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Monday, August 27, 2012

Last Rites

       It would be his last graduation. He had seen over 50 such rites of passage in his time. Now he and the building he had worked in for over five decades were being retired. They had both served their purpose; time had passed them both by. People who thought they knew him told him often that events had passed him by; they were quick to note fault in a life that had never earned enough. The graduates would go off challenged by new dreams and newer tools scrambling to turn what they had learned into meaningful work that would support their aspirations, and he would be no more.

       He had seen them all - those that flourished and those that disappeared. He had raked the autumn leaves as students hurried to class, excited about the possibilities of discovery. He had seen the power of discovery and the forces of emotion that animated winter conversation about biology and love. He had shoveled late winter snow so that spring could hasten moments of inspiration and romance. He cleared the grassy walkways in the heat of the summer so that young poets and dreamers could fight revolutionary battles one more time before the cycle began anew.

       For the most part instructors and deans never knew his name; he was invisible to the great men and women of the institution, except when some inconvenience kept them from their important work. His building held the special collections and graduate library, along with three floors of classrooms in which he worked occasionally at night to keep the heat in and the cold out as well as the water running. He took the trash and those things that grew old too fast and removed them from sight so as not to disturb the great industry of learning.

       He heard the polite applause for the guest speaker, Senator Bourne. From his space off to the back-corner he did not need to see the dignitary that most of the students did not know. For even as his failing sight would have kept him from seeing the Senator, he could clearly see in his mind's eye the young Jack Bourne who had stormed from the building almost 40 years ago throwing his books down the custodian's basement stairwell convinced that he could not pass the history class. The youthful Bourne raging against the gods and fate had come face to face with the gentle man. In the ensuing moments, Jack learned much from the quiet man with the rake. He learned about the stories in history and about the power over people in stories. Jack Bourne learned that knowing where to find information is a source of power, and Jack Bourne went back to class and excelled at what he had learned.

       The current class knew nothing of a young frustrated student---only of a Senator older than imagination. Within the graduation class, at least one student unknowingly shared a knowledge of the gardener's gift. Jessica Longworth had seen little use for the calculus but she was told she must master it. The instructors droned on about mother functions written in increasingly incomprehensible Greek. She had stayed seated once class had ended until she was alone, staring at the board of indecipherable forms.

       He had come in quietly, and had asked her if she was done looking at the board. Silence was her answer. His response over the next hour explored the history of science and of the calculus, and the magic of the limit. Most importantly, as he had shared so many decades before with Jack Bourne, he had shared again how to find the information you need. He spoke with her as an equal.

She was not embarrassed to ask him questions, for he was just an old gardener, not a subject matter expert, but his answers gave her the knowledge necessary to master her fears and to master the calculus of learning. He had told of the collections and the library, and when, where and how to take the
limit of life.

Friends told him that he gave too much and asked too little. They sometimes berated him for volunteering. Some even pointed out that giving his knowledge away for free was why he had nothing. And it was true, he had nothing but what he had learned from over 70 years of helping people. He had become a part of events, a building to be forgotten. He and the buildings were structures past their prime. New ideas and technologies need new homes to fit the moment.

       The graduation was finished, the building closed and old man was gone now. He had said his good-byes to the building with which he had shared so many lives. The few who had met him and whose lives had been changed in meeting him had for the most part forgotten the smartest man they once knew. The building that had given them shelter was now to be torn down. Its ornate cornices, polished
floors and wooden doors were too old fashioned. 

       The Dean had once been young, too, and had studied here, and now was in the basement of the old man's building in the back corner where none had gone before, where the man who took care of problems had his space into which no one ever went or was invited.

       The silence thundered like a raging Greek chorus. Blackboards from a time of chalk lined the walls. On some of them were algebraic matrices like those that used to lace his conversations, determinates worked out by hand, when smart phones now power through such problems instantly today. The rows of books thrown out in the coming of digitization were meticulous indexed, as were papers
unfinished and reports discarded on projects never finished. And in the middle
stood the herbaria with every plant for 50 years dried, mounted and recorded
from the entire campus and beyond---silent sentinels to what could be if we only
noticed that Eduard had been here.

Appreciation and thanks for reviewing and editing : Cindy MvW. @Gemswinc July 2012

revised with thanks to @BillNigh and @Gemswinc September 3, 2012

all rights reserved THOMPSON, John Peter 2012

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