One Thousand Words on a College Professor

William Rice looked across the podium into the sea of faces. They looked so young. And bored. “When did kids become perpetually bored?” he wondered to himself.

“Ladies and gentleman,” he called out. The classroom quieted a little. He spoke again, louder this time. “Ladies and gentleman, shall we begin?” The students slowly stopped talking and found their seats.

William continued “Thank you. Now today we’re going to cover…” He paused trying to remember what he was supposed to be teaching that day. He peered down at his notes. They were a blur in front of him. He blinked several times and then realized that he wasn’t wearing his glasses. William turned around to fumble through his briefcase. The students began murmuring. “Just a minute. I can’t find my damn glasses. I know they’re in here,” he muttered, almost to himself, as he shuffled through papers, used Kleenex and the other debris that filled his briefcase. As the conversations grew louder, he became more addled. He knew that even if he found his glasses, he still would have a hard time deciphering his notes. They were written so long ago that he could scarcely remember what he had been trying to say. He gave up his search and turned back to the class. “Complete all of the problems on page 100,” he barked.

A slight girl halfway back in the class tentatively put her hand in the air, “Professor Rice?” He sighed inwardly. She was one of those girls that always spoke in a question. That trait has always irritated him. “I think that we’ve all ready completed page 100? Just last week?”

“Do them again. It’s not like any of you did them perfectly the first time.”

He sat down as his desk and continued to halfheartedly look for his glasses. His hand fell on a piece of lavender paper. He didn’t need his glasses to know it was a letter from his daughter. Only his daughter wrote on lavender paper. He couldn’t remember which one of his wunderkind grandchildren she was bragging about in this particular note. He could barely even remember their names. Nancy was the one who kept track of all that family stuff and since she died… His thoughts were interrupted when a muscular young man approached the desk.

“I have a question about problem twelve, Professor Rice.”

William nodded and squinted at the book. He swore the print in the textbooks got smaller every year. When he couldn’t make out the problem he said, “Tell me what you think.”

The boy cleared his throat. “Well, I know it has something to do with the derivative function of h(x).”

William pushed the book away and turned to the boy. “You’re a basketball player, right Mr…?”

“Woodrow. I play football.”

“Ah, yes. Football. Then you should be a natural at calculus. It’s just like football.” William continued, ignoring the boy’s puzzled look. “In football, the name of other team’s quarterback doesn’t matter, it just matters what he can do. Can he run fast? Does he have a great throwing arm? You have to figure that out in the first few plays so you can react. That’s just like calculus. It doesn’t matter if it’s called x or y, you just need to figure out what it can do so you know what to do.” The speech sounded like illogical nonsense, even to his own ears, but he sent the football player back to his seat anyway.

Two minutes before the end of class he reached into his jacket pocket for a lifesaver and found his glasses. He put them on, glanced at the clock and dismissed the class. As the students shuffled out, chatting noisily, he put his papers back in his briefcase and thought idly about creating new lesson plans. Then he remembered that it Wednesday and that meant Law and Order: SVU was on tv. “Tomorrow night,” he promised himself.

He waited until the halls had cleared before heading to his office, but it wasn’t quite long enough. He was just a few steps away from his office door when a colleague came bounding towards him.

“Good afternoon, Will!” The younger man’s messenger bag slipped of his shoulder as he leaned against the wall. He pulled the strap back up into place. “How were your classes today?”

William put his briefcase on the floor and dug his hands into his pants pockets, searching for his office keys. “Fine… just fine. And yours?”

“Great! The kids in my Abstract Algebra II class are brilliant! Absolutely brilliant! And my Euclidean and Non-Euclidean Geometries students? Oh my God, they are so on top of it! I’m even enjoying the Statistics class I got stuck with!”

The man’s enthusiasm and overuse of exclamations tired William. He located his keys and picked up his briefcase. “That’s wonderful, Tom. I’m glad to hear it. Now if you’ll excuse me…” He took a step toward his door.

“I was actually wondering if you had a moment, Will. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but I’m up for tenure. I know you’ve been tenured a long time and I was hoping to get some advice. You know, about what the committee might like to see? How I can impress them?”

Will paused. He had been tenured for over thirty years. He could barely remember what it was like to be a young professor truly passionate about teaching math, striving for tenure. He hadn’t loved anything since Nancy died. Nothing even interested him. He had been numb for four years. His kids had encouraged him to retire and move out West closer to them, but the idea of moving exhausted him. The idea of anything out of the ordinary at all exhausted him.

“Will?” his colleague leaned forward, concerned.

“I don’t know about the tenure committee, Tom but I do have some advice for you. When you’re my age and realize you just don’t care anymore? Be smart enough to get the fuck out.”

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