A Day in the Life of a College
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.
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
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
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
usual: what I hope you retain. I fancy myself a realist; in six
twelve months, they are unlikely to remember any of the formulas I have
this term. Indeed when I reflect on the best teachers I had, it
not the content learned that distinguished them from the rest though
were, of course, all slam-dunk deliverers of content. It was the
lessons they offered me and which I carry to this day. Believe in
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
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
they wiped tears from their eyes. It was an astounding magical
All of us there together, caught up in something bigger than ourselves,
a glimpse of what life is all about. Community, love, learning,
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
the economy, to education, to world events, to life and death.
then to Evans for office hours, and then I'll head to my car and back
the nursing home.
1:00 p.m. Walking through Sproul Plaza en route to my
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.