The Best Years 6/30/20

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

The year was 1996. I found myself back in the town where I grew up in my first “teaching gig” at a small medical arts college teaching chemistry. Some say that it’s who know you, not what you know. Unfortunately, this was true for me. I wish I could say that I was so talented and so well-known that of course I just walked into any college or university that I wanted to and landed a teaching job, but, no. The reality is that my sister, back when we were still talking, was working for the dean which, at this painfully college, would have been called the “Academic Vice President” or even “Provost” at most other institutions. She was his administrative assistant and recommended me for an open teaching position.

I probably wouldn’t have applied, but my research adviser had pulled an ethically unsound maneuver to give an idea of mine to his buddy, even though we were both post-docs in his research group. While I had a paper on the subject, of course including my adviser’s name as well, that had been accepted for publication, which usually takes several months once approved unless you write an article for a “rapid publication” paper. The other post-doc wrote such a paper with his and my adviser’s name with no mention of me at all despite the fact that it was my brainstorm and work that laid the foundation. Unfortunately, in academia, the first paper has the authors that would get credit for the work, and why, exactly, I was left out of that paper is something that I will never understand. So, there I was, a research assistant working for a man I could never again trust and determined not to have any new ideas that he could take from me. So, I needed out, and a real job, so, of course I applied, and because of my sister’s influence, I got the interview. I don’t know if she had any further influence or not on getting an offer, but regardless, there I was.

So, because of her influence, I was again back in my high school hometown just in time for my fifteen year high-school reunion. My high school was rather excessively large. My class was kind of small, actually, because it only had 850 students in it. So, yes, in the early ‘80’s, figure we had roughly 3,500 students in the school. It was easy to disappear in the crowds, which is precisely what I did. Let’s put it this way, I had two comments the entire night long, one of them being, “Which alumni’s husband are you?” No, I’m the alumni. You used to beat me up, you schmuck.

The other, in case you’re curious, is “you still have your hair.” Yes. Yes, I do. Enough said.

My friend Penny, who I had known since fifth grade when I moved into that suburb of the city, was in charge of the reunion which was held at a local bar. We got to chatting, and I explained how I completed my bachelor’s degree in chemistry, worked as an analytical chemist for a couple of years, finished my doctorate in chemistry, my research positions, and my new teaching position. She seemed impressed and made an interesting comment. She said that some people peak in high school, and some people invisible high school students don’t really blossom until after graduation, implying that I was in the latter category.

Tonight I’m watching a movie where a comment is made stating that, basically, for some people thrive and high school is the best years of their lives, implying, of course, that for others their best years are yet to come. But how do we know when our best years will be? Were my best years high school? No, definitely not. College? No, again, I can say not then. When I worked as an analytical chemist? Graduate school? Post doc? Teaching? Forensic director? Dean?

Honestly, none of them seem to be likely candidates for “best years”. As I slow down with old age, I find it hard to believe that my future will hold them either. What does that mean? Do I need to lower my standards of what it means to have your best years, or simply resolve to never having them?

The reality is that we are all in charge of our own lives, and our destinies. Maybe it’s a good thing that when I look back on my life, I see the strife in the chapters of my life. Maybe, without having had the best years of my life, there’s no reason for me to “rest on my laurels” and simply live in the past. I look back and reflect on past events and try to find the humor in the tragedies of my life. It’s how I cope, and frankly, you can only cry for so long. I’d rather laugh, so that’s what I do. Maybe the best years are to come. Maybe they’re already tragically behind me. But either way, there’s no reason for me to look back. Onward and upward.

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