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An ornithology teacher gives me wings

I needed three more units in a science course to graduate from college. I asked around, and heard of a zoology class called Birds of California. It sounded like a cinch.

There were once-weekly evening lab lectures. The first night I showed up, I saw I wasn't the only one who'd spotted it as an easy escape hatch. The class was packed with campus heroes and heroines - presidents, cheerleaders, sports stars - all looking for those three units in science.

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In walked the professor, a stout, plain, grandmotherly type named Dr. Grant. She carried a collection of stuffed birds under her plump arms. Anonymous bird calls started coming from members of the class. Everyone laughed. I did, too.

Dr. Grant seemed not to notice the unruly behavior. That caught my attention. Boy, is she brave, I thought. She just didn't respond to the snickering and disrespect. Her sense of dignity was sturdy, and she certainly knew her subject. You could see she loved teaching it. That touched me, so I offered to help carry her exhibits to her car when class ended.

That's when she told me this was her last class. She'd reached the university's mandatory retirement age. As we loaded the trunk of her old Plymouth coupe with her precious specimens, she sighed gently, and said:

"It's funny. Just when you've gained expert knowledge and are at the top of your profession, they tell you that you have to retire. I don't understand it. I'm at my best now, even if I am 65."

Her gentleness and the moment's pathos struck me hard. I found myself aligned, in this stranger's transforming hour, to what she was feeling. At that moment, she became my friend.

I thought of her all through the next week, and was indignant with myself for having done so. What did her plight matter to me? I was very important, very busy that year. I was senior class president, with serious responsibilities: Senior Ditch Day, the Watermelon Dig dance, Homecoming Week. Important things.

The night of our next lecture, the classroom was in an uproar. Waiting for Dr. Grant's arrival, one student was doing a mocking imitation of her, while others played games imitating her stuffed birds. She was due to walk into the classroom any minute. I stood up, told everyone to sit down, be quiet, and treat this teacher with respect, or I'd call them up before our senior class discipline board.

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"It's her last class. She retires this semester. We're her last students." When I said that, everyone fell silent, and sat down.

"Why are you being such a stiff about this dumb class?" a basketball star whispered to me as Dr. Grant walked in.

"I feel sorry for her, I guess," I replied. "It's a tough time right now in her life. She's been teaching for more than 30 years. I don't want anyone to hurt her."

I had assumed that her lectures would be boring, but they weren't. I never missed one, and no one ever disturbed her. I saw to that. I sat there like a praetorian guard for someone who would teach me much more than the birds of California. For without realizing it, I was finally coming of age. Her retirement was also mine. I was soon to leave a deeply self-centered student world I would never see again. Much of what I thought was really important was about to vanish.

When it was time for our final exam, I was called away to do something for our forthcoming graduation exercises. I asked permission to take the zoology exam the following day, a Saturday, and Dr. Grant invited me out to her home to take it.

Her sister greeted me at the front door. Two spinster ladies in an old house filled with lovely momentos and memories. They were so pleased to see me, smiling and shaking my hand. Yet I was feeling deep disquiet. I was her last student.

I began my exam, sitting at their dining-room table and writing my answers in a bluebook. Slowly, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Dr. Grant approach. She gently slid a glass of milk and some cookies on a plate toward me. A small act of kindness that just about wiped me out. I felt tears coming. I could see that the friend for whom I was feeling sorry no longer felt sorry for herself. Kindness, dignity, and commitment to a career she had deeply loved were etched in her face and demeanor.

I wrote furiously, trying to concentrate. I wanted to get out of there. I wanted to get away from strange, new feelings. Thoughts about myself, about chosen paths that now seemed less than the best to me. I kept remembering all the opportunities I'd missed to express a deeper commitment to my studies in the past four years, not to mention more compassion, gratitude, simple kindness. Was this coming from Dr. Grant? Was that what she was really teaching me?

MY old priorities were feeling shallow. Being popular or successful, the way I defined such things, now felt like far less to me. The gentle sisters watched me as I finished my exam. They insisted on giving me a tour of their house.

I kept thinking about Dr. Grant's character. She made kindness and dedication feel so legitimate. I felt rather ... well, diminished. Being senior class president wasn't where it was at. Character was where it was at.

The little lady waving goodbye at her front door as I drove away had awakened me to this. It was nothing she had said to me. It was the way she was - that gentleness, that straight and steady thing about her.

I walked around campus later. It seemed time to say goodbye to buildings and athletic fields and so many happy memories. Time, maybe, to say goodbye to old ways of living my life. I felt better.

In the years that followed, when I needed a little inspiration in a tight moment, I often took time to go for long walks in beautiful natural settings, quietly admiring a rock, a tree, a bird, and remembering a zoology professor I once knew briefly at college.

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