Friday, March 18, 2011

Saying Goodbye with Gratitude for a Precious Gift

He came by during my office hours on his last Friday in town, his one year old little girl in hand. He had come by to say goodbye after seven years. They were on their way to a new life in southwest Florida, his school teacher wife to follow at the end of the school year.

It was a bittersweet moment, We celebrated the job he had just landed with the Nature Conservancy, a job made possible by his determination to add a second bachelors in environmental science to the BA in religious studies he had earned from us. He thanked me for the reference I had provided him and said he thought that had been the deciding factor in him getting the job. He laughed when he emphasized it had been a really nice reference letter, subtly suggesting that perhaps I had been a bit profuse in my praise as I am sometimes wont to be for my students. Of course, everything I had said about him was true. And over a six year period, I’d had a long time to observe him. He simply is that good.

We smiled about his many years working in the fresh produce section at the Target Superstore, a job that kept the roof over the head of the young couple during his six years of college. We laughed about his early ID photo at the university when he’d come to Orlando sporting a fire engine red Mohawk, a look quickly superseded by a sort of Paul Bunyan beard and short trim hair cut more true to his Minnesota roots. And we delighted in the squirming mass of one year old energies embodied in his beautiful daughter, hair the color of honey and those same ice blue Norwegian eyes of her daddy.

But at the end it remained time to say goodbye. Having never had children of my own, one of the great sorrows of my life, I felt just a flicker of what it must feel like to watch your child leave home to go begin a life of their own. There was an emptiness in the pit of my stomach as I watched the two of them walk down the hall and out the front door of the department. I found myself sliding into my usual gay Jewish mother mode, silently praying, “O G-d, watch out for them. Help them do as well as they are so very capable of doing.”

He had come to my class the first time as a freshman six years ago. He was quiet and serious, diligent and punctual. He sat on the front row and his face never failed to betray when he did not understand something I’d said in class or when he found an idea troubling. He made the mistake of admitting to being Lutheran early on in the class and his usually serious if not grim expression often drew a response of “Dour Lutheran!“ from his Episcopal priest instructor, a comment that always managed to evoke at least a flicker of a grin.

Toward the end of the semester in the Humanistic Traditions II course, we cover material on Existentialism. I particularly like Existentialism in all of its forms. I sense it is one of the few completely honest philosophical approaches human beings have articulated. Sartre pounds his fellow post-war survivors with charges of “bad faith” in making assertions that we have no choice but to do any given thing. His contemporary Erich Fromm would write a masterpiece detailing humanity’s inclination to seek an Escape from Freedom and the responsibilities it inevitably entails.

In reality, Sartre says, we always make choices, even when we don’t like the options we’re presented, and our choices impact ourselves and the world we live in. We don’t get to default to religion, tradition or even reason to make our choice for us. Our best reason produced the Holocaust of Nazi Germany amidst WWII and two nuclear holocausts in Japan which ended that war while in turn inaugurating a Cold War in which nuclear annihilation became the human race’s perpetual elephant in the room. G-d did not save us from ourselves in the mid 20th CE despite our most urgent supplications and our traditions ultimately proved inadequate - if not toxic - in providing answers for humanity. And yet, Sartre insisted, we still must make choices and be responsible for them.

That’s a heavy understanding for freshmen in college to grapple with. His expression was more serious than usual when he came to my office hours after class that day. I was afraid something traumatic had occurred in his own life. Instead, he had come to talk about existentialism.

“This seems so pessimistic,” he said. “Where is the hope?” I reminded him of the importance of context in considering any text – this particular philosophy coming out of the ashes of Europe in WWII. I asked him to compare this view to the pre-WWI Progressive Era optimism (Every day, every way, things are getting better) we had just studied or to the neo-romanticism we would see in the rhetoric of the 1960s (“We can change the world, rearrange the world…”). I reminded him, “Any text without a context is a pretext,” echoing Jesse Jackson and thousands of others before me demanding critical, contextual consideration of any idea worth considering.

“But that doesn’t help,” he said. “It seems to me that Sartre is right. I don’t want to operate in bad faith. I don’t want to escape from freedom. But this is an incredible responsibility.” I agreed with him and told him I had no way to make it any less heavy. I then reminded him of my occasional question in class of where we all will be in 20 years. Sometimes I get the smart ass kid who suggests I’ll be dead (and with many more like him, he may be right) to which I respond that I’m hoping I’ll at least be down the street in the Happy Valley Home in a wheelchair with the drip-bag. But the gravitas of the question to my students quickly becomes apparent: “So who’ll be in charge?”

“I’ll have to think about that,” he said. And he did, returning to my office hours over the next six years, occasionally stopping me on campus to update me on his life, the questions with which he was currently wrestling and the career he was trying to piece together from his twin concerns for ethics and the environment.

He also kept me posted on his brother who had lived with him near campus, had run into trouble and had to return to southwest Florida, a brother of whom he was both immensely protective and very proud when the brother managed to right himself once safely back home. We celebrated his summer abroad in Italy with his then-future wife, their marriage and the birth of their beautiful daughter. I often found myself heading to Target on the way home from the university to buy the materials for that night’s supper just hoping to run into him and get the latest updates.

So it was sad to see him go. Frankly, he is precisely the kind of student to whom I have devoted my life energies and several lifetimes of scholarship and life experience. A student who truly engages his studies, who wrestles with the hard questions of life, who connects those ideas to the world around him and devotes his life to addressing them is a rare find, indeed. And I consider it a great privilege to teach and mentor such an unusual human being. Above all, I consider it a rare gift to come to know him as peer and friend.

I have not used this young man’s name in this entry primarily because I know it would embarrass him to have these things said about him, true as they are. I have no doubt he is aware of my great admiration for him professionally and my great affection for him personally. But what he does not know is that when he left my office late that Friday afternoon, I closed down my office hours and went home. And on the way home, I cried.

Here’s why.

As he rose to leave the office, young daughter doing pirouettes on the floor under his restraining arm, he crossed behind my desk to embrace me. “Goodbye,“ he said and then added, “You know, I’m sure I could not have done any of this without you. Thank you.” I blubbered something about being glad to have been helpful, hugged him, shook his hand and escorted them to the door, watching them walk down the long hallway and out the front door. And then they were gone.

His visit had come at the end of a lackluster but increasingly common day here at the factory. It was immediately obvious that the students in my morning Honors Humanities course had not read the material they were assigned to discuss, even with the questions designed to develop the reading divided into individual shares of 3-4 questions apiece requiring perhaps 15 minutes of prep time at most. Worse yet, I overhead my best student upon whom I can usually depend to be prepared saying to group mates, “I didn’t read any of this.” (I frequently have to remind these students that their instructor may be getting old but he’s not yet deaf and that the room’s acoustics are excellent.)

The next hour, a philosophy student walking me back to my office after class managed to blurt out that one of his classmates “still hasn’t bought the text,” this at midterm with an exam approaching, a trend that is sadly becoming more and more prevalent in college classes generally. That afternoon, a third of the Honors World Religions students skipped their 1:30 PM class.

I returned to my office hours afterward to find two emailed demands for references from students who had not come to ask for them in person or even called and whose deadlines were the following week. One would surmise from such a day that instructors are only as good as their ability and willingness to ignore sloth, richly reward minimal effort no matter how substandard its quality and provide instant glowing references for consumers demanding them regardless of the imposition on the reference provider.

It’s amazing how just two little words – thank you - can make the endurance of an awful lot of mediocre performance, attitudes of inordinate entitlement and an inexplicable lack of respect worthwhile. I will truly miss my fine young former student even as I know the world desperately needs the thoughtful, well-educated person he has become to deal with some of the greatest challenges our world has ever faced. And I give thanks for all his hard work, for the depth of integrity that he reflects, for the willingness to wrestle with hard questions without escaping from freedom that he embodies and for the very fine human being he has become. Most of all I give thanks that he was willing to share the precious gift of that extraordinary humanity with me.

It’s almost a cliché response to the thanks he offered me upon leaving, but I feel compelled to answer him this way: “No, my friend, thank you, for all you have been, all you have become and all you will be. My life is better for having known you. It is people like you who keep me working as hard as I do in a profession that I once loved but which has devolved into something nearly unrecognizable – and far too often unlovable - as I near the end of my time within it. And it is the few young people like you who give me hope for a future that increasingly looks bleak and foreboding as my life heads toward its twilight.”

Farewell, my young friend. Live long. Love deeply. Work hard. Do well. Somehow I have no doubts that you will.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++ ‘

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

 If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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