On the Stanford Campus
Bill Long 8/10/07
I am spending a few days in the Palo Alto (CA) area visiting my mother and brothers and celebrating something that resembles a family reunion. I spent my high school years (1967-70) in neighboring Menlo Park/Atherton, but unlike my brothers, I have spent very little time in CA since 1970. Yet, I feel I "at home" here in a way, both because of family connections and the incredibly welcoming nature of my physical surroundings.
To take advantage of those glorious physical surroundings, I decided to take a "tree walk" today through nearby Stanford University. I also decided to get out of the house because my mother's cleaning service comes today and we had to "tidy up" the house before they arrived. My mother comes from a generation which felt guilty in getting cleaning services in the first place; now they handle the guilt by making sure the place is spick and span before the cleaner arrives. So, after making beds, doing laundry, folding clothes, picking up books and files, straightening out chairs and tables, we were "ready" for the cleaning folks. And, off I went, walking through Stanford.
Approaching Stanford University
I walked over to Stanford from my mother's home by going along Vineyard Rd. just West of the Stanford Shopping Center and then into the arboretum near the Mausoleum. The Mausoleum houses the remains of the Stanfords and was originally located on the site of the (current) Classic Residence by Hyatt next to San Francisquito Creek but was moved to the arboretum area, near the Arizona (cactus) garden, many years ago. I decided to cut through the cactus garden, identifying cacti and trees as a I went, thanks to an online map, but I didn't want to get hung up long on the cacti today, and so I sped onwards toward my goal: the trees and flowers in the courtyard of the Memorial Church.
I arrived there just as people were entering the Church from far and wide for some event. Yesterday the private memorial service for Bill Walsh took place in the Church. Bill, who died from leukemia last week at age 75, is both a local legend at Stanford, where he was head football coach in the late 1970s, and also a Bay Area hero, because he guided the San Francisco 49ers to three superbowl victories in the early 1980s. But there are always tons of things happening at Stanford, from services to tours of campus to renovation of buildings and to maintenance of the stunning plants and trees at the eight gardens in the Memorial Church courtyard. I didn't know why everyone would be dressed in jackets and ties today going into the Church, but I also didn't have the curiosity to ask.
Well, while I was looking over the eight circular guardens, I saw waves of people coming my way. These waves were groups of people taking the popular tours of campus. Leaders of the tours were all young women (about 20 years old), obviously students on break, clad in shorts and sunglasses. They were leading herds of about 30 people, usually with a 6'0" tall father, a 6'2" son and a 5'7" mother. The parents, no doubt, were hoping that junior would soon be leading tours of campus, too. I happened to overhear successive tours, and all the guides said the same thing--a result of standardization that has hit us at every level of our experience. They talked about the education (really hard or really amazing or really something), the professors, the school. They all pointed to the Memorial Church and said the same thing--that you could get married there if you had some kind of Stanford connection, but were out of luck if or or someone you loved didn't go there. I am sure everyone was dying to know that. I listened to the language they used and concluded just by the way they used two words that Stanford was more conservative than the its comparable East Coast Ivies. Which words? Well, they called freshmen "freshmen," and sophomores "sophomores."
What's wrong with that, you want to know? Well, if you really were a progressive person, you would know that "modern" people have abandoned "freshman" for "first-year student" and "sophomore" for "second-year student." Why? No doubt becase someone somewhere thought that the designations "freshman" and "sophomore" were terms that could be interpreted derogatorily. Thus, they had to change this. We thus multiply words in the cause of social justice. But Stanford still calls them "sophomores" and "freshmen." Actually, once you know that the word "sophomore" means "wise fool," which actually is a pretty good description for a lot of 19 year-olds, you see that Stanford may be pursuing a right path.
But it was another conversation I had with a groundskeeper that really made my day. I was going through the trees, shrubs, and flowers one by one, identifying them with a map I had, and I struck up a conversation with him about my new "favorite" tree--a "Floss-Silk Tree." In August it has dark lanceolate green leaves to complement its spiky, ridged trunk. The man, in a heavy Spanish accent, told me how he loved that tree, with its beautiful pink blooms in Spring. He loved it so much, he said, that it was in his heart (and he lightly grabbed his chest as if to prove his point). So much does he love this Brazillian native tree that he often brings the broom machine around to sweep under the tree even if there are no leaves on the ground, just so that he can enjoy being in its presence.
I smiled to myself and was deeply touched. We chatted aimiably for awhile before we both moved on. But as I moved back to my trees and shrubs, I noted that none of the young women leading tours made the slightest reference to any of these natural beauties around them. It was as if they didn't exist. That left them all for me--and the next essay (not yet written) describes what I found.