Older and Wiser: Stories about growing up

This week we present two stories of the children we used to be and how they grew up.

Part 1: As a sixth grader, Anna Neu decides she's going to fall in love at science camp.

Anna Neu has several interests including improv, sketch comedy and voiceover work. She is a trained dancer and Michael Howard Studio Conservatory taught actor. She performs at the Magnet Theater on weekends in shows such as The Armando Diaz Experience and has been on several house teams there. Her voice can be heard on a handful of episodes of The Truth Podcast. Also a Moth Story Slam winner.

Part 2: At age nine, Anicca Harriot plans to study both the heart and space, but as she gets older, that plan becomes more challenging than she expected.

Anicca Harriot is currently working on her PhD in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Her research focuses on mechanotransduction – the science of how mechanical stresses and physical forces, like gravity, affect cell signaling and function. Anicca plans to use her degree to explore the effects of long duration space missions on the human body and hopes to someday venture out into the final frontier for herself. Anicca is also the Social Media Coordinator & LGBTQ+ Engagement Specialist for #VanguardSTEM: Conversations for Women of Color in STEM, a non-profit dedicated to lifting the voices of women and non-binary people of color in STEM. In her free time Anicca volunteers with #Popscope, “popping up” with a telescope around Baltimore to promote public astronomy and encourage curiosity.


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Anna Neu

In sixth grade at Gilbert H. Hood Middle School in Derry, New Hampshire, we were told that we were going to go on this week-long, overnight camp trip to Ferry Beach Science Camp.  We’ll learn about the stars and the tides and the forest and have these amazing science teachers and also get to see our classmates outside of school.

But what I was most excited about was falling in love because I was told, by some friends of mine who are older, that this camp was a special, magical place where kids found their soul mates.  So I went into this with high expectations.

The reason why I wanted so badly to fall in love, I think, is because I would watch so many romantic movies with my mom at a young age.  We watched Notting Hill and Sense and Sensibility and a lot of Nora Ephron flicks, and I would just watch my mom cry as she watched these movies.  I was like, “Oh, this must be important. I need this.”

Since this was a special camp and I didn’t know when this opportunity would come around again after sixth grade, I had to do this now.  

And I wasn’t particularly good with boys, especially boys that I liked.  I was kind of like violent. There were boys on the playground who would call me Anna Banana, like, “Hey, Anna Banana.”  It was probably flirting but I would chase them and I would then throw them into tire swings.

One day, there was this boy who said it and I just got so angry I chased him and I threw him into a tire pyramid.  He bumped his head so hard that he had this enormous welt on his head and had to go to the nurse’s office and I had to go to the vice principal, which was way scarier than going to the principal because our principal looked like Santa Claus and only talked to the good kids so I knew I had done something wrong.  Then I also had to call his parents to apologize.

After that, my desire to chase kind of dwindled then I became much more introverted and shy around boys that I liked and, thus, I was invisible.  

But the kind of boy I liked was this boy named Nick in my Creative Writing class.  He was really smart and witty and cute and he was a little chubby and he was like a little pocket-sized Zach Galifianakis and he didn’t notice me at all.  The kind of boy that noticed me was a boy, a tuba-player named Brandon.

Anna Neu shares her story with the Story Collider audience at Caveat in New York City in August 2018. Photo by Zhen Qin.

Anna Neu shares her story with the Story Collider audience at Caveat in New York City in August 2018. Photo by Zhen Qin.

See, I played the bass guitar in marching band, which makes no sense.  I was kind of put in the side corner in front of the brass section and those boys would tease me and they would empty their spit valves on my head all the time.  Brandon was the worst of them. So I knew who I liked and I knew who I didn’t like, and what I needed was for this camp to bring me to the person that I liked, to build up my confidence and just to allow this magical thing to happen.  

So the week comes.  I’m very excited. I pack my favorite outfit, which is this Mighty Mouse sweatshirt and my brother’s large cargo shorts, because I was like a little skater girl.  I got to board with my best friend and the week kicks off. We’re learning about the tides, we’re catching fireflies and we’re making s’mores while learning about the stars.  

During lunch hours, we would sing these little science songs, one of which I remember was, “Predators and prey, producers and decay are in the food chain, chain-chain”.  It’s catchy.

And also these rumors were coming true.  I was seeing all around me my friends falling in love.  They were pairing off and running off to hold hands or kissing when the teachers weren’t looking.  I was extremely jealous because this wasn’t happening for me. And Nick was nowhere to be found. I’m not sure if he even ended up coming.  He wasn’t in my group.

But then a boy did come up to me and talk to me.  He asked if he could sit with me and he asked if he could have lunch with me, and it was Brandon the tuba player.  I didn’t want to talk to him but, I don't know. Maybe in the science camp light he looked a little different. Maybe.  I don't know. That joke he just made I normally wouldn’t find funny but, ha. Maybe.

Then I thought to myself, “I can’t deny this.  Maybe this is what the camp is telling me to do.  I’m supposed to fall in love with Brandon? Maybe.”  

This is like a force of nature that I can’t control and I should just go with it, I guess.  I always assumed that it would be someone else but you can be proven wrong. So the rest of the week just turned out to be this rom-com montage where we run down the beach together and he’d carry me on his shoulders and he'd run until he fell, because I was much heavier than him.  

Some of his friends would tease him about liking me because I was a nerd.  They said some pretty mean things and his response was like, “Well, I’m still going to hang out with her.”

Okay.  He kind of defended me.  All right. Then the last day he came up to me and he had this perfect little shell.  He handed it to me and he asked me if I wanted to be his girlfriend, and I said, “Yeah.  Okay.”

I left the camp thinking, “Well, this isn’t exactly what I thought it was going to be, but I’m falling in love and this is great.  And I have a boyfriend. I have to go tell my best friend Monica.” She was my neighbor across the street. She was a year older and wiser so I thought, “Okay.  I’m going to go show off my new boyfriend.”

I go there.  She's eating up all these details but then she wants me to call him.  She wants to see what he sounds like.

Anna Neu shares her story with the Story Collider audience at Caveat in New York City in August 2018. Photo by Zhen Qin.

Anna Neu shares her story with the Story Collider audience at Caveat in New York City in August 2018. Photo by Zhen Qin.

I’m nervous because I've never called a boy before, and I’m nervous because I’m calling Brandon.  He picks up. It’s a little awkward, but then we start talking about our memories from camp.

Then he says, “You know, I’m real excited about this because I've wanted this for a really long time.  That’s why I'd been flirting with you in band. There's just this little thing that I forgot to mention to you.  Here’s the thing. So I have a girlfriend at home but, you know, so what’s just going to happen is I just need like two weeks and then I'll break up with her, but then like it’s got to be a secret and then I need like a little bit of buffer time because I can’t go from girlfriend to girlfriend.  But then after that, we’re good.”

Then I remembered I don’t like Brandon.  

The next day I go to school and I see him at his desk.  I walked up to him slowly. I looked him right in the eyes.  I took the single shell out of my pocket and I put it right in the center of his desk.  He dropped his head to the table and covered his face with his hands. I didn’t have to say anything else.  He knew.

Then everything went back to normal and he continued to tease me in band.  And I continued to have a crush on Nick and he never noticed. Then I went back to watching romantic movies with my mom, only now, I had just come out the other side of my first breakup so I was a new woman.  A wiser woman.

So when I would watch these movies I would enjoy them, yes, but I also had a very discerning eye.  I watched Sleepless in Seattle and I thought to myself, “Oh, no.  Meg Ryan, what are you doing? Yes, you might have just met Tom Hanks at the end of this movie but do you really know who he is?  You only know of him from a radio show and a letter. Over time, you may discover that he's a tuba player named Brandon.”

Thank you.


Part 2: Anicca Harriot

It’s Saturday morning and I’m seating at the back seat of my parents’ car reading.  I’m nine years old and I’m not allowed to leave home without a book. This time, I've chosen a book about a neurosurgeon.  As I’m reading, an idea comes over me.

So I close my book and I get my parents’ attention.  My dad adjusts the rearview mirror so that he can look right into my eyes, which is one of his favorite moves during car conversations.  Seems like all of my most important conversations with my parents take place in the car and I like to think that they choose these moments to impart their wisdom because I’m trapped.  We’re in a moving vehicle, there's nowhere I can go.

I remember, I’m looking up at my dad through my purple-wire frame glasses and I tell my parents that I've decided, when I grow up, I’m going to become an astronaut and a pediatric cardiovascular surgeon.  In those exact words.

By the age of nine, I've already had plenty of career changes from journalist to writer, news anchor and chemist, but these all came with the full support of my parents.  In fact, I fell asleep every night looking up at the laminated definition of ‘passion’ they had taped to the ceiling so that it was the last thing that I saw every night before I went to sleep and the first thing I saw every morning.  

They had even already purchased me my very first microscope.  And my dad would bring me samples, sometimes human, to look at under the lens.  So when I tell them about my new career choice, my parents are pretty unsurprised.  And my dad, looking at me through the rearview mirror, says, “I think you can do that.  Maybe you can grow up to study the heart in space.”

And I look back at my dad and I think to myself, “That sounds fake.”  Even though in that moment I didn’t really believe my dad’s insight that I could combine my passion for medicine with my love for space travel, it still sparked something in me and, from that age, I immersed myself in biology wherever I could.  I would go science fairs, magnet school programs, anything that I could get my hands on. I would even fill out the forms myself and bring them to my parents completed for signature check. I knew from that conversation that, whatever I did, I was going to grow up to be a cardiologist.  

Anicca Harriot shares her story with the Story Collider audience at Bier Baron Tavern in Washington, DC in August 2018. Photo by Lauren Lipuma.

Anicca Harriot shares her story with the Story Collider audience at Bier Baron Tavern in Washington, DC in August 2018. Photo by Lauren Lipuma.

So I dove into science and I was absolutely thriving.  Even though becoming a cardiologist wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be when I was nine years old, I loved every second of it.  The only thing I love more than doing the science was talking about it, whether it was the experiments I was doing, the books that I was reading, the robots that I could build, no one could keep me quiet about it.  

I was around 15 years old when I started to notice something about the people around me.  They didn’t really look like me. In my magnet program for STEM in high school, I could count on one hand the number of black students there were in all four years.  My classmates joked that I was like an Oreo, black on the outside but so smart, outgoing, put-together I had to be white on the inside.

Adults told me that I was very well-spoken and, for a black girl, didn’t have to be said to be understood.  I didn’t feel any different from the people around me but they kept telling me that I was. That was the first time that I realized that there were people who didn’t think that I'd grew up to study the heart in space not because they didn’t think it was real, like I had, simply because of who I am.  

Telling people that I wanted to grow up to study the heart in space started to feel a lot like when a three-year-old tells you they're going to grow up to become president.  It’s real cute but pretty silly, so I stopped talking about it.

My priority shifted and, at 15, like many other 15-year-olds, I was more concerned with fitting in and being normal than I was with my science.  My parents noticed, especially when my grades started to fall. I'll never forget the car conversation we had after they picked up my report card and I failed Computer Science and just barely passed my other STEM classes because, that day, they did something they had never done before.  They pulled the car over. Yeah.

The conversation we had that day was, hands down, one of the hardest of my adolescence.  I don't talk to my parents about it to this day because the shame still weighs heavy on my chest.  But that day, halfway between home and my small town magnet school, sitting in a literal cornfield was the day that things started to change for me.  

I realized that I had to be able to get up every morning and look at the person in the mirror and know that she was worth it.  And I had to go to bed every night proud of the things that I had done that day. I had to be able to invest selfishly if I wanted to get to where I wanted to go because, if I didn’t invest in myself, no one else was going to.  I had to become the scientist and the person that I wanted to be.

Unfortunately, my high school failures derailed my dream of going to a prestigious college and so I watched many of my peers go off to Ivy Leagues while I went to a brand new science program at a small, practically-unheard-of university in Southern Virginia, but I was determined not to let my failures define my future.

Anicca Harriot shares her story with the Story Collider audience at Bier Baron Tavern in Washington, DC in August 2018. Photo by Lauren Lipuma.

Anicca Harriot shares her story with the Story Collider audience at Bier Baron Tavern in Washington, DC in August 2018. Photo by Lauren Lipuma.

So I’m 20 years old sitting in the passenger seat of my mom’s new SUV.  She's driving me home from my first day as an intern at NASA Langley. On our car ride home, I tell her about the livestream that I had watched the night before where astronaut and biochemist Kate Rubins was launched to the International Space Station and one of the experiments she’d be conducting while there was monitoring heart stem cells in space.  

I tell my mom about this mathematician I learned used to work right there at NASA Langley.  Her name was Katherine Johnson. She and plenty other black women were the ones who paved the way to get the first Americans to space.  

And I tell my mom that I've spent a lot of time hiding my dream of becoming an astronaut studying the heart in space but I was done because there were too many people who had paved the way for me to get to where I wanted to get.  I owed it to them, I owed it to my parents, I owed it to myself.

The next summer, I started my PhD in biochemistry with a new resolve.  I went lab to lab searching for an adviser and I would tell them that I wanted to study muscles in space.  They looked at me and they said, “That sounds fake.”

They wanted to know how I planned from getting from research conducted on campus to research conducted at least 250 miles above earth, and I didn’t know because I was the student.  

Things pretty much continued on that way until, one day, I sat in on a presentation by Dr. Chris Ward and he studies, in his words, “how forces affect muscle function”.  As I sat listening to him describe his research, I used a little bit of scientific insight that I had as a first year student to connect the dots between what he found in muscle and bone and what I knew happened to astronauts’ muscle and bone in space.  I thought that his research sounded a lot like what I wanted to do but in space.

So a few weeks later, I went to Dr. Ward’s office and I said to him, “I want to study muscles in space.”  

And he looked at me and I got a response a lot like what I'd heard 13 years prior.  He said, “I think you can do that.” Now, I do.