Thoughts by Richard Bleil
By the time this post is published, about a week ago a former student and friend of mine reconnected with me after many years. Diane was my student in my waning years of my first college, so figure circa 1999. Yeah, we partied like we were in a song by Prince. No, not Diane and I. I meant the nation, we were partying, although not really because everybody was too paranoid about the Y2K crash that never happened and I’m way off track now.
Diane was one of those students with whom there seems to be an instant rapport. Maybe it’s because we were both out of place at the college. It was a very conservative (although not for the denomination) Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) institution, whereas she was Jewish (although I didn’t know it at the time) and I was spiritual but non-denominational (I don’t even consider myself to be Christian). Now the college had a variety of faculty and administration that ran the gambit on their behavior as Christians. My friend Ed must have been one of the most Christian like souls I had ever known. I was never even aware that he was SDA. He never talked about his faith or tried to convert anybody; he was just a real mensch (if Diane will forgive me for using this Yiddish term). But he would not hesitate to give the shirt off of his back to anybody in need, an act I myself witnessed late one rainy night when one of our students had his battery die because he forgot to turn off his lights. Between the two of us, we replace his battery, got him to his wife who was waiting for him after work, and we treated the two of them to supper.
Unfortunately, others at the college used their faith as a badge to allow them to judge others. I don’t mean to suggest that all Christians are like this, but you know the type. They go to church, so they must be holier than thou and won’t hesitate to call you out on what you are doing. I myself had to put myself on the line at a faculty meeting to defend one of our students for her job. While the other faculty were arguing to expel her from the college, I was the one who pointed out that, despite where she worked, anybody who knew this remarkable young woman would never doubt her behavior or ethics, and that even Christ would immerse himself among the “sinners” to help guide them. Frankly, that meeting made me ashamed to be affiliated with the college.
So not long ago, after having lost her from my life for many years, Diane reached out to me. It was such a treat to hear from her, and the conversation renewed my faith in the work that I was doing. As my regular readers know, I’ve faced many false accusations and lost several jobs over fabrications that administrators love to believe without really thinking about them or giving the faculty the chance to defend themselves against. And here is Diane, a voice from my past.
One of the greatest things I had ever heard was when she told me that my presence there helped keep her at the college. It really was a high-quality institution, but unfortunately, she had told me a story of which I was unaware that sounds to me very dangerously close to unlawful prejudice. I’m not saying that it was, but to an outside observer (say, for example, a jury member) it certainly would have looked like it. And yet, she put up with it and graduated as a Physician Assistant, going on to do some remarkable and highly prestigious things.
What she said was that my irreverent behavior and “clearly outsider” demeanor was what made her feel so comfortable with me and kept her in school. She was on to her clinicals when I left the institution. A few months later, I received an email from her asking a very simple question; “why does asparagus make urine smell bad?” Well, the answer, of course, are the thiol compounds within asparagus that pass through the digestive system, thiols being notoriously aromatic and found in skunk smell and as an additive in natural gas so people can smell gas leaks at very low concentrations. “I knew you would know,” she responded, “all anybody here will say is, ‘oh, that’s gross’.” I love questions like this, myself, because these are the kinds of questions that will get people interested in science.
Sometimes I look back on my years as an educator and wonder if I made any impact whatsoever. Chemistry has the power to give people a new way to view what is and happens around them, but I know most students do a proverbial “brain dump” as soon as the class is over. So, I wonder if I was just a general education speed bump requirement for students to graduate. Then, a student like Diane comes along and reminds me that I really did matter at one time.