Moment of Gratitude
Professor George W. Bergstrom Jr.
I meditate every morning after I floss and brush my teeth. Sometimes, I use apps to discover new teachers and today I opted for the guided Daily Dose meditation in Ten Percent Happier titled See Yourself Compassionately with Jess Morey who I had never sat with before.
Jess guided us to reflect on the kindness and love we have received from others so that we can awaken it in ourselves. She noted that we are often a harsh self-critic and that this meditation will help us be compassionate towards ourselves and then to others as well. She went on to ask us to think of a time when someone was compassionate toward us. I had settled on a person and a moment until she said that it could even be a stranger from our past, which opened my field of view wider.
For reasons I do not understand, my mind immediately jumped to Professor Bergstrom who I had not thought of in years. He was one of my favorite professors during my short stint at SDSU.
As an extension program student, I had to show up to the first days of classes each semester and cajole the professors to sign a form to let me enroll since I was not matriculated in the university. I would audit 10–15 classes to determine which would be the most interesting. I was always successful at getting the needed signature since I think the professors were inclined to welcome a student who made a passionate case for why they wanted to be there versus so many other students who slouched in chairs at the back of the room. It was a fun process to determine which classes I wanted to take and I did not mind being a teacher’s pet to study with the professors who interested me.
Professor Bergstrom fascinated me. I tended to like professors who had lived adventurous lives. He had extensive international experience as a US Air Force intel officer and as a lecturer. I was also enamored with his stories of getting his D Phil from Oxford. I took his Comparative Politics course and volunteered to help him run the Charles Hostler Institute of World Affairs. In retrospect, it was probably quite an oddity that I was so involved since I was not even a “real” student of the university.
We worked together for two semesters. I called him professor instead of Dr. since he said that was a more typical way of addressing the tutors at Oxford who he venerated. I greatly enjoyed running the Institute with him and helping him grade assignments. He was fastidious, sometimes flustered, always kind, inquisitive, and devoted to his students.
We stayed in touch after I decided to take classes at Grossmont Community College, UCSD, and USD. I never returned to SDSU once I had studied with the professors who seemed interesting. He was exceptionally proud when I decided to go to Oxford in a study abroad program, which he was affiliated with, and then even more so when I talked my way into matriculating at Magdalen College and living in-college across the River Cherwell from the deer park.
Living at Magdalen College, studying with a don from St. John’s College, researching and writing papers at upper Radcliffe Camera, participating in the Oxford Union Society, and drinking pints in Tolkien’s seat at the Bird & Baby are some of the fondest memories of my life. At that time, I was convinced that I wanted to continue the scholastic lifestyle and to apply to PhD programs in political science. I selected three top schools and four “safety schools” although I do not think I would have decided to go to any of the latter four. The final deadlines for applications were looming so I needed to act fast.
A logical person to ask for letters of recommendation was Professor Bergstrom and I reached out. He eagerly agreed to do it but sounded deflated when I told him that I needed the letters in six days and that I was applying to seven schools. Nonetheless, he delivered.
What I did not realize until later was that he took time to research each program and wrote distinct letters that were tailored to each university. And each letter was hand-typed by him on a typewriter. This was the 2000s and I did not expect that I was inconveniencing him so much. I also noticed that there were no typos in any of the letters and no signs of liquid paper corrections. He admitted that he had to retype an unspecified number of letters when he made mistakes and reassured me not to worry about it. I was extremely grateful for his effort and I was accepted to my top schools.
I decided not to go to any of the programs. I secured one-year deferments so that I could work in the Bush Administration and thereafter I chose to get an MBA rather than a PhD. I am glad that I did not pursue a doctorate but I felt ashamed that I had wasted so much of Professor Bergstrom’s time.
So…..I never spoke to him again. I never had the guts to tell him that I had decided not to go after he labored so hard on my behalf. I do not know if he ever thought about me again but I am guessing that he was disappointed that I never followed up to tell him what happened with my applications.
This morning, I meditated about the warm feelings from his compassion and generosity. It was wonderful to think of him again. I also find it interesting that my unconscious mind surfaced an occasion for which I can palpably feel his support but for which I am also carrying shame about the fact that I wasted his time and then disappeared. My guess is that he would have enthusiastically supported the direction I chose and would have continued to support me but I did not give him or me that opportunity.
Today, I resolved to figure out how to contact him and perhaps to arrange to see him the next time I am in San Diego, or at least to speak on the phone. A quick Google search dashed those hopes as I read his obituary that celebrated his life. He passed away two months ago. I had a good sob about that. I’ve decided to write him a letter, which I will never send, but I’d like to let him know how important he was to me.
Thanks, Professor Bergstrom.
Originally published at https://patrickbosworth.blog on February 1, 2021.