Olga E. Kagan (December 25, 1946 – April 6, 2018)
(Photograph by Diane Hofland, Portland State University, 2010)
On April 6 the UCLA community lost Olga E. Kagan, a pioneer of heritage language education and an inspiration to countless students and teachers, including myself. I was honored to be asked to speak at Olga’s service, and to write a tribute to this extraordinary educator and human being. The tribute has been posted to a memorial website hosted by the UCLA Center for World Languages, which Olga directed, and now I am posting it here.
Some years ago, when I was teaching Russian under Olga’s direction, we discussed the strange phenomenon — familiar to language teachers — of students blithely sharing intimate information in a language they’re trying to master. These students, we conjectured, are so happy to have the words to express anything at all that they end up making admissions, with broad smiles of self-satisfaction, which might otherwise make them blush. I remember the look of kind wonderment, somewhat regal but not at all condescending, on Olga’s face as we spoke of this — she looked like a benevolent confessor. I had seen that look before, many times, at the Slavic department’s holiday parties, in Olga’s office, and as a student in her classroom.
As an undergraduate at UCLA I took a course for heritage speakers of Russian — a course Olga had designed — which provided a home for us Russophone émigrés, or children of émigrés, whose linguistic storehouses contained as little as “Дай кушать” (“Gimme grub”) or as much as a few memorized Pushkin poems. We all made constant mistakes in conjugation and declension, all struggled to produce flawless if unoriginal sentences. At one point, when practicing adjectives, I offered a simple statement that brought a look of wonderment to Olga’s face: “Я — осенний человек” (“I’m an autumnal person”). Olga smiled warmly and responded: “Я тоже осенний человек” (“I too am an autumnal person”). I suspect she liked the slight imaginative leap of the sentence, its figurative potential. She always inspired her students to take leaps, however small.
I was being honest: I am an autumnal person. And I believe she too was being honest. When I think of Olga, I imagine her in autumn, possessing all the attributes and moods I associate with the season: thoughtful, somewhat rueful, warm — taking the time to look back, but ready to move forward. Ready to move forward because, in the academic calendar, fall is the start of things, not their end. And throughout my years at UCLA, one of the things to which I could always look forward was reconnecting with Olga at the beginning of that first quarter. Olga — who was always full of projects but never seemed to be in a rush, whose door was always open, who always remembered everything about you, about every student she had shepherded into the world. Olga — with whom you could always be honest in any language, and who would offer the perfect advice, smiling in kindness, never condescending.
A year without Olga is as unthinkable to me now as a year without autumn. But of course Olga will always be present — present in each of those whom she taught and trained to teach. Many of them will greet their students and colleagues next fall, passing on her warmth and dedication.