Knowing when to keep your mouth shut and look over your shoulder are two very important skills when living in a town as small as Oberlin. Skills I was never particularly good at.
The start of my sophomore year was less than ideal. There was a break up, a summer that was too short, and I wasn’t stoked about my classes: all the usual plights of an angst-ridden college student. I was especially un-enthused about CHEM 211, an analytical chemistry course required for my major taught by Professor Rebecca Whelan. Now let me be clear, I now know Professor Whelan is a brilliant and kind woman. But my first test back from CHEM 211 was a poor grade, a grave insult to such a brilliant aspiring chemist such as myself. So, in my 19-year-old mind, I was justified using this course and by association, its professor, as scapegoats for my sophomore troubles. I complained, a lot, and you really can’t complain effectively by keeping you mouth shut.
On a particularly angst-filled morning I was in line for coffee and ran into a friend who asked how my semester was going. Perfect! An invitation to un-shut my mouth and complain and blame all my problems ever on a single chemistry course!
“I’m taking this chem class and it is so boring! All we do is calculate standard deviations; there isn’t even any chemistry! And the lab sucks! We just pipette water!”
Note: my language was a bit more colorful.
Not once during this rant did I think to look around me. This I know: Professor Whelan is north of 6 feet; she is a tall woman and very hard to miss, especially when the friend I was speaking with was little more than 5 feet. So when asked, “Who teaches this course?” I looked up to the disappointed gaze of Professor Whelan and mumbled “Professor... Whelan teaches it...” to which Professor Whelan smiled politely and walked out of the shop.
Never have I seen a fork in the road so clearly. I could take the path of avoidance, filled with awkward hiding spots and averted eye contact. I could ignore my mistake and make jokes about keeping my mouth shut and looking over my shoulder and for the rest of the semester blame all my bad grades on Professor Whelan hating me and justify it with something like “She deserves it because the class is so boring!” Or I could choose the path of humility and ask for forgiveness. Of course, I was used to and more inclined to path A. However, choosing to look at myself as an adult and less an arrogant high schooler, I figured it was high time to chose the right path and apologize.
I was definitely not eloquent when I stopped by Professor Whelan’s office hours. I rabbled about “having a tough time” or something vague in a last, pathetic attempt to maybe justify my actions. I fumbled a paper bag with a piece of coffee cake inside and the little mature voice in my head told me, “Kepler, you really need to shut up.” I paused, extended the coffee cake and made eye contact with my half confused professor.
“I’m sorry about what I said, it was inexcusable, please forgive me.”
I credit Professor Whelan with teaching me more about chemistry and being a scientist than all education combined. However, her most valuable lesson came with her response, now with a genuine smile: “Thank you for coming to see me, I do forgive you.”
During my senior year I will be doing my honor project on ovarian cancer diagnostics with Professor Whelan. I began doing research with her during the winter term following CHEM 211. While her class may not have inspired me, her personal research was certainly intriguing (using synthetic antibody replacements with magnetic nanoparticles to blow up cancer cells sounded pretty cool to me), and while I don’t know why she accepted me, I am thankful that she did. Now when I walk into her office I sometimes can’t believe how I went from almost hating this woman to having her as my most trusted advisor, someone who I respect greatly and feel greatly respected by.
While it sounds counterintuitive, I don’t regret being caught mouthing off in public. If I hadn’t said it and it hadn’t been heard, I’m not sure I would have met Professor Whelan in the way I did or formed a friendship with her. We may never have worked on and published research together and never collaborated on a radio show about mixtapes. She never would have joined our lab for dinner and never sent me to conferences in France. While I never asked why Professor Whelan accepted me as a research student, I’d like to think it was because apologizing took a level of personal growth and reflection, as well as humility and respect towards another (or maybe it’s because I’m also really good at chemistry).
Keeping your mouth shut and looking over your shoulder will get you far in a small town like Oberlin, but not nearly as far as knowing when to apologize.