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Notes to Our High School Students – Part 3 of 3: Loss and the Big Picture

UCLA’s Kaplan Hall (Photo by Bruce Beiderwell)

During the current COVID-19 crisis, one group in the biggest limbo – at least socially – is high school students (mostly juniors and seniors) engaged in the college search, application, and acceptance process.  How the virus will affect those students’ paths isn’t completely clear yet, but Windsor Square resident and former UCLA writing professor Bruce Beiderwell (recently retired from the university for the second time), has graciously shared some thoughts in a three-part series for the Buzz.  This is part three. (Part 1 is College Choice & Coronavirus, and Part 2 is Distance and the College Experience)

On Friday, February 7— just a little over 2 months ago when Los Angeles was still operating normally — a pipe running along the central top of UCLA’s Kaplan Hall (the southeast building on the campus’s original quad) burst. By the time I heard the rush of water cascading down the south stairwell, emergency teams were already on the way. And by the time campus police politely ordered me out, there were four inches of standing water on the third floor, and leaks had become evident on floors below along the full length of the building’s eastern wing.

As disasters go, the  flooding of Kaplan Hall wasn’t much — even by pre-pandemic standards. And soon, any news of the event was understandably lost amidst the enormity of all things related to public health. Still, for those who work in the building, a broken cold water line running over the top floor had a real and lasting impact. It inflicted a particular kind of loss and inspired a special kind of response. Both are worth notice now, for they speak to how we may think and act in response to larger unforeseen disruptions in our daily lives.

Emergency teams stopped the water before major structural damage occurred. But there was damage. In a building devoted to literature, language, and writing, the biggest loss was of words and the thought that produced them. Offices of some professors took quite a drenching, and that meant damage to class notes and privately owned books. The Grace M. Hunt Memorial English Reading Room (a specialized library that holds more than 35,000 volumes) wasn’t spared. There is still no final count, but thousands — not hundreds — of books are lost.

Some will be hard to replace. Scholars work with materials often not available on Amazon. That leaves the excellent staff of the English Reading Room many challenges to meet. As for the ruined privately-owned books in faculty offices, available doesn’t always mean replaceable. That’s because a scholar’s books are often marked by a running commentary along the margins. The commentary may represent unfolding thought over years of patient reading and re-reading. These are not merely “used” books in the usual sense. They are books that have been and are being used — used to fuel teaching and research that result in inventive courses and ideas that eventually take shape in new publications.

Fortunately, the spirit behind that kind of work has prompted productive responses to loss that remind me of what I’ve always loved about thoughtful and engaged people — and what I hope students looking ahead now to the college experience will find. Shortly before the whole campus closure, I asked a distinguished faculty member about the impact of the flood on his office: “I lost most of my lecture notes, but that’s probably a good thing. I want to think about all the material freshly anyway.” For this professor, learning isn’t so much an accomplishment as it is a way of being. An education for someone really into education isn’t ultimately about college rankings, grades, units, or degrees. It doesn’t need to be about school at all. The best students quickly realize and hold on to this idea.

The Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz got his diploma in the end, but he was always the thinking one of Dorothy’s team. So I have some advice for high school seniors now receiving and waiting for college acceptance letters. First, as you consider your options, don’t focus too much on the rank and reputation of the school. Second, think both about and beyond the pressing conditions of the moment. And third, once you’re in college, don’t attend only to grades. As you consider choices in this altogether unique college acceptance season, return as much as possible to essentials: reflect upon how the environment you seek—the college mission, your future peers and teachers—can prompt you to engage actively in your own learning. And consider also how the social, cultural, and intellectual experiences you anticipate will sustain you through life beyond college.

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Bruce Beiderwell
Bruce Beiderwell
Bruce Beiderwell was Director UCLA Writing Programs from 2000 until his retirement in 2017. He was called back to that role in November 2019 on an interim basis. He is now again retired and, of course, staying at home.

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