Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Inspired by Andy Rooney: What Do You See Your Role in Life to Be?

John Gardner
Like millions of Americans I watched transfixed as I listened to Andy Rooney doing his final and farewell commentary to and for so many of us. I am so glad I watched. I was moved. If you didn’t see this, well, you really should check out CBS for the text of his piece. 
I don’t know when I have heard such an explicit and poignant statement of what a life is or could be all about. And how one’s life relates to vocation. This would be great to play or assign for beginning college students say in a first-year seminar session on career planning. This man really knows what his life has been all about, what has been his purpose, what have been his sources of gratification. And purpose is so important to all of us no matter what stage of life we are in.
Andy’s piece reminded me of a series we used to offer at USC through our University 101 program, the so-called “Last Lecture Series”. Of course, this idea is not unique at all to my University. But I have no idea if the concept is still in vogue, let alone use anywhere. Idea is very simple: you ask an educator(s) to give his “last lecture.” What would you most want to say to students? What would you want them most to remember, to take away from their experience with you? I remember a beautiful one where one of our most distinguished piano faculty, John Kenneth Adams, performed his last lecture by playing a work of Debussy, to which he added his own verbal commentary.
Anyway, Andy just gave his last lecture. I didn’t need it to have clarity about my own purpose and life’s intent and meaning, but it surely did move me nevertheless. I found him to be the kind of thoughtful, intentionally wise “elder” that I think our students should be exposed to.
And while you are at it, why don’t you give consideration to having your own “last lecture” series and/or delivering one personally. Just the act of deciding what you would say could be worth the investment in the exercise.

Monday, October 10, 2011

On the Way to War with Teddy Bear and Memories of Mother

John Gardner

During the week of the eleventh anniversary of the US invasion of Afghanistan, I had my own experience that moving brought home to me what this war is all about. It happened in my local airport, in Asheville, North Carolina.

As you know, airports are happy places and they are sad places—and often juxtaposed and simultaneously so. The occasion for this posting was an absolutely wrenching farewell between a young 40-ish mother and her late teens, very early 20’s daughter. Before they embraced for what seemed to be, understandably so, forever, and the mother could no longer restrain herself from sobbing, I had heard them talking about the daughter’s departure for Afghanistan. The younger was “in uniform”, all except for what I couldn’t take my eyes off: a pink teddy bear stuffed animal strapped to the outside of her backpack. I just can’t get this image out of my mind.

Some years ago we started something at the University of South Carolina known as “Move In Day” to be accompanied by the “Faculty/Staff Moving Crew”. It invariably was the hottest day in August. I volunteered for the event every year when faculty and staff in large numbers turned out to help the students move in, carry things to the rooms. Because of both my seniority and a weak back, I was assigned to staffing the cool aid stand.

I remember often seeing these very mature, in some respects, female students lugging their worldly goods in with the helicopter parents. You can easily imagine all the paraphernalia. Almost all of the females had their stuffed animals which was about the only differentiating item I could see which separated them from the males. I would often think of those stuffed animals as a poignant reminder of how both mature, and immature, sophisticated, and still childlike these students were. It was good for me to be reminded of that duality and ambiguity as I would be teaching them a few days later.

But I never thought of these young women taking those little bears to war. It is old men like me that send not only young men, but young women to war—and the latter with their teddy bears. This wasn’t like my own Vietnam era military experience.
I think I will never forget the young woman I saw this morning and how she spoke to me, without speaking to me.