Alumni Essay

I was thrilled to receive a copy of this essay from one of my club alumni. He used it as part of his college application process to U.C. Berkeley, where he now attends. He gave me permission to share it here.

It is impossible for me to point to one experience and say it was my overarching turning point from childhood to maturity. There have been too many factors, people, events, challenges, and thoughts involved—all creating a series of small leaps in maturity, instead of one epic shift. However, if I had to pick one experience that had a profound effect on my views of the world, I could say my life was changed by ATOMS.

Adventures Through Open Minds Science, that is, a science group I joined in the fifth grade. It was deemed a “specialized science class” but to me it was just the best part of the week. Every Monday afternoon at 4 o’clock, twenty of us would careen into the living room of a club member, sounding and behaving like an unruly flock of geese. But as we were seated, a voice would whip into the air, first silencing our mouths and then igniting our minds.

“And if carbon has six protons, how many electrons does it have?” She kept her voice level, but with each question her passion for science was too clear to be missed. “Good good!” she exclaimed, her eyebrows flying up. A piece of candy whistled past my ear to be caught by my friend Kevin, who had answered the question correctly. Years later, he would admit that he only answered questions for the candy.

One woman, with energy as abundant as that of the atomic elements she was describing, captured my heart and my mind. Leslie was short, with long gray hair that framed a face full of life. Every week, her tiny car with the “ATOMS” license plate would pull up, spilling candy and science worksheets out the back, like a trail of breadcrumbs leading to the last living room that she had filled with inspiration. She would explain and demonstrate a new concept each week—unthinkable before that day—in an eccentric style that was always memorable, if not always easy to understand.

Looking back, I realize that although there was incentive, I instead started answering the questions for the sake of the knowledge, over time foregoing the sugar completely. Learning about science was not something I participated in, it was something I cherished. I can still feel the anticipation, waiting for the third meeting of every month, when we got to build our own atoms. This activity was undoubtedly my favorite; using a plastic tray and red, blue, and yellow marbles as protons, neutrons, and electrons, I could create my own elements. I loved the whole process, starting with an empty plastic scaffold and rolling the smooth marbles through my fingers until I had filled up subshells and built something of which I could be proud. Only much later would I realize that a passion for building complex ideas, creating new objects, and making discoveries was an important part of growing up, and still continues to shape who I am.

Using nothing more than her knowledge, a few models, and endless enthusiasm, Leslie gave me a direction to travel with my questions and energy. Her ATOMS class helped me to mature by introducing me to a world I could understand and build upon. And so while other experiences—both painful and wonderful—contributed to the more mature person that I am today, I will always carry Leslie‘s words and her ATOMS class with me. I will always want to understand. I will always want to create things I can take pride in. And I will always want to return the gift a great teacher gave to me.

—Liam Berryman