Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Joe and the Baby

Environmental law lost a giant last weekend.  Since Joe Sax passed away, the environmental law professors’ listserve has been a steady stream of remembrances, many focused on his enormous contributions to the field.  For me, a different memory stands out above all the others.

It was just a brief moment in water law.  One of my classmates had a baby during the semester, and, perhaps because of trouble finding childcare, she started bringing her infant to class.  The baby was usually quiet, but one particular day was a fussy one.   This made the rest of us uncomfortable.  We were twenty-somethings without children, living the glorious extended youth of the Bay Area, and working through the challenges of childcare was part of a distant future we rarely contemplated.  This intrusion of a baby into our sheltered worlds seemed weird.  And it wasn’t just any class the baby was intruding upon.  We all worshipped—and, at least a little bit, feared—Professor Sax, not because of his personality but because of his stature and obvious intellect, which stood out even at a place like Berkeley.  Poor manners had no place in that room.  So we felt a palpable sense of relief when the student picked up her fussing baby and started toward the door.

Then Professor Sax spoke up.  “There’s no need to leave,” he said, as though only a fool would have thought otherwise.  “Babies fuss.  That’s just what babies do.  I don’t think anyone minds.”  And saying it, of course, made it true.  We realized that this person we thought of as an intellectual demigod was also a father and a grandfather.  Everyone relaxed.  Class went on.  And we all learned something about the possibility of combining greatness with kindness and compassion.

Years later, I still want to be Joe.  He could turn rigorous legal analysis into something profoundly elegant—charismatic, even—in a way I’ve never quite seen emulated, though not through any lack of trying.  But even if I never achieve that grace, I at least can imitate him in other ways.  It doesn’t happen often, but on the rare occasions when students bring their children to class, I smile, think of that day in water law, and try to make sure the parent and child both feel welcome.  And if a baby ever does start fussing in my class, I’ll have my line ready, and I’ll think with fondness of the man I learned it from.  I hope he would be proud, but more likely he’d think nothing of it.  After all, that’s just what professors should do.

What a loss. 

- Dave Owen

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