Plan B: Stories about people needing a backup plan

This week we bring you two stories of people who had to reckon with the fact that their first choice wasn’t available.

Part 1: When the local science museum looks to hire performers, David Nett believes he's the perfect man for the job.

David Nett has spent over 20 years in Los Angeles writing, producing, and acting in TV, film, and theater. Currently, he’s the writer for Geek & Sundry’s "Starter Kit,” the VP of Entertainment Development for ArcMedia, co-owner of Hero’s Journey Fitness with his wife, Christy, and the Dungeon Master for two ongoing Dungeons & Dragons campaigns, one that he’s been running since 1987. He wants to thank his parents, who did not utter a single angry word (to his face) when he left his academic scholarships behind to study acting.

Part 2: After finding out her uterus never developed, scientist Chivonne Battle searches for an alternative way to become a mother.

Chivonne Battle is a VT graduate student with a B.S. in Material Science & Engineering (VT, ’05), ultimately in pursuit of a Planning, Governance, & Globalization Ph.D. Her career is based in engineering, however, growing up unexposed and embedded in the cyclic behaviors resulting from poverty, lives in her heart. Chivonne’s life changed when she connected her background to the social engineering world, in hopes of tackling the physiological and psychological impact of socio-economic despair. On this team, she seeks and unveils truth in working with communities/local governments with infrastructural concerns; while journeying on to reverse the effects of poverty.


Episode Transcript

Part 1: David Nett

I’m sitting in the theater at the Science Museum of Minnesota in downtown St. Paul.  There are nine of us in the auditorium, one on stage, eight in the audience.  Those of us in the audience, five of us are applauding politely and three of us are sitting at a table near the stage writing.  Those three work for the museum.  They're the directors of the Science Live Program. 

The other six of us are here auditioning for what 23-year-old David believes is the perfect job.  The position in the Science Live performance team giving sketches and experiments throughout the museum for the kingly salary of $18,000 a year.  Think of that.  18,000 dollars.

We’re sitting in the auditorium watching each other audition.  The woman on stage has just finished.  She's about my age and she taught us a children’s song.  It was fine.  It had nothing to do with science.  But she's smiling and we’re applauding and I’m feeling a little bit bad because I know her smile is about to fade because I’m up next and I’m about to bring the fucking house down. 

Someone calls my name.  I stand.  I straighten my lab coat.  That’s right.  I've got a real-life lab coat.  I grab my box full of flasks and pipettes and I stride confidently toward that stage. 

Now, why am I so confident in this moment?  Well, it’s not just the stupid confidence of a middle-class, college-educated, 23-year-old white man.  Not just that.  You see, I know something that these five poor saps don’t know.  Not only am I an actor but, unlike the rest of them, I am almost a scientist.  See, my dad is a scientist.  He's a chemist.  My brother is also a chemist, at least by training, and though my degree is in acting, when I started college I was pretty convinced I was going to be the next Richard Feynman. 

If you don’t know Feynman, he's a very famous physicist.  He's a Nobel Prize winner, among the youngest members of the Manhattan Project, a distinguished professor.  He was also a great writer.  He was great at taking in really complex scientific ideas and distilling them down to layman’s terms in a series of really wonderful books, some of them very funny.  He's also a brilliant performer.  His lectures attracted huge crowds of scientists and non-scientists and everybody always hung on his every word.  I wanted to be him very badly. 

So I got scholarships at the local university for both Physics and English, and I decided to take some theater classes as well so I could cover all of the bases and I was on my way.  However, as my math and science classes got more difficult, I discovered that I might not be as smart as I thought I was.  By my third year of school, I was struggling with my high-end science classes and maintaining the GPA that my scholarship required was not as effortless as it had been when I was young.  I slowly began to realize that I may not in fact be a genius. 

David Nett shares his story on the Story Collider stage at Lyric Hyperion in Los Angeles in February 2019. Photo by Mari Provencher.

David Nett shares his story on the Story Collider stage at Lyric Hyperion in Los Angeles in February 2019. Photo by Mari Provencher.

This was a great blow.  Who could have known that graduating second in a class of 42 in a tiny town of 900 people in the North Dakota prairie might not make you an actual genius?  A lot of people probably, some of them geniuses but, unfortunately, not me. 

Fortunately, I had a backup plan.  My first couple of years of school I had a developed a great love for the theater so my backup plan was this.  I was going to leave behind my three years of English and Physics education, ditch my scholarships, change schools, take out loans, cram a BFA in Acting into two years and become a famous actor.  It was the kind of plan whose idiotic simplicity could have only come from a 20-year-old brain. 

My parents, with their loving support, and my girlfriend who just, by coincidence, happened to be an acting student at the new school, agreed that it was a great plan and so I was on my way. 

So here I was three years later, one year shy of a BA in English, one semester shy of a BA in Physics, one disputed transfer class short of a BFA in Acting, three professional plays and a local commercial under my belt.  I was ready for this. 

As I mounted that stage, my gear in hand, I was supremely confident that I was easily the most qualified person in this room, perhaps in the entire Greater Minneapolis, St. Paul area to be part of the Minnesota Science Museum Science Live Program.  I begin to unload my gear and set up my experiments.  I took my time.  Both science and the theater reward patience. 

I set up my table.  I place three large Erlenmeyer flasks full of colored liquid side by side on the table.  I produced three pipettes of descending diameter and placed them beside each flask, one, two, three, just so.  And I began my demonstration of the capillary effect. 

It was the perfect science demonstration.  It was colorful, it was fun, it was simple to learn and to teach.  It was so simple, in fact, that I had barely had to rehearse at all.  I started talking about the basics: surface tension, cohesion versus adhesion, and suddenly I realized that this is taking a lot longer than I thought that it was going to.  I only had five minutes for the entire demonstration and I had no idea how much time I had spent on this introduction. 

So, okay, we’ll pivot to the flasks.  We point out the three flasks.  Good.  They look cool.  Everybody seems impressed.  I talk about the pipettes a little bit.  Then I realized that while I had practiced inserting the pipettes into each flask and watching the liquid rise to different levels, I hadn’t actually planned anything to say while I was doing this. 

It’s okay.  I'll roll with that.  Those Improv classes that I hated because they were a waste of time when I could have been studying the Bard or the great American playwrights will finally come in handy for once. 

David Nett shares his story on the Story Collider stage at Lyric Hyperion in Los Angeles in February 2019. Photo by Mari Provencher.

David Nett shares his story on the Story Collider stage at Lyric Hyperion in Los Angeles in February 2019. Photo by Mari Provencher.

Deep breath.  Yes, and we've got this. 

And I did have it.  I finish the demonstration.  It was pretty great.  I got a little chuckle at the end, which I have no idea what I said to deserve it because I hadn’t actually planned an ending.  Then I finished up by wrapping it all together by saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, that is the capillary effect in action.” 

Light applause from the audience.  It was okay.  I hadn’t really expected more.  They were my competition after all and I had just dropped this science bomb on them.  So I gather my things and I leave the stage.

The next person that comes up on stage is an actor about ten years older than me.  I'd seen him in a couple of plays around town.  He was a good actor.  Then he gets to the stage and he tells us he's going to tell a story but that he needs our help.  So he assigns us each a word that when he stomps or claps or points or whatever we’re supposed to shout out that word.  It’s super corny.  I roll my eyes a whole bunch. 

And he starts to tell his story.  It’s about bunnies.  Not about science in any way just like the first person, but I play along.  When he points to me I shout my word just loud enough to be polite.  But, to my surprise, my competition in the audience are really getting into it.  They're yelling out their word, they’re laughing at his story.  Even the panel up front seems to be really engaged.  He brings this story to this raucous conclusion and everyone hollers and claps and shouts and I was just looking around dumbfounded. 

He leaves the stage.  The next guy that gets up there he teaches us a dance and he's super broad.  He's like a clown.  I can’t understand what’s happening but my competition is like up and dancing in the aisles and laughing and playing along.  I’m looking around at all of them just completely unsure about what’s going on in this room. 

He leaves the stage and the third person after me goes up and it’s a woman I recognize from the children’s theater in town.  It’s more interaction and it’s more laughter and it’s more applause from the audience but not a single drop of science.  Like what are you people doing?  Don’t you know this job is about science? 

By the time the last person takes the stage I've calmed myself.  Of course this is what these people are doing.  They're actors.  They're overcompensating because they don’t know science.  I do.  This is still my job for the taking. 

When we’re all finished, the staff take the stage and the woman who’s in charge she thanks us for coming out on a weekday and she says, “This was so much fun.  You were all so great.  We had so much fun.  And that’s the most important thing in this job.” 

Then she looks directly at me and she says, “Oh, and we learned a little bit too.” 

It was in that moment that I realized I had been completely outmatched.  I had misunderstood the assignment completely.  It didn’t matter how high my test scores were or what I had studied in school or how many times I had read Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!  My job had been to come into this room and to delight the small audience by teaching them something, anything.  If I'd gotten the job, the museum would have provided the science.  I had come and brought to this audition a brand new lab coat and a five-minute, disjointed, middle-school science lecture.  The others had brought joy. 

I didn’t get the job.  And I wish I could tell you that it was the last time I was overconfident for audition that I was woefully unprepared for but it wasn’t.  It took me a long time to learn how to prepare to bring joy into that room.  I still often fail, but I always try. 

Interestingly, when I was doing research on the Science Museum of Minnesota to make sure that I got the names and things right for this story, I learned that the current director of the Science Live Program is actually an old college friend of mine.  I couldn’t help thinking that if I reached out to her I might be able to get an audition.  After more than 20 years, that sweet, $18,000-a-year perfect job might finally be mine, because I know what to do this time.  I know to bring joy.  Thank you.


Part 2: Chivonne Battle

“I’m almost finished.  I’m almost finished.  I have to get my homework done.”  I was racing the sun.  I was racing the descent into darkness.  You see, where I grew up, electricity, food to eat, clean water much less water in itself that was a privilege. 

I want you to take a journey with me.  Everybody in the room close your eyes.  I want you to hear what the descent into darkness sounds like.  Fighting.  “You stole my wallet.” 

Gunshots.  Pow-pow-pow-pow-pow. 

Zombies searching for their next fix anywhere they can find it.  Trashcans.  “Get out of my yard!” 

The sound of my heartbeat beating, waiting anxiously, watching every car turn onto my court hoping that that car was the car that was bringing my mother home. 

The sound of three kids laying in the bed together, me, being the oldest, nine years old, my baby sister next to me whining out of discomfort, my brother, gasping for air with his little baby asthmatic lungs. 

The sound of emptiness as I would have silent tears praying and crying myself to sleep at night, still hungry. 

That’s the sound of poverty.  Why me?  That was the sound of poverty. 

I want you to open your eyes now because even at nine years old I knew that there was another day, I knew that the sun would rise, I knew that there was school, a place where I could get two meals at least.  But school was my rabbit’s foot.  School was my everything because even though I could not control my environment around me, I knew I could control, just like those two meals, what I fed my mind. 

So I worked hard at it.  I worked really hard.  I was a stellar student.  I was the shyest kid.  I’m still shy, believe it or not.  And I would raise my hand.  I would speak up because I didn’t want to be left behind.  It’s not just that I didn’t want to be left behind but I wanted to pull those that were left behind up and I knew that this was my ticket to do it. 

So I worked hard all the way to my senior year and I said, “You know what?  Journalism, law, psychology, yes.” William & Mary accepted me.  I am on my way.  I can change someone’s life.  I can make sure a kid does not have a life like me. 

Chivonne Battle shares her story with us at a show sponsored by Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA in March 2019. Photo by Courtney Tolley.

Chivonne Battle shares her story with us at a show sponsored by Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA in March 2019. Photo by Courtney Tolley.

And that was until I went to the doctor.  You see, just like not having clean water or maybe food in the refrigerator, going to the hospital was only if you were close to dying or something was dying or you were dead.  So with that being said, my first woman checkup was when I was 17 years old, a senior in high school.  And I'll never forget that day because maybe going to the hospital for something dying it was telling of my journey. 

So the doctor comes in and he says, “Chivonne,” and I say yes.  He said, “Your uterus never developed.” 

“My uterus never developed?  What does that mean?  How can this be possible?  What is going on?  How is this possible, God?  What does that mean?  I can’t have children?  I love children.  I want to save children.  I want to make sure children didn’t have a life like me.  How is this possible?  How am I going to make a change?” 

My family, the discomfort, the disbelief and then the pity.  And my mother, my mother who was a kid when she had me, just every time she looked at me would swell up with tears.  It was like they felt what I felt.  But how could they feel what I felt?  I was the one that had something die inside of me before it even had a chance to live. 

But again, I knew the sun would come up.  If there was nothing else I learned from not having anything that was resourcefulness.  That was resiliency.  That was me asking, “What am I supposed to do with this?  There has to be more.” 

So I said, “Okay, doc, okay, family, okay, ma, I don’t have a uterus.  Okay, God.  I know what you want me to do.  You want me to create one.” 

Yes, I said it.  “You want me to create an artificial uterus.  I can do that.  No problem.” 

So I went to Virginia Tech.  I studied material science engineering, long, I guess.  I studied material science engineering with a biomed concentration and I was going to make that artificial uterus.  Only, I didn’t.  Thank goodness I picked up some skills along the way. 

So with those skills I went on to work as an engineer but there was still something pulling inside of me.  That little nine-year-old girl that wanted to change lives, I couldn’t feel that instant impact.  So I said I'd cheat a little.  I'll become a teacher.  I'll have a classroom full of kids. 

So I became a math and science teacher and I did that for a while but there was still something pulling at me.  It wasn’t enough.  God wasn’t finished with me.  That’s when he introduced me to my two little boys at four and six.  They were left at a Greyhound Bus Station in Richmond, Virginia. 

So I said, “Wow, you weren’t finished with me.  You gave me the pretest with the classroom and seeing if I was okay with kids, which I was all right.  Then you gave me a real test.  You did something bigger.  I didn’t have a uterus but you made me a mommy.” 

Initially, it was like, “Wow.  Okay, I got this.”  But I need to go back to engineering because, on a teacher’s salary, I can eat ravioli and cereal but I’m like I need to feed them some vegetables or something. 

So I went back into engineering but there was still something pulling at me.  I prayed about it and I talked to God and I’m like, “What I’m doing I’m changing lives.”

But that wasn’t it.  It wasn’t me changing those kids’ lives.  They changed my life.  They showed me what it meant to be a mother.  This was the real test.  God wanted to see if I could love any child, even a child that didn’t have my dimples or my laugh, even a child that would eventually become a teenager.  I have two of them now, those two boys.  I don't know if I like them.  I love them but he wanted to see if I could love any child.

And so I could but it still wasn’t enough.  I knew this and that’s when I had a chance encounter.  I was on an elevator running to a meeting and I happened to meet Dr. Mark Edwards.  He said four words to me that really let me know I wasn’t where I was supposed to be at that moment.  He said, “You will change the world.”  Five words, I’m sorry. 

Chivonne Battle shares her story with us at a show sponsored by Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA in March 2019. Photo by Courtney Tolley.

Chivonne Battle shares her story with us at a show sponsored by Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA in March 2019. Photo by Courtney Tolley.

“You will change the world.”  And it stuck with me.  Basically he said, “I'd like for you to start in Chicago.” 

If you don’t know what’s going on in Chicago, they lead the nation in med service lines but they also lead the nation in lead-poisoned children.  This was it.  This was a way for me to use my engineering degree to tap into that nine-year-old girl that knew what it was like to be the most vulnerable and to try and give back in some way.  This was my way to love any child.  This was God kind of playing games with me at that point.  He didn’t give me a uterus.  He didn’t give me the capacity to create an artificial uterus, but you gave me this huge universal uterus.  You gave me the ability to love any child, the ability to love a child that I did not give life to.  There was nothing bigger than that.  You made me a mom to seven billion, not just two. 

So this changed the course of my life.  I knew this was my opportunity.  This was my opportunity to actually allow kids that grew up like me to understand and connect with those words, “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” something I wasn’t privy to.  I didn’t know what that meant. 

Liberty?  Liberty was determined to me by where I could get my food.  Liberty is about unchaining the mind.  I didn’t get that at nine years old, hungry. 

And life?  Life was really the well of liberty and happiness together that everyone should be able to sip from.  Everyone should be able to have clean water.  Everyone should be able to sip from that life. 

So this was my opportunity to tackle Chicago, to tackle other places in the nation, to make sure that kids that grew up like me didn’t ignore hospital visits, understood what it meant to have lead in your water and what that exposure could do.  This was my opportunity to be a mother not just to my two boys but to every child, young and old, in the world.  This was my opportunity to allow children that grew up like me to sip from that well.  This was my opportunity to prevent anyone else from descending into darkness.