An Unlikely Hero

An Unlikely Hero

From Chicken Soup for the College Soul

An Unlikely Hero

Adversity reveals genius, prosperity conceals it.

Horace

When Dr. Gullickson was assigning project mates for his introduction to experimental psychology class, I secretly hoped he would pair me with a cute coed or at least a classmate I could have some fun with. Above all, I hoped he wouldn’t assign me to work with the intense, fiercely competitive, singularly serious fellow who always wore dark clothes and apparently had a personality to match. As fate would have it, Dr. Gullickson very deliberately matched everyone in class and announced that I would be working with the one person in class I wanted to avoid.

I went up to my new lab mate and introduced myself. He looked at me as though I weren’t there. I felt he treated me as though I would hold him back and probably cause his grade-point average to take a nosedive. He wasn’t outright mean or abusive. He just gave me the impression he could do whatever project we dreamed up better if he did it alone. He was a loner, and I could only impede his research. He had important things to do, and I was going to be something of an annoyance he’d have to deal with.

Needless to say, I didn’t look forward to an entire semester of being brushed off, but I tried to make the best of it and didn’t say anything, lest I make things worse.

The project required each lab team to develop a hypothesis, set up an experiment to test the hypothesis, run the tests, do the statistical analysis and present the findings. Whatever grade the team received would be shared by both students. When my lab mate and I met to discuss our project, I was uneasy. Here was this challenging student who had a reputation for single-mindedness and good grades—the exact opposite of me. I was outmatched. I actually wanted to drop the class at one point, but stopped short because I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of my chickening out. I asked my friends at work what I should do, and the overall response was to stick it out no matter what.

After lengthy discussions, we somehow agreed to do a study on the tactile-kinesthetic perception of space. I wasn’t sure what it meant, but at least we had a topic. We started to meet regularly to formulate our plans, and every time I felt the project was more his than mine. The more we met, the more I resented his intelligence and his ability to cut through to the core issues. And I was aware he was much more advanced than I. He knew technical things and approached every detail with great singularity of purpose.

I, on the other hand, must have seemed naive, with little to offer. At one point I summoned up my courage and asked him why he seemed so uptight and serious. To my surprise, he replied that he didn’t have time for small talk or petty people and things that would waste his time. He even went on to say that he didn’t have many friends because most so-called friends were just a distraction. But, he added, when he did choose someone to be his friend, they would be a friend for life. I was floored by his cold and cynical response. Right then and there, I realized the end of the semester couldn’t come soon enough.

As the semester wore on, we tried to fashion a simple yet elegant experiment. Part of our job was to select students who had volunteered to be subjects for our project. I decided to devote myself to the task of working with the subjects, while he developed the scientific model. I put in my two cents’ worth whenever I could, but I still felt he was the driving force.

Then one day I got word that he was in the hospital. Apparently, he had been admitted for a hemorrhaging ulcer. The stress of getting the best grades, holding down a job and helping his girlfriend through the medical crisis she was going through had taken its toll on him.

When I visited him in the hospital, I noticed for the first time a sense of vulnerability on the face of my stoic lab mate. I knew that he was aware that I could blow the experiment, and our shared grade would shatter his lofty G.P.A. and possibly derail his chances for graduate school. I assured him I would not let him down and he should only concentrate on getting better. I would do my best. We both knew I’d have to do better than my best.

I had a formidable task ahead of me. I was in over my head, running the statistical data. I poured more time and energy into that project than I had ever done on any assignment in my life. I was not going to let him see me fail and have it reflect on him. I was working the graveyard shift at my job, so I used whatever quiet time from midnight to 6:00 A.M. to work on the project. The work consumed me. There was a sense of challenge that completely overtook me. The question remained: Was I up to it?

Eventually, the semester came to a close, and each team had to present its findings in front of the assembled class. When it was our turn, I did my level best to present his scientific methodology with my showmanship. To my amazement, we were awarded an A!

When I told my lab mate about our shared triumph, he smiled and thanked me for carrying on. Something connected then. Something special. It had to do with trust and the exhilaration of sharing a common prize.

We have stayed close throughout the years. He went on to achieve a doctorate. He also went on to marry his college girlfriend.

I learned more than statistical analysis and experimental procedures that semester. My life has been enhanced by our encounter and challenged by this man, who became my unlikely hero.

And in the end, he was right: we have become friends for life.

Tony Luna

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