Friday, February 5, 2010


Being the diligent student I am, I once eavesdropped on a conversation two students were having during class, about how one of them attempted to help an elderly man in a wheelchair move across campus earlier that rainy day. The student was complaining about this man's declination for her generous offer; she was offended why anybody in a wheelchair would decline her offer- especially an unable, "disabled" man of his age, especially because of the crazy downpour that swept all throughout campus. The dialogue they were exchanging was quite mediocre really, but for some reason, it stuck with me. And it came back full circle much much later.

Flash forward one year, and I am the same diligent student scuffling into class just at the dot of the 10-minute-after mark, devastated that wait-listed students had taken my per-usual front seat spot. Forlorn, I traversed across the many students, drenched from the day's downpour that greeted us the first day of our Spring semester, and I found a seat next to a student coughing up a storm. It made me reminisce about my earlier semester in September-October of 09, when I was battling what our University's Tang health center deemed "Mild Swine." 

Tuesday morning, 9:40 am marked the beginning of class- no professor in sight. So I began daydreaming about the term "Mild." You have MILD salsa...not too bland, not too hot. Maybe even..MILD weather..not sunny, not rainy. But MILD..swine? The University Tang Center already failed one year when they realized 6 months too late that over 130,00 identities and records (mine included) were stolen and disseminated. Point of interjection: most call me Romina, others call me John. John Greene from Missouri, that is. -_-

9:45 hits, already 5 minutes into the first class of the semester- and no professor in sight. Then I hear a voice- a bit faint, in the background, and I found it rather odd. Didn't see anybody in sight at the moment, and I didn't bother to look up to see what all the lack of commotion was all about.

My professor is a man of character. Probably in his mid 70's, has the stature of a war veteran and rightly so. His forehead has defined lines. I have counted about 8 profound creases- 8 deeply ingrained, impermeable manifestations of emotion and experience that emerged throughout his seventy some years of existence. One line defines the expression he makes when he is enthralled by an intellectual fact a student mentions. Another distinct line has been permanently wrinkled into his demeanor, that of a soldier, a fighter, a man who has sojourned through many walks of life- education, the battlefield, through hardships and trials. His eyebrows never furrow, and when his eyes widen, his glasses sink. 

My professor is retired. But he fights the vicious winds and rainy, hail-filled weather to come teach us a thing or two about politics 3+ hours every week. But when he comes in, he doesn't speak about the book material directly; instead, he embarks on this mindful adventure, going off on tangential, almost irrelevant subjects. Naturally, overachieving Berkeley students around me snicker about how "he doesn't even teach" or about how "this isn't even going to be on the test." But who needed all of that? He taught us about having no fear, no distractions in life; he taught us about focus, discipline, and about life and about things no other professor would ever offer to impart on us because that simply was not part of their job description....

Last week he pointed to a student, and two students simultaneously responded to his question. He then apologized, and explained that he contracted Polio while fighting in the war, which paralyzed part of his eyes. One seems to be a glass eye that moves along with the same speed of his natural one, though it is hard to distinguish where in fact he is looking.

His wife brought his laptop to class once. She also teaches at the university. I think that's something special. To do something you love and to share it with someone you love whose office is just across the office door from you...must be a blessing; or perhaps a curse? ...

Polio may have gotten his sight, but it also may have been responsible for his amputated leg. A prosthetic leg has been in place since the 1940's.

My professor is a remarkable man.

He always comes into class wearing the same blue sweater, a white undershirt, and business pants and shoes. Sometimes I wonder why he even formally dresses the way he does, seeing as how the younger male professors dress down and more comfortably.

He always stuffs his folders and materials inside his sweater and pulls them out from under his belly at the beginning of class. My professor uses the type of vernacular I have forever ingrained in my old-age lexicon: "tomfoolery," "shenanigans," and "schmuck." 3 words I always love hearing, but rarely ever do or use.

He once asked "4 strong men" to help lift him up onto the medium sized table so that students could better see him, so that his meager voice could better emanate across the small 54-person classroom. As they lifted him up, I tried holding back a tear. He looked like a small, frail child, with his fragile legs and arms in a bent, fetal position, while he struggled to hold back a sense of discomfort while these men carried him onto a table. He then asked the students to pull him up so he could angle his body. He then asked them to place his two legs on his wheelchair. And he proceeded to give his lecture, all throughout the hour and a half of class--with his body uncomfortably tilted so that he wouldn't collapse. He never wanted to teach from his wheelchair; and instead was raised high above us on a large table at the front of the room, so he could meet us eye to eye.

This isn't a pity story. This is an experience that's rather close to my heart. But I'm not quite sure what to make of it.

When that student asked to wheel him across campus, she asked because among other things, he doesn't have an electric wheelchair. My professor willfully wheels himself with his strong army hands, through the rain, through bumpy terrain and steep hills, to get to a class he isn't even paid to teach anymore. And he doesn't even see it as a struggle, or a hassle. He sees it as a privilege, a blessing.

And yet there are students who take advantage of their privileges, myself including. That we can sit around and lounge if we see that the stormy weather is too great a feat to battle when opting not to go to class. He was always there. Balancing his frail body on that table. Glad that he had us to share his stories with.

And to those who listen, we learn. Not about book material that will be on an unimportant test, but we learn about life. We learn about taking risks. We learn about moving forward with life, despite all things that go against us. Everything went against him in his 20s; and that didn't stop my professor.

This is neither a motivational story.

This is merely an observation I've made of an incredible man. A man who could have given up if he didn't have the character that he did. My professor has more strength than most who have been blessed with full limbs and pampered, privileged upbringings. His wisdom is ten-fold.

There is no moral to this story. Go do something good. Be something. Live to your fullest potential. No fear. Respect and don't judge. Live and let live. Love and let love, no if's, no distractions-you schmuck.

~Rome, also known as... John Greene. :)

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