Thursday, May 1, 2014

Closing in on Closure

So many "lasts" this week....

I gave the last lecture in my Intro to Ethics class yesterday; now all they have is recitations with my T.A. on Friday and their exam on Saturday, which he'll administer. We start the course by reading Tolstoy's novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich. As he lies dying, Ivan is haunted above all by the question of whether he has lived his life as he ought; he continually reassures himself that the answer must be yes, as he lived just as everyone else did. Only hours before his death does he admit to himself that the answer is no, that it was "all wrong." I then present the readings for the course - Aristotle, Epictetus, Kant, Mill, Nietzsche, Sartre, and the neo-Buddhist Shambhala - as "advice manuals" for living a better life than poor Ivan lived, centered as his was on money, social position, marital discord, and card games.

On the final day of the course, I have the students take a vote: if they could go back in time (and cross the divide from reality into fiction), which of our seven texts would they give to the twenty-year-old Ivan to guide his life from that point on? As happens so often, Aristotle came out the decisive winner, a text written two and a half millennia ago. In a near tie for second place: Sartre and Shambhala. My beloved Epictetus came in last, with only one vote - that was a blow!

This is the last time I'll ever ask that question to a class of students. I'm teaching Intro to Ethics again in Maymester (an entire semester crammed into thirteen intense days), but there the time is so cramped and compressed that we have to bypass Ivan Ilyich and leap in right away with Aristotle. So I asked the question yesterday with tears in my eyes.

I had the last meeting with my one-credit, once-a-week, little fairy tale class yesterday, too. The class, taught through the Norlin Scholars program, has just nine absolutely terrific students in it, and we meet in a small charming room tucked under the eaves on the four-and-a-half floor of Norlin Library. The focus of the course was fairy tale transformations. Yesterday students presented their final projects for the course. One boy wrote a moving poem prologue to Bluebeard. One girl had sewed a quilt for Donkeyskin. Another girl framed shards of a shattered mirror in a black storybook wooden box from Michael's craft store, representing a feminist shattering of the patriarchal voice in Snow White's mirror.

I was teary-eyed at the end of that class, too.

Hearing these stories, a family member asked me last night, "Aren't you sad to be leaving?"

I am. But I'm sad in the way I was sad on my graduation day from North Plainfield High School, a place I loved so much that I have never missed a reunion - or on my graduation day from Wellesley, as a proud member of their centennial class - or when I left my beloved job at Four Winds Press in NYC to take up the job I held for ten years at the University of Maryland (where I met Rich and gave birth to my boys), or when I left that job (and our sweet little house in Takoma Park, Maryland) to come to the University of Colorado in beautiful Boulder where I taught for 22 most happy years.

Just because you're sad to be leaving doesn't mean you want to stay. It only means that you love where you've been. It doesn't mean you aren't ready to start loving wherever you're heading next.

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