Su Meck


Living a Memorable Life

Alumna Su Meck’s Experiences
Subject of New Book

Imagine awakening one day and not recognizing your husband or your two children, and having no memory of your life. This unbelievable-but-true story happened at 22 years old to Su Meck ’11 who suffered a traumatic brain injury when a ceiling fan fell on her head. Published this past February by Simon & Schuster, I Forgot to Remember: A Memoir of Amnesia documents Meck’s struggle and eventual triumph in relearning how to read, care for her herself and her family, and even graduate from Montgomery College. Written with Washington Post reporter Daniel de Visé, I Forgot to Remember was inspired by de Visé’s front page story celebrating Meck’s 2011 graduation from Montgomery College. Meck transferred to Smith College in Massachusetts and graduated this month.

Following is an excerpt from Chapter 22, “Learning to Fly,” in which Meck describes her experiences at Montgomery College:

Montgomery College saved my life. That probably sounds superdramatic, but it’s the truth. The people at Montgomery College saved me and gave me a life. Yes. That is probably a truer statement. All that, and they taught me how to love learning. And I guess how to learn how to learn—instead of just mimicking. When I was learning everything along with my kids as they went through school, I was mostly copying. Copying is not the same as learning. Not that I didn’t learn stuff from my kids by copying, but the “reason” piece was missing. The “why am I doing this?” part of learning was missing. At Montgomery College, I wasn’t allowed to just copy. I had to show every single step of how I got to the answer of an algebra problem. I had to write an essay explaining why there were advantages in looking at the world through a sociological lens. I had to give an oral presentation about Susan Graham and explain what the incredible mezzo-soprano contributed to the world of opera. I had to think about and come up with ideas on my own.

…The learning I was able to figure out how to do at Montgomery College had everything to do with me. Not in a gross, selfish way, but in a this-professor-is-here-teaching-his-class-today-and-I-am-a-student-here-to-learn way. And that was new. I was the student who was sitting in that class. I was writing down things in my notebook that I thought were important. Nobody was telling me exactly what to write down. If I wanted something clarified, I had to speak up and ask the professor a question. If I didn’t ask, I might never know the answer. I couldn’t depend on other people in the class to have the exact same questions I had. This may all sound very trivial and basic, but to me it was huge! I was not only learning subject content, whether it be algebra, music history, sociology, or environmental biology, I was also learning to speak up for myself. Nobody was at college with me, talking for me, answering for me, studying for me, writing for me, doing for me. I did stuff by myself. And I learned I was pretty darn good at this whole learning business. Once I started learning, I just wanted to know more, and more, and more.

…Tests made me nervous because I was always worried I wouldn’t be able to read or write somehow on the day one was given. Writing papers made me nervous because I still felt like such an amateur when writing them, and I didn’t really know what I was doing. Everyone just assumed that I knew how to research a topic. I didn’t. Kassidy [my daughter] held my hand and walked me baby step by baby step through those first few papers. I learned about the Writing, Reading, and Language Center in the basement of the library right before I graduated. Oh, well.

The professors at Montgomery College were there because they loved to teach. Most of my classes there were smallish, no more than twenty or thirty students, some much smaller, and the professors knew the names of their students just a week or two into each semester. The professors were happy to help in whatever way they could. They wanted students to be successful. I don’t know why, but I was continually amazed by that fact. Sharon Ward was my environmental biology professor my very last semester before graduating. There was one unit where we had to know how to balance simple equations. I had no idea what that meant or how to do it. Kassidy had enrolled at Barnard College in New York City at this point, so I couldn’t ask her for help. I went and talked to Professor Ward and explained that I had never done any of this equation-balancing business before. She sat with me in her office for nearly an hour right then and there and taught me how to balance equations. Professor Bill Coe was my teacher for both pre-algebra and Algebra I. He could probably teach math to a rock, I’m not kidding, and he spent so much extra time with me trying to explain in varied and differing ways how to factor equations. Professor Coe figured out that my basic issue with factoring was that I did not yet know all my multiplication tables automatically. These are just two of the many examples of Montgomery College professors going above and beyond any typical teaching duties, and I will always be eternally grateful for all of the time they gave to me.

But one of the most important things I learned from my professors at Montgomery College was to be honest about who I was and what I had been through. I met Professor Sue Adler at the Awards Assembly for Phi Theta

Kappa, the honor society for two-year colleges, in the spring of 2008. She mentioned during that assembly that she was the faculty adviser for Phi Theta Kappa, and that students would have the opportunity to interview with her if they were interested in becoming Phi Theta Kappa officers for the 2008–2009 school year. Since I was newly inducted into Phi Theta Kappa, I was feeling smart and courageous. I knew those feelings wouldn’t last long, so I spoke to Sue during the reception following the assembly, thinking that she would ask me to make an appointment with her. Instead, she said, “Great! Write down your name, phone number and e-mail for me and I’ll contact you as to when our first planning meeting will be during the summer.” I guess I was in. That was certainly easy. I loved being part of the Phi Theta Kappa board, and I grew to love Sue Adler and the other faculty adviser, Brian Baick. Sue is one of those people who only surround themselves with other practical and hardworking people. She knows everything about Montgomery College and everyone who has anything to do with the school. She and her husband, Bill, a retired MC professor, are both full of energy and positivity.

Su_MeckIt was during my time as an officer for the honor society that I began to open up about the story of my head injury and my journey back to school. Marianne, the group’s president that year, wanted all of us to show up at the first planning meeting of second semester with a bag of objects that meant something to us personally, in order to promote a kind of bonding or team spirit among all of us officers. One of the objects in my bag was the Dr. Seuss book Hop on Pop. I explained to everyone that the book was the first one I had ever read, and that I was twenty-two years old when I read it. I had never spoken to anyone other than my family and very close friends about any of this, so I have no idea what exactly prompted me to tell these fellow students and advisers the tale. Each person in that room was shocked, and when I finished speaking, everyone just stared at me. I was embarrassed and immediately regretted my decision about saying anything. But I had read their reactions incorrectly. It wasn’t “Wow! She’s odd.” Or, “You poor thing.” Or, “Get out of here, you weirdo!” It wasn’t any of those things. I don’t know what it was exactly, but it wasn’t anything critical. And after that, I felt a little less afraid, having gotten it off my chest.

Soon I was telling more and more people my story. After that meeting, Sue talked to Gus Griffin, one of the psychology professors and counselors at MC who specialized in memory. Gus wanted me to come and speak to his class about my injury and my life since. I said yes, simply because I couldn’t say no to professors, especially Sue.

…I ended up speaking to Gus’s classes every semester my last two years at Montgomery College.

…Sue Adler told me about the Paul Peck Humanities Institute [internship] program in the spring of 2010. There were opportunities for students at Montgomery College to intern for a semester at the Smithsonian, the Holocaust Museum, and the Library of Congress. The application process was grueling, but Jim helped me to write out a résumé, and assisted with endless essay revisions. I heard in August that I had been accepted to intern that fall in the music division at the Library of Congress. I could not have been more surprised, excited, and nervous all at the same time.

…My assignment at the Library of Congress that fall was to help organize and digitally catalog thousands of pieces of Civil War sheet music so they could be seen, accessed, and utilized by anyone in the world. The 150th anniversary of the Civil War was just around the corner, and this sheet-music project was to be part of a larger Civil War exhibition. My direct supervisor at the library was Mary Wedgewood. I was a little afraid of her at first because my typing and computer skills were less than adequate for such a task as this. I felt her frustration with me, and that made me nervous. But as time passed I grew to really love and respect her. (And my skills improved a bit, too). Mary encouraged me to go to the many varied noontime talks that were offered to library staff, everyone from authors, to historians, to scientists, to performing artists, to international celebrities. She invited me to meetings, took me to underground stacks, introduced me to lots of people, and got me involved in the annual Book Festival held on the National Mall. Mary genuinely wanted me to understand that the music division and my single project in that division was just one small part of the history and mission of the library. My experiences that semester were extraordinary.

As graduation from Montgomery College approached, I began thinking, What’s next? Sue Adler had invited me to roundtable talks with admissions officers from Mount Holyoke College and Smith College. Both schools were small, elite women’s colleges in western Massachusetts that had first-rate programs for nontraditional students. Both schools were highly competitive, with rigorous application procedures, but Sue thought I was up to the task. She always had more confidence in me than I ever had in myself. I was accepted to Mount Holyoke College, Smith College, and Columbia University. It was a tremendously difficult decision, but in the end, Smith felt like the right choice.

…Graduation itself was a blur of constant adrenaline. Everything from putting on my cap and gown, to lining up and walking to a huge tent with my fellow graduates, to speeches and receiving my diploma, to pictures, hugs, and congratulations. I can’t remember a happier day.

From I FORGOT TO REMEMBER by Su Meck with Daniel de Visé. Copyright © 2014 by Susan E. Meck. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Post a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *