A Day in the Life of a College Professor

Martha Olney©
U.C. Berkeley (Economics)
January 30, 2003

Tuesday, May 14, 2002, the last day of classes

6:00 a.m. It’s not often – I hope – that I will wake up in a nursing home, but today is one of those days.  I in the recliner chair; Uncle David in the hospital bed, and that annoying Dachshund barking in the hallway.  I’ve been here since Friday.  Uncle David’s brain tumor will probably suck the last bits of life out of him some time today.  It has been a semester-long battle, begun on November 30 with what we thought was a stroke, encouraged through the end of March by his physical improvement, but thrust in April into a rapid decline to the end.  It won’t be long now.

7:45 a.m.  I made it.  My brother arrived at 6:30, I showered and changed, and made it to campus by 7:45.  The students would have understood had I cancelled the last class, but in some inexplicable way, I need to be with them this morning.  So here I am, on a bright, shining, glorious, warm, May morning, latte in hand, lecture – written in that nursing home recliner – in my book bag, sitting on the benches outside of Dwinelle Hall, soaking in the sunshine, reveling in the surround-me-and-fill-me concert raining down from the Campanile.  Having spent the last four days holding my dying uncle’s hand, praying comes easily.  The music, first a somber dirge, breaks into a joyous romp as I open my eyes and spy a penny on the bench.  Could there be something to that “pennies from heaven” thing?  I pocket the penny and head into 155 Dwinelle.

8:00 a.m.  Soon 155 Dwinelle will be filled with 400 students, all eager to hear my “concluding remarks” after a semester together learning Intermediate Macro.  Well, at least some will be eager.  Others just want to know what is on the final.  The organizational skills that are my hallmark mean we have arrived on this day, having taken exams and completed problem sets as scheduled, all of us knowing today’s topic.  Confusing material has been made clear, obscure theories have become intuitive.  And through various tricks-of-the-trade, I have long since formed us into a community rather than simply a gathering of 400 or so disparate bodies.  Over the weekend, I had sent email to let them know whether we would have class today.  They come to class knowing that I had spent the last four days holding the hand of a dying man.

    Was it the end of term aura?  The experience of the last four days?  The sun and music and prayer and that penny?  I am somehow “other-worldly” on this last day of class.  As always, I have prepared about 12 pages of notes and, as always, will barely need them because now the material is fresh in my mind.  My lecture is standard fare: the topics we have covered, how it all fits together, the skills I hope you have learned.  The last page of my notes is really no different than usual: what I hope you retain.  I fancy myself a realist; in six or twelve months, they are unlikely to remember any of the formulas I have taught this term.  Indeed when I reflect on the best teachers I had, it is not the content learned that distinguished them from the rest though they were, of course, all slam-dunk deliverers of content.  It was the life lessons they offered me and which I carry to this day.  Believe in yourself.  Become the person you were created to be.

    My notes say this: “What do I hope you’ll remember?  (A) Policy that helps in the short-run may harm the long-run.  (B) Most ‘real world’ policy in the U.S. is directed at the short-run because of the political cycle.  (C) Most international aid policy in the third world is directed at the long run.  (D) Education matters.  (E) When we disagree with one another, look to each other’s assumptions to determine the source of our disagreement.”  And I said all those things.

    But on this day, with Uncle David dying, with the sun shining, with the music having filled my soul, with this semester together ending, I can’t stop there.  What a year it had been.  The fall semester had been punctuated, skewered, torn apart by 9-11.  The spring semester was consumed by teaching, parenting my 4 year old son, and caring for my childless widowed uncle.  And so I look at the students and tell them what I know: that what matters most in life is love.  Love what you do.  Love who you are.  Love those around you.  I don’t really care if you wind up being an economist; I do care that you wind up doing something that you love.  Life is too short – the year had reminded us all of this lesson – to spend it doing something you don’t love.

    Uncle David and Aunty Ruth, I tell them, were both Old Blues.  She attended during the war years; he graduated in 1947 following his return, with a Purple Heart, from Europe.  They were proud of me, their youngest niece.  They taught me that love of learning need not stop with graduation.  Do something you love.  Keep learning.  Stretch.  Grow.  To thine own self be true.

    I thought I was being a bit soppy.  But as I gave my concluding thank you, the students clapped, they stood, they cheered, and they wiped tears from their eyes.  It was an astounding magical moment.  All of us there together, caught up in something bigger than ourselves, catching a glimpse of what life is all about.  Community, love, learning, life, death.

9:40 a.m.  Some students want to ask questions about the final, so we move outside to those benches in the sun, and talk.  Questions answered, they depart.  A former student swings by.  A current student stays and talks.  And over the next hour our conversation ranges from the economy, to education, to world events, to life and death.  Back then to Evans for office hours, and then I'll head to my car and back to the nursing home.

1:00 p.m.  Walking through Sproul Plaza en route to my car, amidst students scurrying hither and yon while others engage in typical pre-graduation conversation, I imagine my aunt and uncle on Sproul Plaza some 55 years earlier.  I smile.  We are part of a never-ending path, where life and learning mix together, lessons are learned, some are remembered, lives are changed, and we pass it on.  What a gift.  Go Bears.

1:02 p.m.  My cell phone rings as I cross Bancroft Way.  Uncle David died just minutes ago.

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Page prepared 1/30/03; updated 1/31/03
by Martha Olney