Tuesdays with Morrie

Saturday, April 01, 2006

The Professor, Part Two

The Professor, Part Two

The Morrie I knew, the Morrie so many others knew, would not have been the man he was without the years he spent working at a mental hospital just outside Washington, D.C., a place with the deceptively peaceful name of Chestnut Lodge. It was one of Morrie's first jobs after plowing through a master's degree and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Having rejected medicine, law, and business, Morrie had decided the research world would be a place where he could contribute without ex­ploiting others.

Morrie was given a grant to observe mental patients and record their treatments. While the idea seems com­mon today, it was groundbreaking in the early fifties. Morrie saw patients who would scream all day. Patients who would cry all night. Patients soiling their underwear. Patients refusing to eat, having to be held down, medi­cated, fed intravenously.

One of the patients, a middle-aged woman, came out of her room every day and lay facedown on the tile floor, stayed there for hours, as doctors and nurses stepped around her. Morrie watched in horror. He took notes, which is what he was there to do. Every day, she did the same thing: came out in the morning, lay on the floor, stayed there until the evening, talking to no one, ignored by everyone. It saddened Morrie. He began to sit on the floor with her, even lay down alongside her, trying to draw her out of her misery. Eventually, he got her to sit up, and even to return to her room. What she mostly wanted, he learned, was the same thing many people want-someone to notice she was there.

Morrie worked at Chestnut Lodge for five years. Al­though it wasn't encouraged, he befriended some of the patients, including a woman who joked with him about how lucky she was to be there "because my husband is rich so he can afford it. Can you imagine if I had to be in one of those cheap mental hospitals?"

Another woman-who would spit at everyone else took to Morrie and called him her friend. They talked each day, and the staff was at least encouraged that some­one had gotten through to her. But one day she ran away, and Morrie was asked to help bring her back. They tracked her down in a nearby store, hiding in the back, and when Morrie went in, she burned an angry look at him.

"So you're one of them, too," she snarled.

"One of who?"

"My jailers."

Morrie observed that most of the patients there had been rejected and ignored in their lives, made to feel that they didn't exist. They also missed compassion-some­thing the staff ran out of quickly. And many of these patients were well-off, from rich families, so their wealth did not buy them happiness or contentment. It was a lesson he never forgot.

I used to tease Morrie that he was stuck in the sixties. He would answer that the sixties weren't so bad, compared to the times we lived in now.

He came to Brandeis after his work in the mental health field, just before the sixties began. Within a few years, the campus became a hotbed for cultural revolu­tion. Drugs, sex, race, Vietnam protests. Abbie Hoffman attended Brandeis. So did Jerry Rubin and Angela Davis. Morrie had many of the "radical" students in his classes.

That was partly because, instead of simply teaching, the sociology faculty got involved. It was fiercely antiwar, for example. When the professors learned that students who did not maintain a certain grade point average could lose their deferments and be drafted, they decided not to give any grades. When the administration said, "If you don't give these students grades, they will all fail," Morrie had a solution: "Let's give them all A's." And they did.

Just as the sixties opened up the campus, it also opened up the staff in Morrie's department, from the jeans and sandals they now wore when working to their view of the classroom as a living, breathing place. They chose discussions over lectures, experience over theory. They sent students to the Deep South for civil rights proj­ects and to the inner city for fieldwork. They went to Washington for protest marches, and Morrie often rode the busses with his students. On one trip, he watched with gentle amusement as women in flowing skirts and love beads put flowers in soldiers' guns, then sat on the lawn, holding hands, trying to levitate the Pentagon.

"They didn't move it," he later recalled, "but it was a nice try."

One time, a group of black students took over Ford Hall on the Brandeis campus, draping it in a banner that read MALCOLM X UNIVERSITY. Ford Hall had chemistry labs, and some administration officials worried that these radi­cals were making bombs in the basement. Morrie knew better. He saw right to the core of the problem, which was human beings wanting to feel that they mattered.

The standoff lasted for weeks. And it might have gone on even longer if Morrie hadn't been walking by the building when one of the protesters recognized him as a favorite teacher and yelled for him to come in through the window.

An hour later, Morrie crawled out through the win­dow with a list of what the protesters wanted. He took the list to the university president, and the situation was diffused.

Morrie always made good peace.

At Brandeis, he taught classes about social psychol­ogy, mental illness and health, group process. They were light on what you'd now call "career skills" and heavy on "personal development."

And because of this, business and law students today might look at Morrie as foolishly naive about his contri­butions. How much money did his students go on to make? How many big-time cases did they win?

Then again, how many business or law students ever visit their old professors once they leave? Morrie's stu­dents did that all the time. And in his final months, they came back to him, hundreds of them, from Boston, New York, California, London, and Switzerland; from corpo­rate offices and inner city school programs. They called. They wrote. They drove hundreds of miles for a visit, a word, a smile.

"I've never had another teacher like you," they all said.

As my visits with Morrie go on, I begin to read about death_, how different cultures view the final passage. There is a tribe in the North American Arctic, for example, who believe that all things on earth have a soul that exists in a miniature form of the body that holds it-so that a deer has a tiny deer inside it, and a man has a tiny man inside him. When the large being dies, that tiny form lives on. It can slide into something being born nearby, or it can go to a temporary resting place in the sky, in the belly of a great feminine spirit, where it waits until the moon can send it back to earth.

Sometimes, they say, the moon is so busy with the new souls of the world that it disappears from the sky. That is why we have moonless nights. But in the end, the moon always returns, as do we all.

That is what they believe.


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