A Professor’s Challenge

PROFESSOR COLGATE SAT as the campus bell at Texas Christian tolled. In his chair beside the podium, he crossed his right leg over his left, conveying a typically bored gesture while his class of three hundred filed into the auditorium.

He often decided to arrive early and watch the procession as classes moved in and out of his day, unlike many professors who waited until their class finished seating before making a grand entrance. The beginnings of pompous, he thought.

For Colgate, his time both to teach and to learn. Colgate learned as much from his students as they learned from him.

The last student gathered a seat. The soft rumble of conversation subsided as he stood and went to the podium. Matter-of factly, he reached and flipped the microphone switch, opened a notebook and summarily began.

“Feeling is to perceive through the sense of touch. If you can’t believe the authority of Webster’s or Random House or the American Heritage Dictionary, whom can you believe?”

Here he paused to let a low murmur in one of the upper tiers become the only sound in the quiet hall, muffled coughs and the normal rustling of papers or closing of a book excepted. He stared at the approximate location of the noise and soon two heads came up. Shocked looks identified the culprits and embarrassed, they leaned back in their chairs amidst smirks from a half dozen students surrounding them.

They’d all been in Colgate’s advanced English class for two months and they knew their instructor’s brilliance included two important features. First, he had an amazing ability to recognize every face assigned to his class and put a name to it, and second, he brooked nothing but total attention to the subject at hand. Failure to deal seriously with the edict Colgate pronounced on the first day of class and never again, brought a personal visit to his office and no student left it feeling good.

All learning began with listening. He imparted that thought to the recalcitrant or unconvinced in no uncertain terms and tied his or her final grade to deportment in class as surely as to providing correct answers in tests.

The professor jotted something on a small pad and then cupped a hand around his left ear, moving his head in a sweep that encompassed the entire hall. Should a pin drop in the upper left tier, the student body divined the professor would hear it.

“We take our words from such authoritative works and we rely heavily on them for correct spelling and for precise meanings of the words of our language. English is tough enough to learn, even if you haven’t come from another country and learned its language first.

“Why am I repeating something you learned in high school? The reason may surprise you, but it is, in fact, simple. I am going to move away from the program today,” an involuntary groan escaped some lips, “and I am going to give all of you an opportunity to be truly creative. I am going to satisfy myself that all three hundred of you deserve to be here, that you are intelligent enough to think on your own and that you can formulate an answer to my suggested direction in a work of fiction.

“It does not concern me that this is not a creative writing class. You all have the tools and now I’m going to ask you to use them. Here is your assignment. Write a story that involves never having had a sense of touch. Keep in mind that you have had one for all of your lives and now you are being asked to pretend that no such sense has ever existed. You may find this a difficult concept to get your mind around, but it is what you must do.

“You will use your wire binders, neatly tear out your pages of effort and hand them to the monitor at the back of the hall as you leave today. Your name must be legible and your class and time listed in the upper right corner of each page. Everyone is required to write on this subject. This will count twenty-five percent of your final grades.”

A gasp and shudder went through the professor’s audience even while pages were frantically being located and prepared for the writing assignment.

“You have an hour and fifteen minutes, from…now!”

Surveying the assembly, Professor Colgate saw blond and brunette heads bend over their retractable DeskWriter tables. A smattering of redheads in varying shades punctuated the sea of blond and brown and a small group with black hair sporting tight curls or dreadlocks or ironed hair bent over their work on the right.

Satisfied that his message had gotten through the eyes and to the brains of this group, Colgate sat down in his chair and pulled out a text on contemporary English. His presence and his all seeing eye would be with the student body, even during moments he didn’t survey his scene. Many could not get from their minds the hideous vision of Orwell’s “Big Brother” watching them.

About twenty percent went at it with a will, he noted. The rest joined them reticently or thoughtfully, grimaces to outright fear showing on faces briefly lifted from the desk to see if “the eye” might be watching them.

Professor George Colgate, of average height and build, had a studious appearance. He did not wear glasses, but if contacts were his method of avoiding something hanging from the bridge of his nose, no one knew it for sure. He had a narrow face, a little pinched, and his expression many students interpreted as cross, although most did not know this of him directly. Many teachers ran on reputation, deserved or not. He did not actually warrant being placed into this mold, but to him, it seemed to leaven the conduct of the unruly few and he believed that the student body helped to police this potential through rumor. In any event, he did nothing to dispel it, given the size of his classes.

Today he wore black knife-edge slacks and a white shirt, with tie, covered with a brilliant red cable-knit pullover designed to combat the chill in the large hall. His choice of bright red paid obeisance to Christmas, only days hence, although he had no religious predilections of his own.

He did think the assignment an especially good one so close to Christmas, and perhaps more importantly to the days that followed, a school break that would provide renewal from the frenetic pace he kept during class season. Rather than go somewhere-being single he didn’t need it-he would relax with three hundred pieces of fiction and try to ferret out real gold from fools’ gold.

The Professor hadn’t tried this experiment before and genuinely wondered what would come of it. He glanced up periodically. Yes, Colgate the shepherd, Big Brother indeed, watched his flock today. The knowledge that he had nearly ultimate power over these young people didn’t cause him to smile, because he knew that the grades he gave them could make a difference in their young lives and could send them on their way in directions they wanted or did not want.

An hour passed. Little movement came from the assembled except the furious application of pen to paper. Every now and then someone would shift his weight to get off some part that had gone to sleep. A few began to look up frequently. They were running out of ideas. He casually noted who they were. He’d be seeing them again on paper, but he wanted to see if physical appearance and expression on a student also carried to his or her work.

Ten more minutes passed. He stood and turned the mike on again. “Five minutes to finish up.”

The professor didn’t add anything, but left implicit in his statement the very important element of closure. How many would round out their stories and make them circular? He had an idea who would excel and who would not. His class contained a microcosm of American man and womanhood, but more than that, many of these people would become the leaders of future generations.

Today’s assignment tested them now. In it he offered them a key to the creation of a better world, to an understanding that automatically accepting current thinking was wrongheaded, that humanity’s direction had to diverge, to think beyond present truths and to find new ones. He hoped that a few would grasp the key. Right now he held it in his hands. Soon enough his class would pass from his influence and move into the real world, there to create their own happiness or sadness, to make their mistakes and enjoy their occasional successes.

Professor Colgate wondered how many would be touched by the assignment.

“Time’s up. You are free to leave. The monitor will collect your work as I have said. Enjoy your holidays and we’ll see you back on January 2nd.”

Colgate smiled at them. A few called out, “Merry Christmas,” to which the professor nodded. He had an idea how he would approach the students’ return, what he would tell them. Perhaps he would pose it as a question. “Who among you can tell me the reason for this assignment?”

Regardless, they must be told whether they had succeeded or failed. Three hundred students struggled to their feet, began the climb to the top of the amphitheater and out into lightly falling snow. Jonathan Brown, his grad student monitor would see him within the half hour carrying a large flat bundle of student work. He wouldn’t ask John to read half of them this time. He wanted gold. He’d have to find it himself.