The professor leaned back in his chair, propped his feet on his desk and rubbed his eyes with his fingers. They just didn’t get it. He stared at his desk where sat a stack three of the latest failed attempts at greatness, falling short of even mediocrity. They may as well have been twenty papers he had to suffer through; it would have been just as bad.
“Hats off. Show respect in the classroom,” he barked at the boy entering to take his seat.
The boy quickly obliged. The last two students, two girls, came in and sat on each side of the boy in the back row of at least thirty seats. The professor still hadn’t moved. He remained seated, feet propped, staring into the distance.
The students glanced at each other and slowly began to lean forward, waiting for the verdict. He let the silence dangle in front of them for a bit longer before standing and taking a breath.
Corners of mouths twitched in controlled anticipation.
“Your papers.” He said it reflectively this time and moved to the window. He gazed outside, unwilling to be rid of the suspense just yet. Finally, he decided to get on with it. “Have you learned nothing this semester?” he still looked out the window.
All heads lowered in quiet disappointment. Even though his back was to them, he could sense this, and he allowed himself a grin, knowing that they wouldn’t see it. He took a moment to compose himself and turned around.
“I have told you time after time: Stop telling me things. Show me. By the last line of your writings, I should be absolutely convinced.”
They nodded slowly with furrowed brows.
“But I haven’t been convinced. I’ve been disgusted.”
Eyebrows went from furrowed to raised in alarm. He fought back the grin that wanted to reemerge.
“I’m going to give you one more chance to redeem yourself. Meet each other at the campus coffee shop after lunch tomorrow. I want you all to discuss what you’ve been doing wrong in this class. When you come back to class Friday, you will turn in one paragraph. One paragraph; that’s all I ask. But this paragraph must describe someone, a stranger, who stands out to you.”
He felt this was a proper time to go back to the window and pause again. “You had better convince me by the end of that paragraph who that person is. Show, don’t tell.” Turning his head to look at them over his shoulder, he softly announced, “Class dismissed.”
They moved out of their seats as if they had been sitting there for hours. As he returned to his desk to pick up the failures still sitting there, a voice slightly startled him.
He looked up to see one of the girls standing on the other side of his desk. He didn’t talk back, but returned her blank stare. Her hands tightened around her backpack straps, and her mouth opened for a few moments.
“I . . . went by your office yesterday during your office hours and your secretary said—”
Uninterested in her life story, he interrupted, “What do you want?” He carefully chose a tone that best communicated what an inconvenience she was being.
She sighed softly before finally saying, “I want to know how I can be better.”
Prolonged silences weren’t as amusing with just one person, so he got right to the point: “Were you not listening to my lecture? All my lectures? You know what you need to do. I really must go.”
He began gathering his things.
“Actually,” she persisted, and he marveled at how she could keep the conversation going knowing that he wanted to leave, “I’m really not sure I do. Will you be in your office tomorrow? I’d like to talk. Whatever time you want is fine with me.”
“I’m afraid not.” He jerked his arm violently to look at his watch. “I won’t be in my office for the rest of the week, and I don’t have time to listen to complaints about grades. Goodbye.”
He whisked out of the room before she could bother him with more ridiculous questions.
* * *
When she got to the coffee shop the next day, her classmates were waiting for her with notebooks in hand. They seated themselves so that they faced each other. For a few minutes, no one spoke. Then it all seemed to pour out.
“He said I ought to know what I’m doing wrong from the lectures. I guess I’m just not as good at listening as I thought.”
“I went by his office two weeks ago. The secretary said he was out for coffee. I came back two hours later. Turns out he decided to take a two hour coffee break.”
“I try to take notes, but they all seem to be different ways of saying, ‘All writing should be good.’”
“Let’s just go over our past work and see if we’ve been missing something.”
They took out printed papers stained red with markings and C-minuses and read them out loud to each other, going over every sentence. They offered suggestions, critiques, and all the advice they could think of until their eyes burned with drowsiness. Finally, the boy looked up from his paper.
“That’s it. We’ve gone over everything.”
“Will it be enough?”
“I don’t know; I’m not sure what some of these scribbles mean.” He turned his paper over to see if he was reading the professor’s words upside down.
Pop! Just then, a loud noise coming from the table next to them drew all their attention. A woman had dropped her cut and leaned down, picked it up, and cleaned the mess with a napkin before taking her book and leaving. The slight commotion seemed to be enough to break their tired trance. They straightened from their fatigued, slumped positions and agreed that it was time to go home and work on their own.
* * *
The professor mumbled his appreciation of Friday as he watched the students practically bounce to their chairs. He could tell they were excited, so he allowed the prolonged silence to drag on a bit longer than usual. It wasn’t until he saw one of them twitch and begin to lose that irritatingly pleasant demeanor that he decided to begin.
“You know what the assignment was. Now comes the moment of truth. I will see whether or not you have listened. Listened and learned.”
They were holding their papers; they had been since they walked in the door.
He gestured to the girl who had spoken with him after class and said, “Come to the front and read your paragraph.”
The flicker of a startled look crossed her face for a brief moment. She nodded in compliance and walked from the safety of the back row to stand in front of his desk. His tapping fingers distracted her for a moment, but she was able to push it aside and begin her paper.
“Her eyes were constantly darting around the room as if terrified someone would see her. The slightest mistake, the tiniest tremble of the pages she turned, stirred a sweeping search of faces. Whenever she looked at me, she quickly averted her gaze—“
“Was she paranoid?” his elbows rested on the desk and his chin on his hands. His mouth was pressed into a close-mouthed smile. She looked at him a moment.
“I’ve read out loud before.”
“Not you, your subject.”
“Thank you. That will be all.”
A stunned quiet embraced everyone. She plopped back down in her seat with a numb look on her face. Her classmates seemed to shrink in place. He smiled again and gestured to the other girl. She walked briskly to the front and immediately began her reading.
“The stranger dressed comfortably, but with an unusual amount of layers for a mild day. Clashing colors and dark lipstick emitted a certain awkwardness that she couldn’t seem to get under control no matter how she tried.”
“What evidence do you have of her trying?”
She considered her answer carefully.
“I think the lipstick represented—“
“You think? You don’t know?”
Her mouth opened, but nothing came out.
“All right, last one.” He pointed to the boy. The girl’s mouth snapped shut and she quietly exchanged places with the last reader.
The professor waited until right when the boy was going to speak, then blurted out, “Whenever you’re ready.”
The boy jumped slightly, but regained focus and began again.
“The woman sat alone. Her body language of hunched shoulders and downcast head turned away any possible visitors to her table—”
At this, the professor let out a chuckle that echoed through the room. Looking down at his desk he said, almost to himself, “Oh, my. Wonderful.”
Returning focus on the boy, he asked, “You think spilling coffee had anything to do with her being alone?”
Three pairs of solemn eyes quickly snapped with surprise to the front of the room. Rising with the elation of knowing his moment had arrived, the professor called with a cheerful flare, “Come in!” to the front of the room.
The woman from the coffee shop entered. No one looked at anything else as she crossed to the front and stood next to the desk. The boy’s hands, still holding the paper, lowered slowly to his sides. He retreated back to his place and joined his classmates in staring at their guest.
“This is my colleague.” The professor motioned to her with a grand sweep of the arm. “She agreed to help me with this little demonstration. What was the demonstration? That you can describe a person accurately, but still not know them. You can still be wrong!”
He loved that word and allowed his lips to overemphasize.
Some kind of glow began to form on the faces in the back row. Nodding, their cheeks began to rise in silent amusement. They looked at the woman and allowed themselves a friendly smile.
Ignoring this and still chuckling to himself, the professor boomed, “Ah!” He slapped the top of the desk, making all bodies jerk. “Tough luck isn’t it? Looks like you still haven’t learned anything.”
Cheek apples sank back to their previous positions. The woman found this a good time to politely bow out of the room, closing the door behind her. The students, who were now looking with concern at the professor, didn’t notice her exit. Laughter continued to escape in spurts so that his shoulders randomly jerked upward. There was no turning to compose himself this time, not with the conclusion this assignment had brought him to.
“I’m afraid I just have to wash my hands of you. Sad, really.”
With that, he gathered his things and began to walk with a carefree pace to the door. Everyone looked at each other with mixtures of confusion and desperation. His approach was interrupted by the boy.
“Hey, what grade did we get on those?”
He paused and scanned their faces for a moment. Seeing what he thought were glimmers of hope, he quickly blurted, “D’s, of course” flashed a quick smile, and was gone. After a second, a low, happy whistling could be heard echoing the halls along with his fading footsteps.
It took a few moments before the students were able to regain movement in their arms and legs, pack up their things, and shift single-file out of the cold room. Fighting an invisible weight, they slowly lifted their chins to look at one another. A silent agreement gently swept over them as they stood in the hallway: they would never take a course taught by the professor again, and they would never stop writing.
This was found in my drop-box the other day. You are to be commended; your students seem to have learned how to write descriptions well. The paper was completely anonymous, but I knew exactly who it was in reference to. It certainly exceeded all verbal descriptions I have received.
I would very much like to discuss this further. Please come by my office Friday at one o’clock sharp.
I assure you, I keep my office hours.