Sunday, May 31, 2009

Bedtime Story

“The gnome-mobile, the gnome-mobile, we’re driving around in the gnome-mobile!”

I am probably one of the few people who remember this rather obscure Disney film (The Gnome-Mobile) and still have the song playing in my mind some forty years later.

My memory of it is the two kids from Mary Poppins make friends with gnomes and then drive around in the forest in a big car called the Gnome-Mobile with Walter Brennan, some old rich Irish guy and the only real adult in the film. (I think Walter Brennan also played one of the gnomes.)

I swear I saw this movie, or at least part of it, on the Wonderful World of Disney, but maybe not. Maybe I only saw a preview of it on Disney.

Sunday nights at our house growing up meant the Wonderful World of Disney. I can actually remember Walt Disney introducing some of the segments. Since he died in 1966, that is kind of impressive as I would have been… three. In fact, it may mean they were using canned footage of him introducing the Wonderful World of Disney well after his death. Or not. Who knows, maybe I have an incredibly good memory!

My recollection is also that the Wonderful World of Disney ran from 7 to 8 pm on Sunday nights; the Internet tells me it ran from 7:30 to 8:30 pm. Whatever. What I do remember is that for a while, my sister and I had a bedtime that fell halfway in between, and honest to God, my father would make us go to bed halfway through Walt Disney!

I am not kidding. At the time, I thought that was the cruelest thing imaginable. I mean, really, give us the half hour more; let us finish up with Disney and then we will gladly go to bed. Of course, we would never have argued with my father; we would have just gone to bed. Unhappy, yes, but we would have gone without putting up, well, really any kind of fight.

I distinctly remember having to go to bed halfway through Davey Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier, with Fess Parker. What father in his right mind would make his kids miss out on Davey Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier?

Just because bedtime was bedtime?

In hindsight, I would have made bedtime half an hour later on Sundays.

Unfortunately, I was not in charge.

I believe in rules and routines and all, but only if they make sense and make things run more smoothly. I don’t believe in rules for the sake of rules, or rigidity.

I am sure I would have let my own kids stay up to watch the entire episode of the Wonderful World of Disney! In part because they would have been transfixed and quiet; in part, because it would have been insanity to try to tear them away. Because they would have protested vociferously! And it wouldn’t have been worth it. But also in part because, quite simply: why not? Who wouldn’t want to watch the entire episode?

I can remember when my sister and I would wake up too early on Saturday mornings and go turn on the TV to watch Saturday morning cartoons. I am not sure what “too early” was, but if my father decided it was too early, he would send us back to bed. Period. No ifs, ands, or buts. And, of course, we would go. With little, if any, protest. We wouldn’t go back to sleep, mind you. Normally, we would go to my bedroom, which was further away from my parents’ room, and we would play covered wagon on my canopy bed. So, maybe that was more creative and engaging than watching cartoons, which we would watch later anyway.

As a parent, I can appreciate the desire for sleep that one has on weekends and the fact that little kids get up way too early for their own good. Although one could argue that if our father had let us stay up a bit later in general, we might have slept in a bit later the next morning. But – sigh! – I guess there was no desire to have us sleep in on Monday morning.

I think our bedtime was pretty much set period. My memory of it was as 7:30, at least on school nights. I guess the Wonderful World of Disney research bumps this up to 8:00. I have memories of watching The Brady Bunch and the Partridge Family on Friday nights, but not anything past this, unless we had some unknowing babysitter we could dupe, and got to watch Room 222 or Love American Style on occasion.

I know Saturday night and a babysitter meant a bath followed by The Sonny and Cher Show.

Now, that was living life on the wild side!

Later on, Saturday nights meant The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. I can still sing the theme song from Love Boat and remember fondly Tattoo shouting “Boss! Da plane, da plane!” as that week’s guest stars (mostly movie and TV has beens) would arrive to be greeted by Ricardo Montalban, himself a former movie star.

Nowadays, I go to bed before my two teenaged sons, more often than not. Of course, if it is a weekend, I will be up early and they will sleep til noon!

There are no bed times really.

Sometimes, if it is late and they wake me up, I will tell them to go to bed, if it is really late. If it is a weekend, I am less likely to do this. If it is a weeknight, and I know they have to get up at 6:30 am, more likely. As I am the one who is going to have to get them up!

They do not watch the Wonderful World of Disney. I am not even sure if it is still on or not. Of course, they would be far too old for that now. They watch things like South Park and Family Guy and Futurama and Adult Swim. And the Comedy Channel. I know this because sometimes I am still up and see them watching these shows. And sometimes because when I wake up in the morning and go to turn on the CBS Morning News, the TV is still on Cartoon Network or what have you.

Am I a bad mom because I let my children watch these shows?

Well, I may be a bad mom for a bunch of other reasons, but, frankly, I am not big on censorship. And to be honest, I find a lot of these shows to be funny myself.

They are just on way too late for me to stay up and watch them.

My kids are good kids. They do well in school. They seem well-adjusted. Granted, they are teenagers and drive me to distraction at least several times a week. But I think they are old enough to select their TV shows. Even if they are a bit raunchy. The TV shows, not my kids.

Plus, when my bedtime rolls around, I need to skedaddle under those covers pronto ASAP!!!

Because Lord knows, morning will be coming soon enough….

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Sensations of Summer

What does summer smell like to you?

freshly cut grass, charcoal grills firing up, chlorine, honeysuckle….

What does summer sound like to you?

lawn mowers, the whir of bike tires, the splash of a dive, the incessant chatter of birds, the buzz of bees….

What does summer taste like to you?

soft shell crabs, fresh corn on the cob, watermelon, tomatoes fresh from the garden, popsicles….

What does summer feel like to you?

hot, humid air, the sun beating down on your body, cool grass between your toes, an itchy mosquito bite, a cold, refreshing drink….

What does summer look like to you?

green, green, green, flowers of many colors, waves above the pavement, fireworks, lightning bugs flashing randomly across the yard, condensation dripping down the side of a glass….

What does summer mean to you...?

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Out on a limb

"Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind."

You know those quotations people put at the ends of their emails? Kind of as part of their signature block?

Like they are supposed to inspire you somehow? Or make you think?

Generally speaking, I don’t much care for them. I mean, sure, the first time you read a quotation, it might be interesting. But then when you start seeing that same quote forty million times a day, it – uh – starts to lose something.

A lot.


If people could arrange it so the quotations changed each time they sent out an email, now, that might be something.

But then, they would have to have like forty billion quotations!

Well… I saw the above quotation the other day.

Somewhere. In one of the millions of emails I receive.

And for some reason, it struck me.


Right there between the eyes.

Do you know who said it? Or wrote it? Originally. Not the email. The quotation.

Don’t think too hard. Keeping things simple often does you right.

Dr. Seuss.

Yep. Theodore S. Geisel. Dr. Seuss. Of Hop on Pop and One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish fame. That Dr. Seuss. Am not sure where this particular quote appears, but I would be willing to bet it was in Oh, the Places You’ll Go! You know, that book people give to young people who are graduating from high school or college, even though Dr. Seuss books are meant for small children.

The quotation sounds so simple, so straightforward, so commonsensical.

"Be who you are and say what you feel…”

OK. Yes. That sounds simple enough.

“…because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind."

It’s quite disarming in its simplicity, its seeming charm, isn’t it?

I find it quite profound myself.

I probably worry too much about those people who mind (and don’t matter!) and take far too much for granted those people who matter (and don’t mind).

I would do well then -- wouldn’t I? – to follow Dr. Seuss’s advice more closely.

I am not by nature a risk taker.

At least not when it comes to myself. If I see injustice being done to others, generally speaking, I will step forward and say something or do something on their behalf.

But on my own behalf…?

In my own interest…?

Hmmmm. Not likely. Not very often.

It is funny. I think of myself as very quiet, very introverted, very reserved. I do not feel “the need for speed.” I love challenges, but they don’t need to be risky, life-endangering, sportsy, or inconsequential. I don’t need the feeling just to have the feeling.

I mentioned this once at work, and two of my co-workers whirled around.

“What?!? I would have imagined you loved risky adventures!” they each said.

“Why on earth would you ever think that?” I asked, incredulous.

“Because you were in the Army!” said one.

“Yeah. Because you climbed mountains and drove tanks and flew airplanes and …”

“Shot big guns and crossed glaciers and jumped out of airplanes [I did not really jump out of airplanes]!” said the other.

“Because you were always doing dangerous things!!!” They both said in unison, nodding their heads vigorously.

A light bulb went on in my head.

“Oh. Well. Yes,” I said, “but I didn’t do any of those things because I wanted to. Just for the fun of it. I only did them because I was told to do them!”

They both stared at me.

“I never would have gone out and done them on my own,” I explained further.

The continued staring at me.

“Hello! Those things are… you know… dangerous!”

They both laughed.

It is true, though. I do not seek out danger for the sake of danger. I will do dangerous things, if they need to be done. But I am not going to be one of those people who bungee jumps off the New River Gorge Bridge in West Virginia once a year just because I can.

In fact, I can’t imagine myself ever bungee jumping off the New River Gorge Bridge period. No matter what.

When it comes to interacting with others, my close friends tell me that I need to… “go out on a limb” more.

Take risks.

Put myself on the line.

Sure. They can say that. They don’t have to “go out on a limb.”

I am not good at going out on a limb.

Going out on a limb is not going to come to anything good. I know this ahead of time.

In fact, I am positive it will only cause embarrassment.

For myself, mostly.

Once in a while, it is true,

I will feel it right to take that extra step, venture out onto that limb, speak up, express myself…


generally speaking, it is a mistake, not right, ill-timed, inappropriate.

And I am left feeling foolish.

The fool.

Stranded out there on the middle of that bare limb.

OK. Fine.

So, I guess that is when I really need to remind myself: “those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind.”

Or, more in line with my own style: “From there to here, from here to there, funny things are everywhere!"

And I am one of them.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day

Thoreau had a pond. Annie Dillard had a creek. I have a cemetery.

Some may find that unnatural, or, at the least, morbid. I find it neither. The cemetery sits atop a hill overlooking the village and the river and the bridge down below. A winding road takes you up through sylvan forests, full of birds, squirrels, chipmunks, groundhogs, and deer. The seasons are broadcast fully, from vivid green in summer to a snowy wonderland in winter; autumn is magnificent with all the changing colors and falling leaves. It is quiet, peaceful, beautiful, a place to get away from it all, simply by walking out my front door and up the hill.

This is an older cemetery, for the United States, dating back to the mid-1800s. A large, recently rebuilt statue of Fame creates a memorial to all those locals who died in the Civil War. It sits at the very top of the hill, behind the large American flag, where an opening has been cut in the woods. From here, you can easily see the river and the bridge below, and from the bridge, you can see the opening in the trees and the flag and a glimpse of the white statue above.

Normally, I walk around the winding roads in any number of permutations, thinking, thinking, thinking. Walking, walking, walking. Writing, writing, writing. Taking note of the changing seasons, absent-mindedly acknowledging the names on the gray and white and pink headstones. They are like old friends.

This past weekend I left the paved road and ventured amongst the headstones, examining graves that had been marked with American flags. Wherever there was a veteran’s marker, groups of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts had carefully slipped a small American flag. I found veterans from the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. I did not see any markers for veterans of Desert Storm or the more recent Iraq/Afghanistan wars, but I may have missed them. As I said, this is an older cemetery; most of the veterans were from WWII. I was surprised by how many Spanish/American War markers I saw. This is not a military cemetery; it is simply a local town cemetery. Full of local townspeople. Many of whom served their country. Most of whom then went on to lead long, productive (or short, perhaps contentious?) lives back in their communities. I saw very few gravestones where the person had been killed in war. It was a cemetery full of veterans, full of survivors.

I recognize many of the names on the headstones, from families who were famous in my town’s history or in the rise of industrial Pittsburgh. Many of these families still live here. I do not tend to think of cemeteries as sad places or places of death; rather as places of history and families and lives led. I see people, spirits, moving in the distance, just out of sight, walking back and forth amongst the headstones, wearing clothes from all different time periods. I hear the murmur of their talking and their laughter and their sighs. The cemetery is humming, buzzing, with generations of lives led, most very ordinary, but in their own ways extraordinary. I imagine their stories, their loves, their heartaches, their hopes and dreams. The cemetery is full of stories. The cemetery is full of life.

My father is buried in this cemetery. I remember well his funeral and the humid heat of the day when he was buried. The folded American flag that was given to my mother because he was a veteran. I don’t really think of his being there, in the ground. Visiting his grave has little real meaning to me, but occasionally I pass by and take a look. To make sure his gravestone is still there. To ensure the wreath is placed there at Christmas time, the geraniums planted in spring. Things that my mother has arranged to have done.

By his grave there is a marker designating him as a World War II veteran; a crisp new American flag, probably made in China, flutters in the late afternoon breeze. My mother had worried earlier if there were enough geraniums planted at his grave; she was thinking of driving up in the heat of the day to plant an extra flower. I had reassured her that there were plenty. I counted them today: four red geraniums and three white flowers whose name I do not know. That seemed like plenty to me.

I think a small town cemetery can tell you a lot about a place and its people and its history. About those who served in uniform in any number of conflicts. This cemetery has massive stones and obelisks and mausoleums from very wealthy families, next to very ordinary stones and the occasional quixotic stone with dueling guitars or a bowling ball and pins carved into it. American flags dot the hills with fairly regular precision, regardless of the stone or its size. And then there is the section where veterans are buried with government-issued bronze plaques or simple stone markers. That section is a sea of American flags, lined up symmetrically, in row after row. The cemetery is as different and varied as the town. Yet, on this day, Memorial Day, you can tell easily all of those who served their country proudly, in uniform, for reasons they felt right. So, those of us now can walk amiably through the cemetery or watch the Memorial Day parade, where the Korean War veterans are now the “old fogies.” I remember them as being young; it was the World War I veterans who were old! And today there are only a few World War II veterans left, riding in cars, many too old or too crippled to walk. The people lining the sidewalks in their array of red, white, and blue clothes and waving small flags or clutching red, white, and blue balloons clap for all the veterans. Of every war. And for any active duty soldiers as well. They do this once a year, before they head off for the swimming pool or their barbecues or picnics and welcome the beginning of summer.

Saturday, May 23, 2009


Graduation Day.

Memorial Day.

Graduation Day.

Memorial Day.


OK. This year, West Point graduation is on Saturday, May 23rd, and Memorial Day is on Monday, May 25th.

I honestly don’t remember Memorial Day being all that close to West Point’s graduation day when I graduated, but I am sure it must have been……

May 22, 1985.

Graduation Day.

I think it was a Wednesday. But that doesn’t make any sense.

Does it?

Here, let me check… (the beauty of the Internet and calendars/time throughout the ages!)

Hmmm… yes, May 22 did fall on a Wednesday in 1985.

Memorial Day was on Monday, May 27th, which would have been light years away from Wednesday, May 22nd,


light years ahead of Saturday, June 1, 1985.

Wedding Day.

But I digress...

May 22, 1985.

Graduation Day.

The anniversary, on Friday, was noted by several of my West Point classmates on Facebook. Twenty four years ago today, they said. And they remembered…..

A dad or mom who pinned their 2nd LT bars on.

A parent to whom they gave their West Point saber.

The day.


They remembered it.

And Memorial Day?

Several of my classmates and friends have pointed out the importance of Memorial Day, whether it be thanking soldiers for serving, remembering those who have served and sacrificed, or acknowledging those who have died while serving their country.

Or tipping one’s beer in a toast whilst imbibing at a picnic.

The sentiments vary.

This is what I remember about Graduation Day….

This was the day I had waited for FOREVER. We had counted down for four years to this day. We were going to graduate, be commissioned as 2nd lieutenants in the Regular Army, leave West Point, and go out and do stuff.

My parents were there. My sister. My aunt from Alaska, my aunt from San Francisco (well, they had come East early for the big wedding that was going to be happening soon). My aunt and uncle on my mother's side, from Pittsburgh.

We had had all sorts of festivities: a graduation banquet, a graduation parade, award ceremonies, company parties. It is all really just a big blur.

But I do remember graduation day. It was hot and sunny. We were wearing full dress over white. It was hot. We were in Michie Stadium. We were all lined up. We were sitting in order. We were ready to toss up our white caps and be done with it. The Honorable John O. Marsh was the speaker. Who???

I got my diploma. I sat down. We tossed up our hats into the air. And cheered and cried and hugged each other. Did we really realize we might not see each other ever again? Or at least not for a very, very long time?

We changed into our Army Class A greens for the commissioning ceremony. Company A-2 had theirs up at Fort Putnam. Overlooking West Point and the Hudson.

I had assumed that my father would administer my oath of office. I had never asked him if he would do this; I had just….assumed…. My tactical officer had assumed.

I mean, why wouldn’t he????

But there, at Fort Putnam, on the top of the hill above West Point and the Hudson, and all of the history of the military academy and the Revolutionary War and every other war since, he said…


I couldn’t believe it. Surely, I had heard wrong. Surely, he would be honored to help commission me as an officer in the United States Army, to administer the oath and pin those gold second lieutenant bars on my shoulders.

wouldn’t he…?

He had gone to West Point himself, a Nebraska farm boy from the Depression era who had made his way, arduously, to the US Military Academy and graduated with the Class of 1939. He had served in World War II.

But he said, no.

I don’t think I have ever been so incredibly devastated in my life as at that moment in time.

I had been through so much. I had done everything, EVERYTHING to win his approval. I had been through hell at West Point, as so many of my classmates, both male and female, but probably more so female, had. I could not possibly have done any better than I had.

And he said… no.

That was it.

I was stunned.


Punched in the gut.

In retrospect, twenty four years on, I honestly believe it had nothing to do with me. I am not sure, exactly, why he said no. But I think it had more to do with him. His thinking you had to be a career Army officer, or an officer still on duty at the least. Or something. I don’t think he realized that it was an honor, a request. And I had surprised him, caught him off guard. I had not talked with him about this beforehand, because… well, I had just assumed he would do it!

I don’t know.


I really have no idea.


I just cannot believe that honestly, truly my father could have ever done something so cruel and hurtful. Intentionally.

I remember standing there, on top of that mountain, in the ruins of this Revolutionary War fort, in my new Army greens, in the hot, hot sun, the breeze blowing by us all, surrounded by all of my classmates and their families, everyone so proud and excited and chattering and laughing.

And feeling so alone.

Lower than low.

Completely deflated.

I had to fight back the tears.

Of course, I was used to that. After four years at West Point. I was used to being strong and stoic and showing… nothing. Because for a woman to show emotion, that was the worst possible thing you could do. For a female cadet to cry, that was anathema.

But I was not a female cadet. I was a second lieutenant in the United States Army. And I was proud to serve my country.

I would NEVER cry about something so silly as my own father refusing to commission me! That was childish, ludicrous.

My aunt, my father’s sister who was closest to him in age and closest to me in personality, was one of the few people who had witnessed what had just transpired.

I stepped to the edge of the stone ruins to regroup. And she came up to me. She spoke to me. She knew exactly what had just happened.

I almost lost it. Tears were overflowing, no matter how hard I fought to keep them back.

“I did everything,” I said. “I did everything for him. You have no idea what I have been through. This was all for him!”

“I know,” she said slowly and nodded. “I know. But he doesn’t. And he doesn’t mean to….”

The wind rippled by us.

She gave me a long, hard hug.

And I sucked it up.

My tactical officer, a captain in Air Defense Artillery and a nice enough guy, if one is to like one’s tactical officer, administered the oath of office on the top of the hill, on Fort Putnam, overlooking the Hudson River, in the hot, hot sun on Wednesday, May 22, 1985.

Someone’s younger brother, a cadet at VMI or the Citadel, in his institution’s West Point-imitation uniform, caught me as I was leaving Fort Putnam and saluted me. I saluted back and gave him my Eisenhower silver dollar. It was a tradition. A new second lieutenant always gives a silver dollar to the first person to salute him or her.

And I was indeed a new second lieutenant….

Saturday, May 16, 2009

"Rollin', rollin', rollin' ... Keep them doggies rollin'. Rawhide!"

I bought a gasoline-powered weed whacker today. Well, it uses a mix of oil and gas, a 32 to 1 ratio. I have to pour 8 ounces of this special weed whacker oil in this special gas can and then add 2 gallons of regular unleaded gas to the can, mix it up, and voila! -- one weed whacker cocktail!

I was very nervous buying a weed whacker. I never bought one before. And it is not the sort of thing I would desire to purchase, or know anything about. I used to have a personal weed whacker; I was married to him. And we had a simple weed whacker machine that was plugged in with a mega long extension cord, you know the orange kind on a spool. Well, I no longer have either the machine or the operator.

But I DO have weeds.



I actually have a local lawn service come once every two weeks to mow all the grass, because 1) I don’t own a lawn mower; 2) I don’t have the time to mow the grass; 3) my big strapping sons are gone most of the summer mowing someone else’s grass and probably using that same plug-in weed whacker; and 4) the service is reasonably priced. The problem is: I can only afford the reasonably priced lawn mowing service once every two weeks and the lawn grows WAYYYY faster than that. And they only run a lawn mower over the overtly grassy parts. They don’t get all those nooks and crannies and hard to get places where weeds seem to grow as tall as an elephant’s eye overnight!

Add in the fact that I am anal retentive and have OCD and all those weeds make me twitch.

I have a real NEED to cut them down with a motorized swath of fishing line!

The guy at the hardware store was very helpful, I have to say. I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that I could not get a weed whacker that had to be plugged in. Because the weeds are far, far, far too far away from any plug, I don’t care how long of an orange extension cord you’ve got! I knew there were cordless, rechargeable weed whackers, but I also knew how worthless all those Dustbusters I have ever owned have been. If a gadget can’t charge up enough to suck up dirt from my car mats, how is a gadget going to whack all those Amazonian weeds???

I had a feeling going in that I was going to have to get a gas-powered weed whacker. I didn’t really like the idea, but there was certainly no way I was going to whack weeds with a machete or nail clippers.

I have used a weed whacker before, precisely the version that plugged in with the ultra long orange extension cord because my personal weed whacker was often not home when the weeds needed their whacking. So, I am familiar with the action involved.

The idea of a motor and having to add gasoline made me a tad nervous.

I felt like I was going out to buy a new car.

The hardware guy reassured me, though, that I definitely wanted a gas-powered machine and not a cordless one. He said he would NEVER buy a cordless one. I figured as much. And he was very helpful at finding me one that was the right size and weight for me to handle. He did NOT try to sell me the deluxe $300 model! In fact, he sold me one of the models that were on sale. Which I appreciated. But he did not sell it to me BECAUSE it was on sale. But rather because he felt it fit my needs. And he gave me an already assembled weed whacker, so I didn’t have to assemble it myself. Again, most appreciated. (Yes, I realize he was giving me the floor model, but that was OK with me. The thought of having to assemble this piece of machinery from scratch was NOT a desirable one. Plus, I just wanted to go home and start making my swath ASAP OCOKA!)

The hardware store guy even put some of the oil/gas mixture in the machine and taught me how to start up the machine and use it and turn it off again. He hooked me up with a gas can and the right kind of oil and told me how to add the oil to the can first and then 2 gallons of gas and then mix it up. He even wrote “32 to 1” on the red plastic gas can with a black Sharpie so I would always know the correct mix of oil and gas to put in! (Frankly, the “add this 8 ounce bottle of oil, followed by 2 gallons of gas” instructions worked just fine for me, but whatever.)

And… he carried everything out to my car.

Clearly, this hardware store guy does a lot of business with women who need weed whackers but know absolutely nothing about them, or else this was just an incredibly kind and helpful man. Or both. I was impressed.

Whacked my first weeds this afternoon.

Feel sort of like a lumberjack or a manly landscaper kind of person dude.

Feel a great sense of accomplishment.

Feel like an American.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

"Do not go gentle into that good night..."

One of my students died. He was a freshman, only 19. An athlete, he played on the college men’s volleyball team. One evening, a week or so ago, he complained of heartburn after dinner, took an antacid, and went to take a shower. Later that night, someone found him in the dorm, unresponsive. He was rushed to the nearest hospital, which is less than a block away, but it was too late. He was dead. Of a ruptured aorta. He was 19.

When I came into work the next day, I had not heard anything about it. I was preparing to teach a research session for a Public Speaking class that had to develop a presentation on Thomas Merton’s classic The Seven Storey Mountain. I knew most of the students would be freshmen, who had already taken the core Research and Information Skills course I teach every fall; this was the same course I had taught the student who had just died. Only I did not know yet that he had died.

One of the other reference librarians left a note in my cube to come see her. She was working out at the reference desk, and when I went out there, she had a story from the online version of the newspaper up on her computer screen. “University student dies,” it said. Oh, no, I thought to myself. Occasionally, a student would die, it was true, in a car accident, from alcohol poisoning, an accidental drug overdose, unfortunate, unusual circumstances that took young people way too soon. When I looked more closely at the text of the article, I recognized the student’s name. My heart lurched a bit, but his name was a fairly common one; surely, it was someone else with the same name. Not him. It couldn’t be him, he was only 19. But then I saw that the article included his signature nickname. And I froze. No. This wasn’t possible. I had just seen him the other day on campus, in passing, we had said hi. And he had given me that big grin of his, the one that always allowed me to recognize him instantly.

I typically teach four sections of freshmen in the fall, about 160 students total. The classes of about 40 students each are held in computer labs, for 50 minutes, once a week. Most of the time, these kids’ faces are hidden behind their computer screens as I lecture and lead them in conversation and in class assignments. I am not really very good at remembering people’s names, and I find it especially hard to remember all of these freshmen names. So many of the students look so much alike, and they have so many names that are alike. I have mixed up some of my students more than once, especially if I run into them outside of the classroom. And it can be very embarrassing. I have actually gotten better over the years; I try harder, I think, to remember people’s names. Of course, there are always those few students who stand out for one reason or another; often because they are in trouble or have been doing poorly. Then, of course, there are those few who distinguish themselves in the classroom for other reasons – they say something really funny, they ask a memorable question, they are so physically different in appearance from everyone else it would be impossible not to recognize them.

But with “my student,” it was something different. He stood out from the rest, not for any particular reason, but just because he did. His amazing smile certainly had something to do with it; afterall, it was a smile I could pick out amidst throngs of students crossing campus between classes. It was also the fact that on that first day of class as I was taking attendance by calling the names off the roster one by one, to check for nicknames and make sure I was pronouncing names correctly, he told me I could call him by a nickname that clearly had no connection to his given name. I must have paused or looked at him quizzically as I was jotting that nickname down on the roster, because he smiled that amazing smile of his and shrugged, “It’s a family thing. There’s a story behind it.” He didn’t elaborate, but from that point on I had absolutely no problem whatsoever remembering his name. I think even he was surprised a bit in the weeks to come when I called him by his nickname. Afterall, we only met once a week.

He was a good student. He did what he was supposed to do. He always came to class and he always turned in his assignments and they were fine. Once there was a problem with one of his electronic submissions. I think it was more of a technology glitch than anything else, and I had him resubmit his assignment. He thanked me for “allowing” him to resubmit it. I told him that I had seen him completing the assignment in the classroom, so I knew he had done it correctly and I just wanted him to get the credit that was due. He thanked me again anyway.

He was friendly, easy going, funny. He made people laugh. And he had that amazing smile.

I did not really know my student all that well. I only had him once a week for fifty minutes during the fall term. I saw him occasionally on campus and said hi. He would always say hi back. And smile warmly. One time he happened to come into the library when I was on duty at the reference desk. The library was crowded with people studying and doing group projects. Clearly, he was surveying the crowded room, looking for someone. I asked him if he was “lost.” He turned around to look at me, sitting at the reference desk. He recognized me and laughed. No, he was just looking for someone, he said. I asked him how he was doing, how his term was going, and he said fine. He gave me that signature smile. And moved on.

I call my students, MY students, not because I feel any sense of ownership, but rather because I feel a sense of responsibility and fondness for them. It is my job to try to better prepare them for doing research while they are at university, to get them to see that college is different than high school, and that really, although they think they already know how to search and find information, they really don’t always at the level that they need to. Most learn very quickly. Many don’t really pay much attention to our course, because it has no relevance to them yet. They haven’t had to write research papers and haven’t gotten into their majors in any depth. They are new, they are freshmen, they are getting a feel for things.

Each of my classes has its own personality, its own rhythm and temper. Some sections are more jovial and fun, others more serious, some even temperamental or downright crabby. Some learn faster than others, some have more problems turning in assignments or understanding what is expected of them. Some are kinder, more patient, more forgiving. Others think their time is being wasted. Some think their time is being wasted, but they are still kind and respectful.

It always amazes me how my different sections take on different personalities. I am not always sure what causes the differences. Sometimes most of the students in a section might come from the same school or program; maybe that has something to do with it. Other times I am teaching a section that is particularly early in the morning or late in the afternoon or right at the lunch hour. Maybe that has something to do with it. Or maybe it is just the simple fact that I have different people in each section and they interact/gel differently as a group.

I love teaching. I love engaging with students. I love experimenting with different technologies and approaches to teaching. I strive to make my class entertaining and fun; given the subject matter of the course, that can be difficult at times. I really like to make my students laugh. My feeling is: if my students are not paying attention and engaged, then I am wasting my breath.

I learn a lot from my students. And I enjoy running into them around campus or in the library in years to come. It is fun to watch them mature and get into their majors and thrive while in college. I enjoy it when they stop by the reference desk or stop for a few moments when we run into each other on campus. Even just, in passing, when they recognize me and smile or say hi.

I cannot believe that I will never see my student again. I keep seeing him all over campus and do double takes, until I realize it is simply another young man with a similar build or haircut. I keep looking for that amazing smile in the throngs of students I pass. I am stunned, in disbelief. How can a young, healthy man just die like that, boom, out of the blue, for no seeming reason? It makes no sense to me; there is no sense, I think.

I told my children about my student, because it upset me so much and I wanted to share with them this amazing young man who had been taken so suddenly. My younger son suggested, “Well, maybe he was needed somewhere else.” “What? To play volleyball on God’s team?” I felt like asking, but didn’t.

I do know that my student was a young man with many friends. I do know that he touched many, many people deeply with his kindness and humor and energy and love of life. He was one of those people who live life to the fullest, and thus, the kind you can never imagine no longer being here.

I think I shall always see my student’s smile as I cross campus. His smile will always be there inside of me, and inside of all of those he ever knew or touched, even in passing. And I will miss him.