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The Death Class: A True Story about Lifeby Erika Hayasaki
Synopses & Reviews
Why does a college course on death have a three-year waiting list?
When nurse Norma Bowe decided to teach a course on death at a college in New Jersey, she never expected it to be popular. But year after year students crowd into her classroom, and the reason is clear: Norma’s “death class” is really about how to make the most of what poet Mary Oliver famously called our “one wild and precious life.”
Under the guise of discussions about last wills and last breaths and visits to cemeteries and crematoriums, Norma teaches her students to find grace in one another. By following her over four years, award-winning journalist Erika Hayasaki shows how Norma steers four extraordinary students from their tormented families and neighborhoods toward happiness: she rescues one young woman from her suicidal mother, helps a young man manage his schizophrenic brother, and inspires another to leave his gang life behind. Through this unorthodox class on death, Norma helps kids who are barely hanging on to understand not only the value of their own lives, but also the secret of fulfillment: to throw yourself into helping others. Hayasaki’s expert reporting and literary prose bring Norma’s wisdom out of the classroom, transforming it into an inspiring lesson for all. In the end, Norma’s very own life—and how she lives it—is the lecture that sticks.
"In this brisk, journalistic endeavor, full of case studies of violent death, a Los Angeles Times reporter chronicles her years shadowing Dr. Norma Bowe, the 'professor of death' at Kean University in Union, N.J. Bowe's class, Death in Perspective, had a three-year waiting list. Journalist Hayasaki was drawn to Bowe's class as a way of making sense of 'death's mercilessness and meaning,' and in memory of her own dear friend who was shot and killed by a jealous boyfriend when they attended high school in the mid-1990s in Lynnwood, Wash. In the course of dogging the professor over the semester, involving visits to cemeteries, a hospice, death row at a state prison, mortuary, and psych hospital, as well as thoughtful writing assignments such as composing a goodbye letter to her dead friend, Hayasaki unearths the wrenching personal stories of these traumatized students — and that of Bowe herself. The product of parents who never wanted her and beat her, Bowe grew up largely in the care of a doting grandmother; she found the career of a psychiatric nurse and teacher enormously therapeutic, and it also suited her compassionate temperament. Hayasaki's studies of the suicidal and mentally ill seem clinical and unrelenting, and there is an unsettling prurience in these stories of emotional cataclysm; nevertheless, the book helps make possible necessary conversations about death. (Jan.)" Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
In this gripping true story, an extraordinary professor who teaches a popular course on death plunges deep into the off-campus hours of her most vulnerable students and shows them how to live.
Each year, Kean University in Union, New Jersey, offers an exclusive class called Death in Perspective. Led by Professor Norma Bowe, the objective of the class is to “develop an understanding of the nature and experiences of the stages of dying, death, and bereavement.” It has a three-year waiting list.
But as acclaimed journalist Erika Hayasaki discovers, by teaching mortality, Dr. Bowe is quietly rescuing students from tragedy. As she takes her students to cemeteries, prisons, morgues, and hospitals, she shows how the contemplation of the end can change an adult’s beginning. Over the course of two years, she intervenes with one student and her suicidal mother, mentors another with a mentally ill brother, and redeems a third from his life in a gang. And in the end, the students themselves heal Dr. Bowe herself from the lingering pain of a childhood she has long repressed.
On one level, The Death Class is about the loss of life; on another level, it’s a celebration of what the human spirit can conquer. It’s about how we can survive and learn to live a meaningful life.
About the Author
Erika Hayasaki spent nine years as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times before becoming an assistant professor in the Literary Journalism program at the University of California, Irvine. She is a recipient of the Los Angeles Times Best Writing Award, the Association of Sunday Feature Editors Award, and the American Society of Newspaper Editors Breaking News Award.
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