Reach for the Moon, End up a Fleming

David Embers, M4, Class of 2020

I remember 4th grade like it was yesterday, likely because that is when I peaked. It could have been a fun year, but unfortunately for me, it wasn’t. You see, my podmates all had cooties. You read that right, ALL of my podmates. It was me and three girls: Brooke, Sasha, and Rebecca. All confirmed cooties. What a joke. In hindsight, Mrs. Stevenson did it on purpose because she knew me and my best friend Josh were tight as heck and could have basically taught the class if we wanted to. But whatever.

Anyway, at the front of the room above the chalkboard was a poster. “Reach for the moon, and even if you miss, you’ll land amongst the stars.” It was catchy. No lie, the first few times I read that it gave me goosebumps. Thought I might just mess around and change the world. Made me want to be extra precise on the folds for my construction paper popper that would inevitably get taken away before recess. Made me want to be somebody.

Now, looking back, I laugh at 4th grade David. In fact, I want to slap him in the back of the head.

“First of all, idiot, you have to be an astronaut to go to space. Second of all, the closest star is the Sun, which is like 90 million miles away. And the moon is only 240,000 miles away. So if you got to the moon and realized you suck, you wouldn’t ‘land amongst the stars’ – you’d float into space like a bag of milk until you inevitably run out of oxygen, nourishment, or both. Grow up and read a book. And also quit using all your Lunchable cheese on the first pizza so that you have crust and marinara only for the other two.”

As you’ve probably realized in your astute wisdom, that well-known inspirational poster was misguided and just patently false. Quite frankly, it should be investigated as a foundational product of some teacher-centric 1990’s pyramid scheme. But just like that disturbing ‘Just Around the Corner’ video for 5th graders, the goal is well intentioned. That poster tries to inspire kids to work hard, try their best, and not worry about failure. But if the young whippersnappers can’t trust a Scholastic Book Fair poster to teach them about the facts of life, how do we properly light a fire under these eight-year-olds? I’d submit we look to the history books. Let us inspire kids to be a generation of Otto Fredericks, while always leaving open the door to become an Alexander Fleming.

“A Who? A what? A Fleming? Who is Frederick? Is he in Greatest Showman?” – you, the audience, drunk on coffee.

Let us dive deeper. McDougal and Johnson’s 8th edition High School History Textbook anoints the year 1928 to be rather historic. Among other things, the Yo-Yo began mass production, cartoon star Mickey Mouse made his first appearance, and Shirley Temple was born. And yet, it was a yeast and flour love child, on two different continents, that provided the ripples that would truly change the world. It was in 1928 when we, grown-ups and not pea-brained 4th graders, found inspiration to always do our best.

On the front step of the Great Depression and the potential collapse of the American Dream, a young man from Davenport, Iowa trudged on. His name was Otto Frederick, and he was attempting to change the world. In July of 1928, nearly sixteen years after his initial renderings, Frederick built and sold his only claim to fame: the bread slicer. An invention which indubitably finds popularity amongst those with debilitating rheumatoid arthritis, but otherwise has been made obsolete, the bread slicer was ho-hum at best. Perhaps the most lasting impact has been the wonderfully annoying saying “best thing since sliced bread” that is repeated ad nauseum anytime a Baby Boomer finds a new basic feature on their “cellular device”. In reality, Frederick’s life work was notable and impressive, but not world altering. He was “a star”.

In that same year, across the Atlantic, forty-seven-year-old Alexander Fleming also changed the world, but this time, it was an accident. The Scottish researcher, who is described by many historians as a careless lab technician, returned from vacation to find a bread mold had contaminated one of his culture plates. That bread mold, from genus Penicillium, would go on to save over 200 million lives and serve as the foundation for antibiotic research. There is a debate to be had that Fleming’s discovery did more for mankind than electricity. And yet, it was all by accident.

What a world. Frederick, spending years of his life defining and then redefining a discovery he thought would lead him to greatness. A man who likely missed all of his kids’ baseball games and chronically smelled like motor oil just to ensure folks didn’t have to use a knife to cut their twelve-cent loaf of bread. Working tirelessly in hopes of ‘reaching the moon’.

All of this juxtaposed against Fleming, the haphazard, bumbling researcher whose real claim to fame was that he kept his laboratory filthy enough to have bread mold contaminating culture plates while he picnicked on the south banks of River Dee in Aberdeen for months at a time. A man who stumbled into saving nearly a quarter of a billion people as if it were a spider-web and he were missing his spectacles. A man who is undoubtedly “a moon”.

So, where does that leave us in the quest to enlighten the youth of America? Just like the fun- loving surgeonfish Dory, with her severe anterograde amnesia, I’d encourage you to just keep swimming. Keep battling. Keep grinding. Treat every day as a new day, and every day as a chance to change the world. Keep meticulously planning out your next move in the hopes that your renderings come to fruition. But find solace in the fact that even if they don’t, you might end up making an impact where you least expect it, in an area where you had no plan. And it might just change the world.

Plan to be a Frederick, but don’t be surprised when you end up a Fleming.

Put that on a poster, Mrs. Stevenson.

One thought on “Reach for the Moon, End up a Fleming

  1. Loved this, you are an educational and entertaining writer and also inspiring. I think I remember in Abraham Lincoln’s biography that he was quite messy in his law office, like Flming, even hosting plates of molding food. This tolerance led to him being able to handle the mess of the Civil War, saving so many Americans fromM slavery. But did he have Marfan’s?


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