TOAD Talk: Identity as Light

Nicole Chung
Hello! My name is Nicole Chung.
My pronouns are. She/her/hers.
I am 22 years old.
My mother is white and my father is Korean.
My family lives right outside Boston in a predominantly white neighborhood.
And I have attended private schools my whole life.
How many times have any of you introduced yourself through labels like the ones I just mentioned?
How many places in life are we asked to declare who we are, but not color outside these narrow lines?
And how many times do we feel like those words – these identities – are enough to capture the full picture of who we are?
I don’t know about you, but to me, that answer is never.
I want to talk to you about identity today and some of my thoughts about it. I want to tell you some stories that brought me to being in this place here today as a teaching fellow, and some stories from my recent time at a conference that helped bring some of that to light.
But first, I need to talk to you about light.
One happy day in 1924, a scientist by the name of Louis de Broglie did some quantum calculations about light and the best way he knew how to translate his findings to the public was through the term “wave-particle duality.” This theory came from two key facts.
One, Albert Einstein had already found that light behaved like a particle – a ray of sunshine was like a beam of electrons, bouncing through your window in the morning.
And yet de Broglie found evidence that light was a wave – rippling through the medium of space, with a wavelength and amplitude just like the ocean.
This was a tremendous discovery in the world of chemistry because above all else, it was humbling, 这是令人困惑的. We found that yes, there are lights we can visualize in the world. We can jot down details about how much a particle weighs, 运动的多快, and how much space it takes up in a flask. It is knowable; it is measurable; it is predictable.
But at the end of the day, a wave is this other whole thing that we can’t pin down. We can’t bottle up the waves coming out of the radio because at the end of the day a wave is energy – it isn’t a physical thing.
Just last week, I got to travel to a conference called “SDLC/POCC” with students and colleagues. Now I got to go this conference myself as a student, where I stood side by side in a room full of kids from all over the country, from all different backgrounds. We shared stories, laughs, tears, dances, phone numbers over the course of four days in Atlanta, and going back to school with my friends to Boston, we were struck by how much we had learned about our identities and formed bonds over it.
So fast forward to the people of color conference, 5 years later. I’m thinking it’s going to be the same thing, more or less.
But this time around, as a young educator, I found myself in a place of some serious confusion. I found myself searching for some deeper meaning or truth; some validation or affirmation from people who looked and thought like me. I figured I would network with other science teachers who looked like me and talk about what it’s like to be a woman in STEM. I dreamed I would meet other Asian American women in education and compare notes, relishing in some shared experience.
Turns out, I didn’t really end up having many of these tick-box identity experiences. Instead, it was connections that built up my new identity as an educator, that ended up being the most affirming.
I felt the most seen with my best friend, who’s teaching English at a boys school in Massachusetts – a hard thing to do by the way.
I felt the most heard with my chemistry teacher, health teacher, history teacher and advisor from my own high school days, and hearing from them about why they’re still doing what they’re doing all these years later.
I felt the most touched when I bumped into my kindergarten teacher, who, much to my disbelief, still remembered my name – and my parents’ – all these years later.
So just like particles, those discrete labels that we use to engage with other people by our ethnicity or by our shared experience are only half the story;
what makes us who we are – and what made me feel the most myself - is the wave-like, messy, indefinite, energetic version of us that we can’t quite pin down.
The “educator” in me was the wave I felt called to learn more about: it’s the identity I still have a lot of questions about, the thing that isn’t strictly defined like “blue” or “cisgender” but is open and pulsing with possibility.
So, what did I actually learn about that messy, complicated thing that is being an educator?
Well, it’s true what they say - as a teacher, I am still a student. I am still always learning, I wake up every day to go to school, I do my homework to prepare for the next day, and I need a lot of snacks in between.
But this time around I’m trying to shake myself of those boxes, those identities that can often pigeonhole us into being just one thing or another. And the way I’m doing that is by a small mindset shift I learned a few years ago – surprise, surprise – in school.
At some point in college, when I had the luxury of taking many great classes that blew my mind, I started to get really, really curious about how this magical process of learning kept happening. I had the sense to know it started with passionate teachers who cared about who I was as a person. But what I wanted to know was: how did they decide what to put on their syllabus? Who did they have to consult with to decide what was important? How did they decide how hard to make the tests and what would be on them? And how did they make the classrooms equitable spaces, given that we were not all coming from the same high schools?
After a while, instead of focusing only on the content of the class, I shifted my attention to something else: I focused less on what the professor was teaching, and instead how they were teaching.
This opened my eyes not only to how they were creating this magic, but also to who my teachers were as people. I could start to sense when they were having an off day, or maybe didn’t prepare a lesson plan as much as they wanted to. I could sense when they had a lot of excitement about the topics we were learning– I could feel it in their voice, in their tone, in the number of exclamation points they threw on the white board and in the silences they let linger because they wanted us to process what just happened.
And overtime, I started to channel this “how” in my own life – not just when I was facilitating a consent workshop or teaching chemistry, but also when my friends were confiding in me. When I was asked to give advice. When I was interviewing for jobs. When I was graduating college and getting ready to move here.
Shifting my mindset from “what” I needed and wanted to be – a scientist, a woman, an athlete, an academic, a researcher, a student, a teacher, perfect – and instead how I wanted to approach the world – open-mindedly, gracefully, compassionately, honestly, sillily (and yes that is an adverb) – has always help ground my identity as a person; it has helped me feel the most “me.”
So, dear Thacher people:
Remember that light is a particle and a wave, and so are your identities.
Don’t neglect parts of yourself just because they’re those energetic webs that are indefinite, dynamic, and still hard to describe.
See people for all their good energy, and make sure to see it in yourself too. You’ll be surprised at the light you find when you do.

Nicole Chung joined Thacher this year as its newest Fisher Fellow, a two-year appointment where she will gain hands-on experience in the classroom coupled with the personal, expert mentorship that is critical to the growth of beginning teachers. She teaches Science at Thacher. 

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