Impossible Questions and Questioning the Impossible

By Emily Nicole Leonhardt (’06)

Wake Forest senior Emily Leonhardt '06.
Wake Forest senior Emily Leonhardt ’06.

Some of the best advice I have ever received came from my fifth-grade social studies teacher. Mrs. Hillman insisted that no matter how daunting a test question appeared, it was never impossible. She gave us a simple tip: when faced with a difficult problem, take a deep breath and think, “Oh, what an interesting question!”

To this day, my mother teases me with this line when I’m studying for a particularly difficult test. The method never worked miracles and it didn’t guarantee correct answers, but the lesson served me well over the years. Mrs. Hillman knew that no matter how much we studied, we wouldn’t always have the exact answer to every question. She trusted our ability to reason and encouraged us to rely on experience when memorization failed us.

If I recall, those fifth-grade history tests were not terribly difficult; but, by the time I began my second year of calculus, I was dealing with somevery interesting questions. I was consistently one of the last students to finish each test, stubbornly refusing to give up on tough problems. It often paid off and I’m proud of my accomplishments, but I have a nagging feeling that Mrs. Hillman wouldn’t want me to settle for academic perfectionism. That wasn’t her point.

Ironically, it’s easy to be a perfectionist at an institution like Wake Forest. It begins before college and by the time we are on the job hunt it is an art form. We perfected our high school resumes, ensuring that our applications listed X hours of community service, Y number of AP classes, Z leadership positions and, of course, an astronomical grade point average on a weighted 4.0 scale. And it didn’t hurt to be an avid cellist or have a patent pending if you were fishing for a scholarship. The cycle continued in college; but, instead of acceptance letters, we aspired to business programs, research grants, internships, and honor societies. All too soon, these goals became prestigious scholarships, Fortune 500 jobs, and top- notch graduate schools. And suddenly we find ourselves here, at graduation. If we continue to define ourselves by these goals, we are at risk of never being satisfied. As soon as we attain one, we plant a new ambition. Landing the dream job is not enough — there will be promotions and raises to strive for afterwards.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’d like to be successful. But how do you measure success? I think it’s kind of like limits in calculus. We can get infinitely close to achieving it without getting it perfect. And that’s frustrating. I am fully confident that we will do some amazing things in the years to come, and I believe that all dreams are possible. I hope, however, that we never get stuck in a cycle of attempting to perfect ourselves. My social studies teacher would say that in the end it is not about whether or not we answer correctly, but about how we approach the question and what we learn in the process.

In our pursuit of answers, we must find time to appreciate the questions. A liberal arts education provides the unique opportunity to learn for the sake of learning. In my field, a technical school would have offered the training to make me a more proficient computer programmer than I am today. I chose Wake Forest, though. In doing so, I discovered a diversity of experiences and a breadth of knowledge that I will take with me wherever I go.

My professors demonstrated a genuine passion for learning, and I found their enthusiasm contagious. A professor of Victorian literature inspired me to spend a week delving into the personal letters and critical heritage of George Eliot. I loved every minute and soon after, declared a double major in English … for fun. Through literature, I have explored far-off and fantastical places, and I’ve re-examined the familiar. I’ve looked out from under the Bell Jar with Sylvia Plath, and I’ve searched for a room of my own with Virginia Woolf. I’ve seen characters face questions much tougher than an integration problem, and I’ve learned from their successes and failures.

I believe that there is still time to learn the nuts and bolts of our careers and that there are no textbook instruction manuals for the problems we will face in the future. College is a time to develop as well-rounded individuals, capable of facing big questions that will inevitably lack perfect solutions. How do we study in preparation for a hurricane? What textbook teaches us to deal with cancer? We can spout facts and add up the atrocities of war, of terror, of hunger, but does it help us to do anything about it?

Both inside and outside of the classroom, our lives are a process of learning. We gather knowledge, skills, and experience so that when we are faced with our own impossible questions, we are prepared to try to answer them. It is natural to become overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problems that arise in the world today, but it is unacceptable to avert our eyes, to say we can’t at least try to find answers.

Our education has prepared us well, and we leave tomorrow with confidence, ready to question the impossible. But when the inevitable panic of that first tough question strikes, we need to just breathe and remember — “Oh, what an interesting question.”

This senior oration by Emily Leonhardt (’06) was one of three winners selected at the 2006 Senior Colloquium and presented at the Honors and Awards Ceremony on May 14. The other winning orations were “The Bubble Experience” by Andy Lobashevsky (’06) and “Hope — in the Voices of Africa” by Nemanja Savic (’06).