Never meet your heroes, they warn. Their real world persona will never match up to your imagined excellence, and the effect will be a staggering disappointment. The only thing that can murder a hero is ordinariness. And because most of us are afflicted with that, even the best of us cannot keep our capes pinned to our shoulders in real life. Maybe a few can. Maybe Beyoncé. But better to never meet your heroes, they say.
I saw mine last night. Professor Craig Schneider, “Doc” to everyone who has ever taken his class was in town as an invited lecturer. When his son told me Doc would not only be in Boston, but would be holding court with slides and everything, I was all in. So was my friend, Lisa, who also partially credits Doc for putting her on a path to a PhD. Rooting through old photos to share with them at the event, I found my favorite shot from graduation. In this picture, Doc is younger than I am now.
Texting with Lisa, we wondered if he would look any different. Probably not, we mused. We figured everyone at the lecture would fall half in love with him and decide to study seaweed tomorrow. Just like old times. I mean… it’s Doc.
Twenty-five years later, I’m sitting in an audience of prep school faculty watching Doc school us on conservation snafus in Bermuda and how DNA sequencing of algae is changing the field of Biogeography. As soon as he loads up the first slide, I’m 19 again. My first feeling was muscle memory panic that I wasn’t taking notes. Then middle aged me took a sip of Pinot Grigio, and I just enjoyed marinating in nostalgia.
Everyone has a favorite teacher: the one you wanted to impress the most, who could hold your attention for the entire 48 minutes, whose class you wouldn’t miss for even the worst hangover or the cutest boy. Doc was that teacher for me, likely for many of us. And listening to his lecture, I was transported back to those days when I could name every alga washing up on the shore of the beach in late spring. Ulva, Vaucheria, Fucus… I remembered a boy in the dining hall scribbling “Seaweed Lover” on my notebook, which made me giggle, but also filled me with a bit of pride. Apparently, I talked about algae more than the average co-ed. More normal undergrads acquired titillating memories of after-hours frat parties and naked quad antics. I kid you not, a true highlight of my college days was visiting a bog. Naturally, by senior year, I was one of Doc’s kids, an honor student doing her senior thesis under his direction.
Though he taught me how to succeed in the lab, and also to learn from failing, Doc didn’t care that I would never be more than an armchair phycologist. (Aside: Autocorrect knows how to spell Beyoncé, but does not recognize PHYCOLOGY.) I was gunning for medical school, but another year of murdering large rats in the Physiology lab left me with enough dread to switch majors entirely. This fear landed me in Doc’s office, terrified that Prof. Simmons would shun me for abandoning his projects in favor of pond scum. Plus, everyone knew if you wanted to get into med school, you had to kill those rats.
But Doc led me to a different path–one that led to a pond in a cemetery, the Long Island Sound intertidal, a publication, acceptance at a handful of medical schools, and ultimately a funded MD/PhD position. I’m not sure he knew that I credit him for all of that. But last night I got to see him, to tell him.
All these years later, Doc memories are still recounted any time I’m asked about my academic background. High school and college students—and quite often, their parents–wonder if there is some foolproof path to the kind of academic success that leads to the white coat. There isn’t. It’s usually a slog of hard-earned A’s, missed parties, and a million pots of coffee.
But if you’re lucky, there are heroes along the way. And if you’re really lucky, one day you get to meet them, tell them, and call them “friend.”
Who are your heroes?