are the artsy ambitions because my ambitions growing up had very little to do with wanting to be an artist.  Instead, in no particular order, what I wanted to do was to be an electrician or a Sputnik engineering or Kurt Cobain in a wedding dress, or a gardener, or maybe Indiana Jones. 

At this point in time, my family tended to look at me with this air of mild confusion like they were trying to figure out how did we go so wrong with this one?  But, at the time, I was also playing the piano and dancing like there was no tomorrow so they thought, “So maybe she’ll be fine.  She’ll be fine just like the rest of us.”  Anyway, they kept hoping. 

Then, as a teenager, when I came out to them as queer, it didn’t raise a single eyebrow.  However, my continued disinterest in the beautiful arts, that did.  It raised all of the eyebrows.  And they thought that, yeah, the latter is clearly just a phase.  It’s going to stop at some point.  It did not. 

Then one day I sat my family down and I told them that I really, really needed to speak to them.  They said, “Well, at least you can’t be pregnant.”  At this point, my cousin, one of my cousins, the illustrator-to-be, jumps in and sayd, “This is deeply, deeply inappropriate.” At this point we dispense with the pleasantries and I tell my family immediately that I am, one, going to go to university and, two, study a life science. 

There is silence at the dinner table.  My family, they just look at me and they stare at me.  I think that maybe I have made a mistake here.  But also I was expecting a little bit of discontent because nobody likes to be surprised like that, right?  But I think that mainly their worries are going to be about how am I going to cope juggling university even if it’s free in continental Europe, and a job, because they certainly can’t support me on their meager artist’s income. 

I also think that maybe, maybe they are going to miss me just a tiny little bit because I had certainly missed them each time I had been off abroad stranded in a different country full of strange people. 

But nothing could have prepared me for the outcry.  “University!”  My family exclaimed in almost perfect unison.  And those 12 pairs of dark brown eyes, they stared at me and I felt like I had stepped in front of a tribunal of Greek deities that were going to judge me and then sentence me to punishment to be meted out by the liver-pecking beak of a white-tailed eagle. 

So they look at me and they ask me, “Have you thought about this?”  And they ask me, “Well, but this science thing that you speak about it’s going to be more like a hobby, isn’t it?”  Seriously. 

Then they advised me to also study a creative subject on the side just to keep my options open.  Then they talk for a little bit among themselves and then they come to the conclusion that science could also be really, really dangerous.  Something large might eat me.  Something small might infect and then slowly kill me.  I might turn green and start to glow in the dark. 

At this point, I retort, “That actually sounds kind of fun because if I turn green maybe I can start to photosynthesize.”  Anyways, did they know that blood and chlorophyll have pretty much the same molecule?  They did not know that. 

And there's another silence.  Then my dad, he looks at me and he says, “Oh, sweetie, I know what it is.  There's a girl involved, isn’t there?  This is for love.” 

And I think that maybe love would be the only acceptable reason for such treachery, but I tell them that this is not for some kind of stupid reason like romance.  I tell them that, instead, I want to explore and provide unbiased advice on how to make the world a better place. 

At this point, my grandmother, the graphic designer, she looks at me like I've lost it, and she says, “Well, but beautiful arts make the world a better place.” 

And my other grandmother, the seamstress, she pats her lovely red dress and her golden earrings and her bracelets and I can tell from the look on her face that, for once, both of my grandmothers are actually agreeing on something. 

And my mother, of all of them, had been the most aggravated by the course of events.  She goes to her drawing board and I can hear her grieving and ululating about it how her most musical one, her little dancer not only a convicted devourer of science fiction now also a scientist.  The heavens forbid. 

Then she says, “I have to consult the stone angel that guards the calvaire cemetery,” and anybody who’s not from countryside Belgium, a calvaire is a series of caves that have really gory depictions of martyrdom and suffering. 

So she goes there and then consults the angel.  She comes back and she smells faintly of frankincense and supports this little half smile on her face and she says, “Well, actually, it’s all fine.  Science and art they are not so different from each other.” 

And because we are a tightly knit matriarchy/benign dictatorship, the matter is kind of decided with that.  Or could have been decided with that because I am, at that point, a teenager.  And I am the most insufferable, smug kind of teenager and I’m not having a word of this peace offering. 

Elisa Schaum tells her story at the Ecological Society of America's annual meeting. Photo by Stuart Pollock.

Elisa Schaum tells her story at the Ecological Society of America's annual meeting. Photo by Stuart Pollock.

So it takes years.  I set off and I do science, but in spite of everything that first dance school and the university have taught me, I’m clearly not as fast on the uptake and it takes years and years to lose this fight. 

So what I do is I kept in touch with my friends from dance school and from music.  Sometimes we have these ill-advised late night phone calls whilst they are icing their aching limbs, I suppose and I am sad in the dark, alone in the lab with nothing but my bioluminescent samples for company.  To them I compared trajectories. 

What they say is that they think that I am lucky.  I am lucky because I escaped the scholarship maelstrom.  I don't have to apply for scholarships every half year anymore or find a different job every couple of years.  They say I’m lucky that my workplace doesn’t make me feel like I’m worthless and an impostor.  They say I’m lucky that at least my workplace doesn’t encourage people to turn into depressed, strung-out alcoholics. 

I am a middle child.  I like to compromise.  I like to keep the peace so I don’t say anything then.  But I can’t help to think that all of this sounds eerily familiar.  I think about the daily failures and the many rejections and the many disappointments.  I think about the blatant sexism and the racism and the transphobians’ backstabbing and the dubious morals.  And I think about how, most days, I do feel like I am an impostor. 

But I also think about how, funnily enough, most research would kind of resemble the backstage of the theater, the latest one that I have booked and featuring, among other things, a discarded speed boat, blue and black screen foil, various skeletons and some person in the corner close to tears from pain or exhaustion or frustration. 

But I also think that both science and art are, at the heart, creative processes that are often spread on by a sense of wonder about the world and by curiosity and by persistence and by wanting to go and look at that world and then wanting to tell others about how it’s so strange and so beautiful. 

So my family are going to be pleased to a degree, or would be pleased to Facebook in English to hear that there is still creativity in my life even if these days it mainly involves convincing the funding bodies about how the slimy green things that I really like are as much worth of being funded as the fluffy things that have wings. 

Also, another thing, my family never needed to have worried about how a large thing might eat me because I study microbes now.  I look at microscopically small forests for a living and I look at how their reactions to climate change are going to affect the many ways in which this world could end.  My lab is a very happy place. 

I have had exactly two encounters with large things since.  One of them being on a boat in South Africa.  There was this giant white shark, great white shark as what they're called, and it jumped and it missed the water, hit the boat instead and it looked at us and we looked at the shark.  The feeling of “you really don’t belong here” was kind of mutual.  Then the shark slithered back into the water that it came from and we slithered back to the shore that we came from and that was it. 

The other encounter with an organism made up from more than one cell was trying to run away from a giant boa in the beautiful Dorset countryside as I was trying to take water samples.  I was also on the phone at that point in time to my colleagues back in Cornwall trying to convince them that this field trip was going absolutely splendidly. 

So maybe I should learn to channel my creativity to learn how to deal with displaced but charismatic macrofauna.  Thank you.