Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Same Non-Excuse

In my recent college alumni newspaper, I sadly learned that a professor of mine had passed away at the ripe old age of eighty-five. He taught philosophy. And while I wouldn’t rank him as a personal favorite of mine, or an inspirational figure in my young life, he deserves his due as a memorable character in my book.

I had originally taken a course called “Logic” with Professor O, which for some inexplicable reason was mandatory for business students back then. Really, it was the most illogical course I had ever sat through and was happy with my “C” grade. Always dressed in flannel shirts and high-water polyester slacks, I considered my instructor a classic higher-education eccentric. True, he was also somewhat haughty, as he mostly lectured to the ceiling tiles, but nonetheless had remarkable peripheral vision and somehow always noticed raised hands, even with his eyes glued to the heavens. But considering the heavy workload in other courses, his rambling approach, no reliance on a textbook (although we purchased one), and no homework assignments, were something of a welcome palliative. And so I took my chances with him again in an elective course called “Introduction to Philosophy.”

The icing on the cake for me was that it was offered in a twice-a-week package, rather than the general three days of fifty-five minute classes. Granted, they were at 2:30 in the afternoon and wouldn’t end until 4:15, but the two-day thing, and potential light workload, was worth the risk. It paid off in spades, and we weren’t even required to purchase a textbook this time. But herein lies the unforgettable qualities of Professor O. At that time of the school day, a one hour and forty-five minute lecture from a monotonous fellow on the tedious subject of philosophy was a Sominex recipe. Classroom sleepers were omnipresent. I remember looking around at my classmates and spotting countless glazed-over eyes, with some of my peers in the soundest of sleeps. I regularly fought off the urge, but there was one time where I could not account for twenty-five minutes of the day. Frightening. It was a Professor O blackout.

Then one day our professor was late for class. I doubt very much it was official school policy, but we students worked with a ten-minute rule. If one of our profs didn’t show up within that allotted time, we were free to go—and we did. Something or another brought me back to the scene of the crime, and I encountered Professor O coming down the hall. Thinking quickly on my feet for a college student, I played dumb and posed this question to him: “No class today?” He answered me with a long-winded account about how he was engaged in some uber-philosophical discussion with someone and how—before he knew it—he had completely lost track of the time.

“Why are you late?” he then asked, catching me off guard. There was no more quick thinking on my part as I stammered a reply of how I was, ipso facto, just late. Professor O then uttered the unforgettable line for which he has forever a warm place in my heart. “I guess we both have the same non-excuse,” he said. He also seemed genuinely peeved we had all run out on him like we did, and that now his carefully honed lesson plan was all screwed up. “You tell them…” he said—as if I would see “them” en masse—that he would have to accelerate and consolidate his remaining lectures to cover the requisite materials before the final exam. Most of his students would have been surprised to learn, I think, that he actually had a semester’s lesson plan, but, evidently, from where he sat staring at the ceiling, he did.

Finally, I am left with the image of Professor O entering the classroom in his patented rapid and detached sort of way, only to encounter a large coffee urn and several trays of donuts alongside his desk, left over from a previous something or another. Some college kid from across the hall looked in and, pointing to the donuts, asked, “Can I take one of them?” In his inimitable and erudite manner, Professor O replied, “They’re not mine to give.” The kid took that as a yes and grabbed one, stuffed it in his mouth, then a couple of more, and went on his merry way.

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