Because 12/14/20

Lessons from one of my first students by Richard Bleil

It was 1987 when I returned to school to begin my studies to earn a Ph.D. I had taken two years off and worked as an industrial analytical chemist for environmental labs in the days when the Superfund was large, and we still cared about cleaning up the environment.

Graduate school, back then, was better than free. You might wonder what could possibly be better than a free graduate degree, but they needed students back then to teach and perform research. The deal I had (for an ivy league school no less) was full tuition remission and a graduate stipend. It wasn’t enough to put anything away, but I knew of a graduate student from China who supported his wife and two children on it since they weren’t allowed to work.

For the stipend, I taught chemistry labs. Mostly general chemistry labs but sometimes I would teach more advanced labs (yes, even as a graduate student) like physical chemistry. One of my earliest students was a seventy-year-old nursing student in my first-year chemistry lab.

Maybe I’m not particularly smart, but even then, I was bright enough to know that there are some things that you just don’t ask students. But the flip side of the coin is that if a student wants to open up and share, I’m always happy to listen. Somebody must have said something to this particular student one day when, without my asking, she said that people ask her why she is studying nursing since she’ll never be able to get a job at her age.  It’s sadly true, but of course it’s not my place to ask. She went on to answer her own question, saying simply, “It’s because I want to.”

One of the goals of education today is to create “life-long learners”. This doesn’t mean taking classes for the rest of your life so much as it does to keep the curiosity alive and maintaining the desire and the drive to keep learning new things. And this remarkable young woman (yes, young) knew the secret. If she were alive today, she would be over a hundred years old so she is probably gone. Still, although she was the oldest student I’ve ever had even to today, she had the youngest soul. That’s refreshing to someone with a soul as old as mine.

It’s an important lesson. Sometimes we don’t do things in the hopes of gain like a job or salary, but just because it’s something we find interesting, something we would like to do. As I sit here, I’m thinking about building an office for myself in my house and resuming research on hydrogen bonding, one of the greatest unresolved subjects in chemistry today. There’s really no reason for it. Without the resources I need to publish, if I do learn anything chances are high that the secret will die with me, and yet, it’s a topic that truly fascinates me and infuriates me at the same time. What seems like such a simple idea is so complicated and strange, and yet it’s so critical to life itself. So, yes, I’ll study it. I have the tools to perform the study even if I don’t have the resources, but this curiosity, the desire to keep learning keeps people young and vibrant.

There is more I hope to do in what time remains to me. I’ve always wanted to jump out of a perfectly good airplane (maybe even with a parachute) and ride a bull. At my age, I can’t expect to become a serious bull rider, but I’m told there are bull riding ranches where bulls are rated based on difficulty even to the level of children. I would like to hop a bull at a low setting, and go up from there until I reach the bull that is enough. And zip lining. And why?

Why not.

Lifelong learning doesn’t necessarily mean college, although it can. The desire to travel translates to the desire to learn about other lands and cultures. The desire to read translates to wanting to learn from authors. The desire to study hobbies such as cooking, sewing, and as two of my best friends are doing, art translates to a desire to learn not just a skill, but to improve oneself.

I cannot imagine not continually learning. How boring would life be if we actually did know everything there is to know? I find it interesting that the Church has always declared science an enemy, but thank God (yes, a deliberate choice of words) there were people like Galileo and Da Vinci, famous names that were actively persecuted by the church, and lesser known “grave robbers” who studied human anatomy in the dark for fear of repercussions. But how dull would life be if, indeed, there was nothing more to learn? Thank you, but no thank you. I choose to be a lifelong learner.

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