Epilogue to Day in the Life

(with apologies to E.B. White)

One fine sunny morning, after breakfast, Willard stood watching his precious dissertation. He wasn't thinking of anything much. As he stood there, he noticed something move. He stepped closer and stared. A tiny idea crawled from the dissertation. It was no bigger than a grain of sand, no bigger than the head of a pin.

Willard trembled all over when he saw it. The little idea waved at him. Then Willard looked more closely. Two more little ideas crawled out and waved. Then three more little ideas. Then eight. Then ten. The dissertation's children were here at last.

Willard's heart pounded. He began to squeal. Then he raced in circles, kicking bluebooks into the air. Then he turned a back flip. Then he planted his feet and came to a stop in front of his dissertation's children.

"Hello, there!" he said.

The first idea said hello, but its voice was still so small Willard couldn't hear it.

"I'm glad to see you," said Willard. "Are you right? Is there anything you need?"

The young ideas just waved. For several days and several nights they moved here and there, up and down, around and about, waving at Willard, trailing tiny distinctions behind them, and exploring their implications. There were dozens and dozens of them. Willard couldn't count them, but he knew that he had a great many new ideas. They grew quite rapidly. Soon each was as big as a paragraph, and some as big as a page. They made tiny outlines near the dissertation.

Then came a quiet morning when the department chair opened the door to Willard's office. A warm draft of rising thoughts blew softly through the room. The air smelled of book manuscripts, of conference presentations, of groundbreaking journal articles. The baby ideas felt the warm updraft. One idea climbed to the top of its file. Then it did something that came as a great surprise to Willard. The idea stood on its head, pointed its central insight in the air, and let loose a cloud of fine distinctions. The distinctions formed an entire paper. As Willard watched, the idea let go of the original paper and rose into the air.

"Good-bye!" it said, as it sailed through the doorway.

"Wait a minute! " screamed Willard. "Where do you think you're going?"

But the idea was already out of sight. Then another baby idea crawled to the top of its file, stood on its head, made a bold assertion, and sailed away. Then another idea. Then another. The air was soon filled with tiny projects, each balloon carrying an idea.

Willard was frantic. His ideas were disappearing at a great rate.

"Come back, children!" he cried.

"Good-bye!" they called. "Good-bye, good-bye!" At last one little idea took time enough to stop and talk to Willard.

"We're leaving here before next semester starts. This is our moment for setting forth. We are philosophical insights, and we are going out into the world to make names for ourselves."

"But where?" asked Willard.

"Wherever academia takes us. High, low. Near, far. R-1 schools, 2-year colleges. Liberal arts colleges, state schools. We take to the field, we go as we please."

"Are all of you going?" asked Willard. "You can't all go. I would be left alone, with no ideas."

Ideas by the dozen were rising, circling, and drifting away through the door, sailing off on the gentle wind. Cries of "Good-bye, good-bye, good-bye!" came weakly to Willard's ears. He couldn't bear to watch any more. In sorrow he sank to the ground and closed his eyes. This seemed like the end of the world, to be deserted by his dissertation's children. Willard cried himself to sleep.

When he woke it was late afternoon. He looked at the dissertation. It was empty. He looked into the air. The ideas were gone. Then he walked drearily to the desk, where he wrote his thesis. He was standing there, thinking of it, when he heard a small voice.

"Salutations!" it said. "I'm here." "So am I," said another tiny voice.

"So am I," said a third voice. "Three of us are staying. We like this research proposal, and we like you."

Willard looked at his laptop. Three small outlines were being constructed. On each outline, working busily was one of his dissertation's consequences.

"Can I take this to mean," asked Willard, "that you have definitely decided to be part of my long-term research program, and that I am going to have three projects?"

"You can indeed," said the ideas.

Willard's heart brimmed with happiness. He felt that he should make a short speech on this very important occasion.

"Grant proposal! Journal article! Book manuscript!" he began. "Welcome to the research program. You have chosen a hallowed office in which to spin your outlines. I think
it is only fair to tell you that I was devoted to your mother, my dissertation. I owe my very career to her. She was brilliant, beautiful, and carefully argued to the end. To you, her implications, I pledge my dedication, forever and ever."

It was a happy day for Willard. And many more happy, tranquil days followed.

As time went on, and the semesters and years came, and went, he was never without ideas. His thesis advisor did not come regularly to the office any more. Willard was growing up, and was careful to avoid grad student ways, like apologizing when he asked a question at a conference. But his dissertation's implications and their implications and their implications, year after year, continued to thrive. Each spring there were new little ideas hatching out to take the place of the old. Most of them sailed away, to be fleshed out by others. But always two or three stayed and set up housekeeping.


Author image

Christina Van Dyke

scholar, mother, and proud owner of the largest couch in creation
  • here and there
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