Greens Farms Academy is a PreK-12, coed school in Westport, CT

Visiting Writer Jamison: Connections Through Emotion

By Will San Jose, ’22 and Jake Farber, ’22

This story first appeared in The Beachside Press; it appears here with permission from the editors. 

The loneliest whale in the world, nicknamed 52 Blue, has mating calls that are too high for any other whale to hear. Scientists have tracked the whale and its unique call for years on end, yet 52 Blue still swims alone.

Greens Farms Academy’s latest visiting writer, novelist and essayist Leslie Jamison, explores the story of 52 Blue in one of her essays. She spoke with The Beachside Press in a Zoom interview to discuss her work and its subjects, 52 Blue included.

“I knew immediately that I was fascinated by the idea of this whale, but what I had to figure out was ‘what is the particular story I want to tell about this fascinating subject?’” Jamison said. “To me it’s really moving in the ways that we look to the world around us, including the natural world, as a language to articulate the things we humans feel.”

Jamison’s desire to capture such emotions connects to her broader writing in essay collections like The Empathy Exams, in which she explores the constant striving for empathy between people. Jamison discussed one of the school’s core values of empathy, and her understanding of the word throughout her own experiences.

“The best definition [for empathy] that I could come to, I started to realize, actually described an impossibility,” she said. “If by ‘empathy,’ we mean either understanding another person’s state of feeling or sharing or somehow inhabiting another person’s state of feeling, both of those are impossible. You never could totally know what somebody else was thinking or feeling, and you certainly couldn’t ever share what that person was thinking or feeling.”

However, Jamison by no means dismisses empathy as a concept.

“I thought, ‘Why not write an essay kind of interrogating what do we actually mean by this concept?’ — Not as a way of dismissing it as a pursuit, but maybe destabilizing this overly simple conception,” she added.

Now more than ever, the school is emphasizing empathy and staying in touch with others’ feelings. This maintained connection helps students and faculty keep intact the community GFA works so hard to create.

Jamison spoke highly of her own tight-knit community she experiences during her teaching job at Columbia University.

“I’ve also felt a really deep, passionate commitment to teaching as a source of meaning in my life, and a way to hopefully bring meaning into my students’ lives,” she said. “I love my students, I love being in dialogue with students, I love reading their work. It feels like a kind of oxygen that circulates into my system, to get to hear their voices, their perspectives. They teach me a lot about the world.”

Jamison’s visit and her introduction of an impossible, yet crucial empathy paves the way for further discussion at GFA about how students and faculty can be wholly empathetic members of the community.