“We’re the last of the leisure class,” said the grey-bearded professor with the red Stratocaster. He passed a bottle of white wine to his colleague on bass as the sun bent through a bay window of the old farmhouse. When the bottle had passed around the circle of faculty and me, we busted out a competent version of “Hey Joe.”
I was in my mid-twenties, enjoying a second college experience, just without the school part. I lived with a handful of fun-loving young men on the edge of their campus while I wrote songs, worked at various jobs to pay the bills, and tried to lead my rock band to indie stardom. One of my roommates had developed a friendly relationship with his history professor, whose lifestyle turned out to be a slightly more organized version of our own. Dude played bass. He liked to party.
The Last of the Leisure Class. My dad taught at the university for almost forty years, and he spent forty years’ worth of afternoons playing racquetball at the YMCA or walking in the woods. He worked hard and had worked even harder to get there, and he found a career with some leeway. I don’t think I appreciated the quality of his lifestyle at the time. Once I did, many years later my own attempt to break into the professorial ranks hit the brick wall that is adjunct teaching. I did, of course, take far too long to return to grad school and resume my academic career—the landscape had largely changed, schools often surviving on the backs of young hopeful grad students, the recently graduated and poor, the retired. There were fewer positions at the university like my dad’s. He was paid for his deep education and real dedication to his craft, his insight. He did, also, kind of like to party.
Several of my own professors seemed blessed with terrific insight, sometimes into my own character. That was due in part to my own hero-worship—I chose to see “genius” when my slightly eccentric and even more slightly famous philosophy prof. wrote right off the chalkboard onto the wall and the floor because he simply could not be restrained by artificially imposed boundaries. “I just wanted to let you know that you are in danger,” he once whispered conspiratorially to us, the day after a student’s mother had complained to the dean of his evil and persuasive teachings. I loved it. He was a little cheesy, a little self-aware, but it’s more fun to believe in something. The world seemed otherwise plenty full of dullness, which made that kind of exuberance worth celebrating.
Professorial insightfulness sometimes became more personal with less charismatic teaching styles. As much as we loved or hated them more than they deserved—their dictatorial power over us, their crazy mannerisms, their clothes—those smart people were watching us, too. I recall one of my first clear realizations that I am not an entirely consistent person in Italian class as a freshman. My professor, who was all of about five feet tall but sounded like a giant clacking up the hall in her high leather boots, called me by my Italian-class name. “Giuseppe,” she said one day during class in her flowing accent, “you are like a star. Sometimes you shine real bright, and sometimes you just a go away.”
My biggest professor hero, Dean Young, encouraged me in my poetry and my life. He provided a picture of the guy I wanted to be—thoughtful, intense, fulfilled in his talent and study. And he didn’t hold back in conversation with me. When I told him I intended to move to Argentina after graduation, a romantic idea I thought he would applaud, he told me I was wasting my education. He told me this in the locker room after an afternoon swim and sauna. His insight came from a man in his late forties who knew how plans could go sideways. He had remarkable abs.
Tim Suermondt has had enough of professors, or at least the secondary school kind in his poem, “No High School.” He’s had it, too, with the cast of characters who made high school suck. What he does have is a wonderful, direct, and spot-on juxtaposition of classroom biology and fairly innocent desire, of frogs and chocolate.
Nan Cuba’s flash piece, “Sociology 101, Professor’s Lecture #1,” implores us to examine our lives and our thorny world. An ever-valuable Socratic reminder couched in the compelling voice of an ageing prof.—guaranteed, like any great speech, to haunt and inspire you for a few days.
“Professor Jonas Comes to Visit,” a short story by Timothy James Brearton, centers on a domestic spat. The mysterious inclusion of the Professor and the withholding of information give the piece a taut edge and thwart our attempts to see into the relationships and guess the story’s direction. Brearton’s narrative voice keeps the reader nicely off balance with a mix of off-the-cuff observations—“Yes, we named a male cat ‘Penelope.’”—and darker, more lyric passages—“There is a spot in the unused fireplace…I always feel like I am reaching up into someone’s throat when I stick my hand in there. The throat of the building.”
Photo by John Buckler and Kate Smith-Buckler