By Leo Buscaglia
On my first day as an assistant professor of education at the University of Southern California, I entered the classroom with a great deal of anxiety. My large class responded to my awkward smile and brief greeting with silence. For a few moments I fussed with my notes. Then I started my lecture, stammering; no one seemed to be listening.
At that moment of panic I noticed in the fifth row a poised, attentive young woman in a summer dress. Her skin was tanned, her brown eyes were clear and alert, her hair was golden. Her animated expression and warm smile were an invitation for me to go on. When I'd say something, she would nod, or say, "Oh, yes!" and write it down. She emanated the comforting feeling that she cared about what I was trying so haltingly to say.
I began to speak directly to her and my confidence and enthusiasm returned. After a while I risked looking about. The other students had begun listening and taking notes, This stunning young woman had pulled me through.
After class, I scanned the roll to find her name: Liani. Her papers, which I read over the subsequent weeks, were written with creativity, sensitivity and a delicate sense of humor.
I had asked all my students to visit my office during the semester, and I awaited Liani's visit with special interest. I wanted to tell her how she had saved my first day, and encourage her to develop her qualities of caring and awareness.
Liani never came. About five weeks into the semester, She missed two weeks of classes. I asked the students seated around her if they knew why. I was shocked to learn that they did not even know her name. I thought of Albert Schweitzer's poignant statement: "We are all so much together and yet we are all dying of loneliness."
I went to our dean of women. The moment I mentioned Liani's name, she winced. "Oh, I'm sorry, Leo," she said. "I thought you'd been told..."
Liani had driven to Pacific Palisades, a lovely community near downtown Los Angeles where cliffs fall abruptly into the sea. There, shocked picnickers later reported, she jumped to her death.
Liani was 22 years old! And her God-given uniqueness was gone forever.
I called Liani's parents. From the tenderness with which Liani's mother spoke of her, I knew that she had been loved. But it was obvious to me that Liani had not felt loved.
"What are we doing?" I asked a colleague. "We're so busy teaching things. What's the value of teaching Liani to read, write, do arithmetic, if we taught her nothing of what she truly needed to know: how to live in Joy, how to have a sense of personal worth and dignity?"
I decided to do something to help others who needed to feel loved. I would teach a course on love.
I spent months in library research but found little help. Almost all the books on love dealt with sex or romantic love. There was virtually nothing on love in general.
But perhaps if I offered myself only as a facilitator, the students and I could teach one another and learn together. I called the course Love Class.
It took only one announcement to fill this non-credit course. I gave each student a reading list, but there were no assigned texts, no attendance requirements, no exams. We just shared our reading, our ideas, our experiences.
My premise is that love is learned. Our "teachers" are the loving people we encounter. If we find no models of love, then we grow up love-starved and unloving. The happy possibility, I told my student, is that love can be learned at any moment of our lives if we are willing to put in the time, the energy and the practice.
Few missed even one session of Love class. I had to crowd the students closer together as they brought mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, friends, husbands, wives,―even grandparents. Scheduled to start at 7 p.m. and end at 10, the class often continued until well past midnight.
One of the first things I tried to get across was the importance of touching. "How many of you have hugged someone―other than a girlfriend, boyfriend or your spouse―within the past week?" Few hands went up. One student said, "I'm always afraid that my motives will be misinterpreted." From the nervous laughter, I could tell that many shared the young woman's feeling.
"Love has a need to be expressed physically," I responded.
"I feel fortunate to have grown up in a passionate, hugging Italian family. I associate hugging with a more universal kind of love.
"But if you are afraid of being misunderstood, verbalize your feelings to the person you're hugging. And for people who are really uncomfortable about being embraced, a warm, two-handed handshake will satisfy the need to be touched."
We began to hug one another after each class. Eventually hugging became a common greeting among class members on campus. We never left Love Class without a plan to share love.
For Love Class assignment we agreed to share something of ourselves, without expectation of reward. Some students helped disabled children. Others assisted derelicts on Skid Row. Many volunteered to work on suicide hot lines, hoping to find the Lianis before it was too late.
I went with one of my students, Joel, to a nursing home not far from U.S.C. A number of aged people were lying in beds in old cotton gowns, staring at the ceiling. Joel looked around and then asked, "What'll I do?" I said, "You see that woman over there? Go say hello," He went over and said, "Uh, hello."
She looked at him suspiciously for a minute. "Are you a relative?"
"Good! Sit down, young man."
Oh, the things she told him! This woman knew so much about love, pain, suffering. Even about approaching death, with which she had to make some kind of peace. But no one had cared about listening―until Joel. He started visiting her once a week. Soon, that day began to be known as "Joel's Day." He would come and all the old people would gather.
Then the elderly woman asked her daughter to bring her in a glamorous dressing gown. When Joel came for his visit, he found her sitting up in bed in a beautiful satin gown, her hair done up stylishly. She hadn't had her hair fixed in ages: why have your hair done if nobody really sees you? Before long, others in the ward were dressing up for Joel.
The years since I began Love Class have been the most exciting of my life. While attempting to open doors to love for others, I found that the doors were opening for me.
I ate in a greasy spoon in Arizona not long ago. When I ordered pork chops, somebody said, "You're crazy, Nobody eats pork chops in a place like this." But the chops were magnificent.
"I'd like to meet the chef," I said to the waitress.
We walked back to the kitchen and there he was, a big, sweaty man. "What's the matter?" he demanded.
"Nothing. Those pork chops were just fantastic."
He looked at me as though I was out of my mind. Obviously it was hard for him to receive a compliment. Then he said warmly, "Would you like another?"
Isn't that beautiful? Had I not learned how to be loving, I would have thought nice things about the chef's pork chops, but probably wouldn't have told him―just as I had failed to tell Liani how much she had helped me that first day in class. That's one of the things love is: sharing joy with people.
Another secret of love is knowing that you are yourself special, that in all the world there is only one of you. If I had a magic wand and a single wish, I would wave the wand over everybody and have each individual say, and believe, "I like me, right this minute. Just as I am, and what I can become. I'm great."
The pursuit of love has made a wonder of my life. But what would my existence have been like had I never known Liani? Would I still be stammering out subject matter at students, year after year, with little concern about the vulnerable human beings behind the masks? Who can tell? Liani presented me with the challenge, and I took it up! It has made all the difference.
I wish Liani were here today. I would hold her in my arms and say, "Many people have helped me learn about love, but you gave me the impetus. Thank you. I love you." But I believe my love for Liani has, in some mysterious way already reached her.
from Reader's Digest