The Worst Part Is Not

This post first appeared as a guest post*

The worst part is not when it all blows over just as you thought something was going to finally happen.  When everything goes on as usual, except that your colleagues pass you in the hall with a wider berth.  That when all the shock and outrage dies down, the only job that changed is yours.  You used to be a valued mascot.  Now you’re a traitor.  You’ll never be Department Chair or Dean now that this has happened.  How dare you throw all the Monopoly pieces in the air – we were letting you play!  But that’s not the worst part.

The worst part is not when his wife and his employees come to you and say please don’t do this to us.  Our mortgage, our children, our paychecks are at stake.  When they ask you if you care about anything besides yourself.  When they tell you the full story, which you never wanted to know.  That there’s a rotten root of sickness and betrayal underneath it all.  That this is your big chance to be the bigger person and walk away, proving that you are actually more compassionate than you seem.  This is not the worst part.  Although that part is pretty damn bad.

The worst part is not when you see it happen all over again to a woman young enough to be your daughter.  What is the right thing to tell her?  That twenty years ago you remember holding tight to the idea that twenty years from now it would be different.  That grief and surprise are two different things, one you will feel forever, and the other you will never feel again.  That she should let this harden her towards the field, and soften her towards those she loves.  To be careful who you trust, and don’t trust any one too much, or for too long.  Trust them until you don’t.  This is not the worst part.  But it is sufficiently bad.

The worst part is not that your expectations have changed.  That you’ve given up on the National Academy, the HHMI, the Ivy League job.  It’s unreasonable to expect to be made MVP of an all-boys team.  You should just be grateful that they drafted you at all.  That your highest career goal has become to be left alone to do your job with the people that you actually trust.  This is not the worst part because maybe that’s not it after all.  Maybe it’s you.  Maybe you’re just not good enough.  Maybe it’s that huge chip on your shoulder.  Maybe … Lather, rinse, repeat.

The worst part is the pivot.  The click.  When the switch flips.  When you press down, turn the child-proof cap, and the thing breaks in your hands.  When it dawns on you that this isn’t an interview, it’s a date.  That there’s no study group, it’s a date.  That this isn’t office hours, it’s a date.  That it’s not a promotion, it’s a date.  That it’s not a field trip, it’s a date.  It’s a weird f*cked up date and you had no idea, you dumbass.  You’re just as stupid as he thinks you are.  Why are you carrying a backpack full of questions, homework, manuscripts, resumés and various other homely hopeful aspirations?  All you needed to do was to show up.  Show up for this weird f*cked up date.  Sucker.

You fight for some control.  You sit in the back and avoid male eyes.  You listen for which classes to avoid, and turn up sick before certain field trips.  You don’t exchange numbers with your lab partner.  You make sure you study twice as hard and do twice as much as they ask for.  And you slowly realize that you want this twice as much as any of the boys.  And this keeps you going, and it keeps you safe.  A good professor is the one you never met and who never knew your name.  He was smart and intense and assigned the right readings, and lots of them.  Who never knew how much he changed your thinking because you never told him.  Who gave you an A in permanent ink, that you gathered up with all the others and cashed in like poker chips for a ticket to graduate school, where the whole thing started all over again.

But the best professor was a terrible teacher.  He spoke from yellowed, cracked old notes with a thick accent for hours, unbothered by the possibility that no one understood him.  When you went to tell him that you were dropping his class his wife was with him, and they invited you in.  They gave you a cookie and asked what was wrong, and you said you didn’t know.  They said come to the theater with us, you Americans don’t go to the theater anymore.  And bring your transcript.  While they ate they said you have done well, and you are good inside, and you will change the world.  And they let me pay my own way.

*big thanks for letting me guest on @Drew_Lab ‘s blog “The Drew Lab” at Columbia University

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