Personal Stories, Philosophy

A Life Lesson from Professor Tom Haffie

I knocked on the door. There was shuffling on the other side, and a subtle but familiar anxiety rose in my mind. Still nervous, after all these years? I wondered to myself.

The door opened, and Tom Haffie’s face appeared in the crack. He was a late middle aged man whose hair had started turning white, and whose eyes shone with a glint that suggested that he knew more about you than he cared to show. He usually gave a rather serious impression, but he smiled as he greeted me.

“Hi Charlie. Come on in.”

“Hi Tom,” I said as I entered. “These are for you.” I handed him the items in my hands. “Green tea and raisin tea biscuits. Hope you still like them.”

“Always have. Thank you. Have a seat.”

It was three years ago when I first met Tom in this very office. He was my first year biology professor then, but our relationship had progressed over the years. In fact, we recently published a paper together.

Yet in some part of my mind, I still thought of myself as a freshman who wanted to pick his professor’s brains. I remembered the first time I visited, when I’d asked him a question about Okazaki fragments. “Hair splitting” was the phrase he used to describe my question. “You will never have to think in such detail,” he had said.

“How have you been?” I started, watching him break the raisin biscuit into bite-sized pieces.

“Busy, as usual…You remember Elysia?”

“The chloroplast-eating sea slug from first year. How can I forget?”

“New research came out…” he said, gesturing at a paper on his desk. “Turns out it doesn’t actually use the chloroplasts for photosynthesis after all.”

“You’re kidding!”

“And there is no evidence of lateral gene transfer either.”

“You mean to say…”

“The slug just digests chloroplasts for food.”

“So my first year was a lie?”

“I’m hoping you didn’t just learn about the slugs.”

I chuckled, partially at his comment and partially because I imagined myself as a naïve freshman and couldn’t help it. When I stopped, I noticed that a stillness had settled in the room, like time had frozen and there was no one in the world talking except us.

Tom was a master of silence, and maybe that’s why it can be unnerving talking to him. He injected long pauses between sentences, and each word that came out always seemed adamant on asserting its effect on the listener. As a freshman, I’d often wondered what to say to fill in those pauses. But now I steadily met his gaze and waited.

“So…how’s life?” he said ten seconds later.

I updated him on my medical applications. In fact, I’d recently been rejected by McMaster’s medical program. He didn’t have to know that.

“You know, I’ve been reflecting recently,” I said, and I felt his gaze intensify. “I have two competing motivations in me.”

He nodded.

“I am driven by curiosity. I want to try a bit of everything, to learn different things while I’m young. That’s partially why I picked bioinformatics, because I knew I’d learn all the health-related stuff in medical school. But at the same time, I can’t help but be influenced by how everyone around me is doing. Despite all of my achievements, my ego wants to be recognized, and oftentimes it gets in the way of what I really want to do: to learn.”

Throughout my rant, he nodded along with an amused look on his face, like he knew exactly what I meant and maybe a little more. When I finished, he drew a slow breath. Outside, the snow had begun to fall. Flakes of iridescent crystals hung onto the window pane briefly before evaporating into the morning sun.

“Charlie…you have so many expectations, about life, about yourself, about everything,” he said. “…Did you ever question these expectations?”

“Question them?”

“Yes, how do you know that they are the best for you?”

I considered this for a moment.

“For example, your aim is to go to a certain medical school. But maybe that isn’t such a good choice. Maybe you end up hating that school. Maybe you go to that new city, and the second day you get there you get hit by a bus, or maybe you meet some girl there who breaks your heart and destroys your life.”

I’m amused as I write this. For one thing, his bus illustration echoed the one I used in a blog post three years ago. For another, that very evening after my conversation with Tom, my friend and I were walking near my apartment when a car collided into a van, knocked its front bumper off, and skidded onto the pavement where we had been five seconds earlier.

But I was also amused by his girl comment.

“That reminds me of a story I once heard,” I said. “It’s supposed to be about marriage, and I think it works for life too. Do you want to hear it?”

“Sure,” he said.

“They say picking a partner is like picking a corn in a corn field, but you can only walk in one direction, and once you pick a corn, you’re stuck with it. (This analogy probably doesn’t work very well in modern times.) Some people start walking, and they see a pretty large corn. They think to themselves, there’s probably a bigger one up ahead, so they give this one up. But as they keep walking, they realize that the corns get smaller and smaller…”

Tom began to chuckle.

“…until finally they settle for a small one and live their lives in regret.”

At this, Tom let out a long, drawn-out laugh. I’d never seen him laugh like this before, and it was very unprofessorlike. I joined him out of politeness, but I couldn’t see how my story could be that funny.

“No,” he said when he finally stopped laughing. “Marriage is not like that at all.”

“How so?”

“There is no concept of bigger and smaller corns. Plus, what if you’re the type who likes small corns?”

He glanced at his watch.

“Another student is coming in soon. I’m going to have to kick you out for now. We’ll chat again.”

Then he took another slow breath and looked at me intently.

“You’re at an exciting time of your life, Charlie.”

“So are you, Tom.” Then I cast an exaggerated glance at his white hair. “A different kind of exciting,” I said, grinning.

I left his office and entered the snowy world outside, feeling oddly lighter than before.

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