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The Last Class

Professor Emeritus Raymond Pestrong shared part of this essay on KQED Radio’s Perspectives series in June. Professor Emeritus Raymond Pestrong shared part of this essay on KQED Radio’s Perspectives series in June.

I was aware of how much more thoroughly and meticulously I erased the board this morning, after my last class, marking the official end of a 44-year career here at San Francisco State. I didn’t want to leave the classroom, and lingered long after the last student had left, leaning on the lectern and gazing out over the empty classroom. There were rows of empty chairs before me, but to my astonishment what appeared were the faces of random students from the past. Most were recent, but some were images from many years ago. And instead of the bored, attentive, or otherwise engaged students I was so used to, I saw familiar human beings with complex lives that were a reflection of all the other stresses with which they had to deal every day. The ones who regularly came late, I discovered, had transportation issues. The ones who fought to keep their eyes open were exhausted from working night jobs. The distracted ones were single parents trying to keep their lives together. Appreciating how the Earth works was not the focus of their lives at that moment, and yet it was what I wanted, and expected, from them.

Happily, I came to the awareness years ago, that learning, in my classroom, was clearly a shared experience and it changed, dramatically, the nature of our interactions. Once I realized the complexity


We need a mechanism for grieving that doesn’t only require the loss of a loved one. What about the loss of a loved quality of life?


of their lives, I came to eagerly look forward to how we would deal with the subject matter, and weave it into the real world we were all facing. All subsequent years were a joy where I would wake up looking forward to going to the University.

I have been irrevocably shaped by those experiences. How does one leave all that behind? We need a mechanism for grieving that doesn’t only require the loss of a loved one. What about the loss of a loved quality of life? Even beloved memories become painful when they are relegated to the past. I’m a geologist, so add to the mix countless field trips with eager students and faculty to remarkable places where fording rivers and scaling peaks were a regular part of the experience, which we’d then share over campfires each night. The intellectual stimulation and comradeship of dear colleagues also enriched my years here at SF State and will be sorely missed, as will the comfort of this beautiful campus.

m experiencing a profound sadness. Others have retired from great jobs—and I know that most professors here at SF State consider this to be a great job—and have gone on to creative, fulfilling activities in the next stage of their lives. Why am I finding it so difficult?

Part of the answer, I think, lies in the regular structure I’ve followed and become used to, over the years. I’ve spent more years in my office than in any home I’ve ever lived in and have created lasting deep friendships with colleagues from every discipline across the campus. There was a time when my colleagues and I met for long spirited lunches, arguing and debating over topics ranging from which way toilet paper should be placed on the roll to why men had nipples. (I remember that Stuart Hyde of BECA and biologist Larry Swan had very strong feelings about these subjects.) Others held forth on these and virtually every other topic with passion and eloquence.

My memories of SF State are intensified by the different hats I’ve been privileged to wear. As director of the Presidential Scholars Program I got to know a remarkable group of students. We shared intimate discussions over meals and enjoyed field trips to museums, geologic sites, operas and symphonies. It’s always amazed me that they call this "work."

I know I’m not the first to leave a job I’ve loved, but I do feel it’s appropriate to honor this last stage as I anticipate the next. And I’m puzzled as to how to do this as I wonder about what lies ahead.

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