A final grade

Class assignment prompts professor to imagine judgment at the hands of his students

The author is a professor of religious studies and dean of the College of Humanities and Fine Arts at Chico State. In the 1980s, he created the university’s first death-and-dying class.

Students in my “Dying, Death and Afterlife” class recently wrote essays on death in world religions. Then they had to negotiate the American “death system” for a dying grandparent.

Their third essay moved me the most. These 20-year-olds had to face down a mortal illness of their own. The premise: How would they respond if California follows Oregon in adopting a Death with Dignity statute? In class we had watched a brief clip, “Goodbye Roger,” from the documentary How to Die in Oregon.

Had Roger’s death lacked imagination? Some students liked Roger’s minimalism, but others planned elaborate settings, including how they would be dressed, whom would be invited, and what music would be on the play list. If I were ever facing this situation, I would want an elaborate passing, with many friends, sacramental eating and drinking, evocative readings, sturdy religious music, even liturgical vestments.

As the grading went on, I sometimes cried as I saw my students’ lives pass before my eyes. But since I am on far more familiar terms with death than my students (soon I’ll be teaching an OLLI course where students and teacher are much more closely matched in age), I returned in reverie to my own future circumstances. Might my wife invite my students to drop by for my final hours?

In a wicked moment, I imagined surprising them with their final grades. Maybe I would deliver a “last lecture,” a valedictory assignment that will be on their final.

Then a jarring thought hit me. What if my students had come by, one by one, to give me my final grade? Last Judgment at the hands of students! They would stop at my bedside and tell me how I have done, even down to plusses and minuses.

Of course, I’ve spent my career at Chico State receiving student evaluations after every 15-week parting, but I had never thought of opening the envelope as a deathbed scene. What if the students are harsh? Turn up the music if my final grade is bad. As Bach’s Easter cantata crescendos, my wife cries. Then smiles at how Lutheran it all is—the harsher the judgment, the more Bach required.