Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

Professor Drew

 

     I was so dumb in the fall of 1950 as a starting freshman at the University of Oregon that on my first day of classes I didn’t even know how to find Bowerman Hall.

     “Excuse me,” I said to a guy I'd been following along the sidewalk on my way to class.

     “Yeah?” he said, stopping.  He had on one of those “Property of the Department of Athletics” T-shirts, and with his thick neck he looked as if he played lineman for the football team.

     I asked him how I could find Bowerman Hall.

     “Bowerman Hall?”

     “Yes,” I said, “if you could tell me.”

     He inclined his head towards the building next to us.

     “There?” I said.

     “You got it, pal.”

     I followed some students down the sidewalk towards the entrance to the building and looked at my registration card again.  It said just what it had said last night when I looked at it in my dorm room and also this morning when I looked at it at breakfast and also walking over to campus: “Great Works of Western Literature, Professor Drew, Bowerman 2141.”

     “Excuse me,” I said to an older man passing by, probably a professor, “could you please tell me where room 2141 is?”

     “Ah, room 2141,” he said.  “Well, now, let me see.  That would be on the second floor, wouldn’t it?  Down at the end, I believe.”

     “So, up the stairs?” I said.

     “Yes, yes, up the stairs and then to your left.”

     “Thank you,” I said.

     Somehow I guess I had imagined that room 2141, the room where I was about to launch my university career, would be a wonderfully special kind of room unlike any classroom I had ever been in before.  But room 2141 turned out to look like a lot of other classrooms:  a blackboard and a teacher’s desk up front, windows along the side, and about eight rows of chairs.  Not that much difference, in fact, from the rooms at the high school where I came from back in Iowa.

     There weren’t that many places left to sit.  A lot of the girls had clustered together in the front two rows, and the fraternity-type guys had spread themselves out along the back rows.  The only places were in the middle.

     “Excuse me, excuse me,” I said as I moved along the fourth row and took the second seat to the end.  A boy in the last chair had to move his jacket from my seat so that I could sit down.

     “Thanks so much,” I said to this boy.

     I reached into my bag, got out my notebook and opened it to the first page.  I wrote down, “Great Works of Western Literature, Professor Drew, September 15, 1950, First Class.” I drew two lines under all this.  The boy who had moved his jacket looked over at what I had written.

     “Hello,” I said to him.

     He sort of ducked his head and turned away.

     A loud honking noise from behind me.  A belch.  One of the fraternity-types in the last row had let go.  The other guys in the back row began to laugh.  Two or three of the girls in the front row turned around to look.

     “Hi, there, Jannie-poo,” called out the guy who had belched.

     “Disgusting,” one of the girls whispered to her neighbor.

     Just then our professor appeared in the doorway, a big man with slumped shoulders and a walrus-like face and a huge head of white silvery hair.  That silvery hair was set off by an intensely purple sash wrapped around his neck and tucked down around the collar of his tweed suit.

     “Well, well, well,” he sighed.  “And what hath God wrought?”

     His voice was so deep that the timbre of his voice reverberated everywhere.

     “Or, perchance, wonders what He has wrought?”

     You could have heard a pin drop.

     “Well, well, well,” he sighed again, and, with a little wave of his hand, as if he were dismissing all of us, our professor walked to the front of the classroom, dropped his briefcase, sat down, turned himself sideways and propped his legs right up onto the top of the desk.  Under the pants of his tweed suit he was wearing a pair of mountain boots, and when he put his feet up on the desk you could see the lugged soles of those boots.

    “But, then, on the other hand....”

     He placed one of his big gnarled hands up to his cheek, rubbed the skin upwards as if testing his morning shave, then reached down into his briefcase and pulled out one of those cigarette kits I used to see working men roll cigarettes with.  We watched the whole thing:  laying the paper out between two fingers of one hand, shaking the tobacco out with the other, tapping the tobacco down, licking the paper closed and lighting a match against the side of his boot.  After he lit the cigarette he waved the match in the air to put it out, and then, without looking, not even really knowing, actually, if the window was open, tossed the match out the window behind him.

     “Not bad,” he said.

      A few of the girls in the front row giggled.

     “‘He, he, he, he,’” he mimicked.

     Then he turned sideways again, placed the cigarette at his lips and inhaled deeply, the end of the cigarette burning brightly.  We waited.  He held his breath, then blew the smoke out, but in two or three perfectly formed smoke rings.

     He re-crossed his legs.

     “Why do you suppose I wasn’t born a sheep farmer?”

     Of course, not a peep from the class.

     “I'm just asking," he said.  “A simple question.  Why wasn’t I born a sheep farmer?  Maybe in Australia?”

     He looked out over the class again.

     “Just asking,” he said.

     He reached down into his briefcase, pulled out a class book, opened it and moved his finger down over it.

     “Zeckendorf, why wasn’t I born a sheep farmer?”

     Whoever Zeckendorf was, he wasn't answering.

     “A simple question, it seems to me,” said the professor.

     He took another deep haul on the cigarette, we waited, and he exhaled two or three more perfect smoke rings, the last of them propelled through the other two.  Then, again without looking, he flicked the cigarette butt, still lit, out through the window behind him.

     “Zeckendorf.  Hello, Zeckendorf?”

     The professor looked out over the class with that walrus face.

     “Yes, sir,” said a boy’s voice near the back of the class.

     “Ah, Zeckendorf, you’re with us.”

     “Yes, sir.”      

     I turned around to see who the voice belonged to.  Even though this boy wasn’t wearing one of those “Property of the Department of Athletics” T-shirts, he could have been.  He certainly was big enough to be on the university’s football team.

     “Then, Zeckendorf, why wasn’t I born a sheep farmer?”

     “I don’t know, sir,” said the boy.

     “‘I don’t know, sir,’” said the professor.

     A few more titters from the girls in the front row.

     “‘He, he, he, he,’” the professor mimicked.

     A guffaw from the another boy in the back of the classroom.

     The professor slowly got to his feet and leered out over the students.

     “And who is the author of that remark?”

     Dead silence in the classroom.

     “You won't tell me?”

     Continued dead silence in the classroom.

     The professor sat back down and propped his legs up on the desk again.  His mountain boots seemed bigger than ever.

     “Zeckendorf, you still here?”

     “Yes, sir.”

     “You haven’t run away yet?”

     “No, sir.”

     “But, Zeckendorf, you’re not a fraternity man, are you?”

     “A what, sir?”

     “A fraternity man.  You know.  A frat man.  Someone who lives in a fraternity.  The brotherhood of man and all that.”

     “Not yet, sir.”

     “Not yet?”

     “No, sir.”

     “But you want to be.”

     “Yes, sir.”

     The professor turned away from us and we all watched him roll another cigarette and throw the match out the window behind him without looking.  Again, he blew some smoke rings.

     “So, Zeckendorf, you want to be a fraternity man.”

     “Yes, sir.”

     “Zeckendorf, I’ll make a deal with you.  You ready for a deal?”

     “I'm not sure, sir.”

     “Well, I think it’s a fair deal, Zeckendorf.  I think it’s more than a fair deal.  It’s probably one of the best deals you’ll get at this great university of ours.  And to show you I’m a really fair person, I’m going to offer it to you even if you want to be a fraternity man.  You appreciate that, Zeckendorf?”

     “Yes, sir.”

     “Because I figure fraternity men are people, too.  Don’t you figure that, Zeckendorf?”

     “Yes, sir.”

     “Just like sorority women?”

     “Yes, sir.”

     “So here’s the deal, Zeckendorf.  This is a course called Great Works of Western Literature.  And we’re going to start our reading with a little play called Oedipus Rex that a guy named Sophocles wrote some years back.  It’s a fun little play.  I don’t know if you’ve read it, Zeckendorf, but never mind.  I just want to ask you this one question.  And, Zeckendorf, if you can answer this one question, right now, no hedging around, no talking to your frat brothers back there, I'll tell you what.  You answer this question correctly, Zeckendorf, and I swear before this class and God and all these cutsey-wutzy sorority girls in the front row that you’ll get an ‘A’ for the course.  Now, that’s a pretty good deal, isn’t it, Zeckendorf?”

     “Yes, sir.”

     “Good, then, Zeckendorf, we understand each other.  The envelope, please.  Ready, Zeckendorf?”

     “Yes, sir.”

     “Then here’s the question,” said the professor.  “Now, Zeckendorf, what is the name of the seer that lives in a cave outside of Thebes?”

     “I don't know, sir.”

     “You don't know.”

     "No, sir."

     “Then let me give you a hint.  Since all of you bright young people in this room, the future hope of our nation, the saviours of the world, have probably all read the text for today, you certainly all know that Oedipus, the king of Thebes, is in trouble because the city of Thebes is dying from a plague.  Only one man can help the city.  And he is the seer who lives in a cave outside Thebes.  Now, Zeckendorf, what is the name of that one man who can help Thebes?”

     “I don’t know, sir.”

     “You don’t know.”

     “No, sir, I don’t.”

     “Well,” said the professor. “I think if Zeckendorf doesn’t know, why not, I’ll be generous. Anybody else, then?”

     The professor leered out over the class.

     “Oh, come on, all you bright, young people.  The hope of our earth.  I’m prepared to give an ‘A’ in this course to anyone who knows the name of the seer who lives outside Thebes.  The one who lives in a cave.  I’ll even give an ‘A’ to a sorority girl if she answers the question correctly.”

     The professor took another drag on his cigarette.

     Well, I knew the answer.  Teiresias.  I knew that name because I knew what plays we were going to study in Great Works of Western Literature.  As soon as that letter from the University of Oregon had come to my home town in Iowa, as soon as my mother knew that I had actually been accepted to a university, I got a hold of a catalog from the University of Oregon and read the descriptions of all the required courses.  That’s how I knew about Oedipus Rex.  I had not only read that play, but all the other plays listed in the description, too.

     So why didn’t I raise my hand and answer?

     Of course, I wanted the “A.”  Who wouldn’t?  But if you had been there, you wouldn’t have raised your hand, either.  I’ll bet you wouldn’t.  See, just like everyone else, I was afraid of this strange man.  I was afraid to answer because I was terrified he would do something awful to me if I did.  And, also, it somehow seemed to me that I didn’t have the right to answer before these other students.  After all, they were all from Oregon and I was an out-of-stater from Iowa.

     “Pity, pity, pity,” sighed the professor up at his desk, blowing another series of smoke rings.

     “Sir?” I heard myself say.

     I not only saw the professor redirect his gaze in my direction, but felt the rest of the class fix its attention on me, too.

     “Yes?” said the professor.

     I couldn’t say anything.  All I knew was my heart was going like crazy.

     “Yes?” said he professor again.  “Out with it.  Come on.”

     I still couldn’t say anything.

     “Come, come, come,” said the professor.

     “The name you’re looking for. . . ,” I heard myself start.

     “Yes?”

     “Is Teiresias.”

     The professor got up and came up around the desk where he stood only half a foot or so away from the girls in the front row.  His walrus face looked right at me.

     Now, I thought.  Now the terrible thing will happen.

     “Who said that?”

     I thought of not answering at all.  I even thought of getting up and leaving the classroom.  But I couldn’t leave the classroom.  I was caught.  And, besides, everyone had turned and was looking right at me.

     So I had to say, “I did, sir.”

     “You?”

     “Yes.”

     The professor kept staring at me.

     “And what is your name?”

     I almost couldn’t remember my name.

     “Jackson, sir.”

     “Jackson?”

     “Yes, Jackson, sir.”

     The professor went back and sat down, putting his legs up on the desk and crossing them, again exposing the lugged soles of his boots.

     “Jackson, you wouldn’t mind if I asked you another question, would you?”

     “No, sir,” I said.

     “Well, Jackson,” and now the professor began to wave the stub of the cigarette about and started saying something about taking into consideration all the cosmological influences, which somehow included the power of the oracles which were set in motion even before Oedipus’ birth, and going on and on using words I didn’t understand, and ending up talking about the later work of a number of distinguished critics which included, he hated to say it, Sigmund Freud.  But, nevertheless, this is the point of what we had to consider:  “Was Oedipus personally responsible for his heinous crimes?”

     Dead silence in the classroom.

     “Well, Jackson?”

     He wanted me to answer him again.

     “Out with it, Jackson.”

     But I couldn't speak.

     “Come, come, Jackson.  Innocent or guilty?”

     Nothing from me.

     “Good, God, Jackson, it’s a simple choice.  One or the other.  Innocent or guilty.  Out with it, Jackson.”

     “Innocent,” I said.

     “Innocent?”

     “Yes, sir, completely.”

     “Absolutely completely?”

     “Sir, you see, he had no idea at all of what he was doing.”

     Our professor reopened his class book and ran his finger down the page.

     “Jackson?  Can you tell me the name of just one other Greek dramatist.”

     “Aeschylus,” I said.

     “Another?”

     “Euripides.”

     “Another?”

     “Aristophanes.”

     “Of these, who introduced the third actor?”

     “Sophocles,” I said.

     Our professor made a mark in his class book.  Then he closed the class book, put it back into his briefcase, pulled his legs down off the desk and looked out over the class.  “Well, my dear friends, the hope of the nation, the delights of my life, Mr. Jackson is going to get an ‘A’ for this course.  How about the rest of you?”

     And with that, he picked up his briefcase and walked out of the classroom.

     Only he didn’t walk directly out of the classroom.  He stopped at the door.  In fact, he stopped right at the end of my row, the fourth row.  And he looked down the row.  Right at me.

     Now, I thought, now he’s going to do it.

     “Good job, Jackson,” the professor said.

     And he was gone.

     At first, nobody moved.  After all, maybe only twenty minutes had gone by.  The class was supposed to last for fifty minutes.  Or maybe the professor was testing us somehow.  Perhaps in five minutes he’d come back in to see who was still there.  Maybe he’d give bad grades to those who got up and left.  So we just kept sitting there and sitting there.

     “Jackson?” said a voice from the back row after about a minute.  In fact, it was the voice of the Zeckendorf.  “Jackson?”

     “Yes,” I said.

     “Do you think we can go now?”

     “I think so,” I said from where I was sitting.

     “You think it’s okay?”

     “Probably.”

     Still, nobody moved.

     Then a very unusual idea occurred to me.  After several more minutes, I thought maybe it was all right to leave the classroom.  So I closed my notebook, put it in my school bag, and started getting up.  When I did, all the other students in the class started getting up, too.  But, even so, nobody left the room.  Even the students over near the door didn’t leave the room.

     I stood there in my row waiting for someone to make the first move when it came to me.  It really came to me.  Nobody was going to leave the room until I did.

     “Well,” I said to the other students around me, “I think I better be moving along.”

     As I eased down my row, the other students pushed back against the chairs to give me room.

     “Where did you learn all that?”

     That was Zeckendorf from the back of the room.

     “Just luck,” I said.

     “Luck?” said Zeckendorf.

     And I walked out that door of room 2141 and along the hallway and down the stairs and out the front entrance of Bowerman Hall into the Oregon sunshine.  In front of me lots of students from all other parts of the university were walking along the different sidewalks going to where they were going.

     I stepped out and joined them.

 

Karl Harshbarger has had over 60 publications of his stories in such magazines as The Atlantic Monthly, Ploughshares, The Iowa Review, The Antioch Review and The Prairie Schooner. Two of his stories have been selected for the list of “Distinguished Stories” in Best American Short Stories, and ten of his stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He has finished two novels, An Addison Man and Tuckman Hill, and is working on two other novels. He lives in Germany with his wife.