The Professor, the Pupil, and the Proscenium

Luis Freire May 13, 2021
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The pupil entered the room not knowing what to expect.

He spent the previous night socializing with neighbors and when that didn’t seem to quell his fear of tomorrow’s class, he read and he wondered what his life would be in another time with people and places he knew never existed or had yet to meet. This time, two premonitions appeared side by side.

In one, his daily regimen included bundling heavily with winter apparel for the stroll through a frigid northern town into an adjacent schoolyard. Once inside, the usual call of orderly conduct began as the assembly of students unraveled their supplies and paraded to their desk. The teacher in each classroom delivered a barrage of questions and books lined with the insight of letters, numbers, colors, and symbols. The only relief from this unwelcome memory came midway through school day in the gymnasium where they frolicked against each other with the ball, while the other being the customary rendezvous at the cafeteria for meals. During the final recess, the unrehearsed events of earlier that morning continued unabated and would find no closure even as the swarm of students began strolling back home or into town at the end of the day’s itinerary. This haven of sorts replayed occasionally for him when there was no other relief in sight. Unpleasant as it was, momentary interludes of music class often suppressed the baffling routine that awaited each day and would eventually sway him back to reality.

Another looming perturbance found him scurrying about in a mountain valley settlement, so to speak. In it, he quenched his curiosity by huddling together with the other uniformed students marching forth into the honeycomb of classrooms that surrounds a courtyard, speaking and arranging themselves into a crowd only to disperse as the teacher entered the room to initiated the lesson. The only familiar strand between this and the first memory was the peering questions etched by the teacher to the board and the students on their pad. He seemed to find comfort only in the soothing acts of communal feeding and obtrusive playfulness that, as before, gradually swept him back to reality.

As he straddled the hallway, a girl standing next the classroom door slowed his pace and belied his stance. Not knowing what to make of the mutual hesitancy, he wondered past her into the room brimming with seats. Upon sitting in one of the seats which lined the rows nestled in front of the chalkboard, the person sitting next to him offered a smile, his name, and a handshake. Absorbed in the gesture, he delighted in the thought that perhaps this day and others to follow would reflect the fonder ones of his earlier school romps, including those two that murmured diligently among nebulous thought. The unsuspecting pair continued the precarious dialogue started by the handshake. As the room filled with strangers, an even heavier cloud of precaution hung aloft as the professor eased toward the center of the room, leveled his vestments on the table and sorted through the portfolio of lessons.

Introducing himself as the professor was the most palpable part of the thicket of knowledge that would gradually spring forth and not relent until the conclusion of the course weeks away. The only motivation to stay and absorb the veering waves of introspection and skepticism was, indeed, the friend that sat waiting on the first day. The other students cautiously exchanged their speculation and bartered for approval as it emerged from the philosophical tirade levied by the professor. “No, all is not what it seems,” alleged the philosopher enthroned aside the sea of weary eyes. “The universe is immense and the human mind, though infinitely equipped to surmise, can only ascertain a mere patchwork of such magnitude,” he inured.

The fear that had befallen the pupil the instant he enlisted was now gaining momentum. All the promises of future success from peers and parents were met with failure and all the scholarly entitlements that once tantalized his decisions were being marred as the lessons piled on incessantly.

After class subsided, he raced to the library or cowered into his dormitory. Feeling, in his feverish condition, that the textbooks would reveal the answers and invoke the wherewithal to withstand the professor’s wit. But, the hours spent in the library were no match for the weekly barrage of contemplation and conjecture orchestrated by the man so confidently poised against the audience of feeble minds.

The friend that uniquely stood apart from all the rest of the class faded into obscurity as the term ended. The girl that lived in the dormitory one floor below now found reason to divert her attention on the way to class and ask, “How goes it?”

The pupil inexplicably admitted the struggle being endured in the lectures and recoiled by asking the same. “The best way to stay afloat,” she rebounded, “is to cover the reading material beforehand and relate those ideas with the professor’s agenda.”

With the majority of the dilemma now under control, the pupil continued, “How do you comprehend the concepts and the language used by the author to express it?” Grinning, she remarks, “You have to define the ideas in order to interpret the question. Otherwise, none of it will make sense.”

What the pupil so fervently searched for in the library and in the course itself, the girl from the dormitory so graciously and eloquently provided through intuition. They parted ways, owing nothing more than the time that transpired during the chance encounter. The pupil, relieved and fluttered from the advice given, began to clearly imagine the new path of perseverance coalescing before him. Included in that intuition was many more courses, professors, and the unbridled kindness of strangers. Or at least, the girl at the corner of the classroom or the one living a few floors apart in the dormitory. “Wonderful,” was the resounding sentiment that filled his mind among all the days and years that unfolded.

Much to his chagrin, the girl in the corner of the classroom reappeared a year later. Sitting idly, but pensive, in a nestled corner of the library, she waved and smiled. The chance encounter cautiously extended into a long and laborious exchange of notation from another course and slightly more endearing professor. Just as the girl from the dormitory, this one was blessed with all the pleasantries and all the foresight that the pupil was lacking.

Many years after finishing school, the insightful events of the philosophy course retreat into his waking moments. In the aftermath of reminisces, are the toils of earning meager grades, the languishing retort of the class audience, and the wisdom that has only now started to take root and blossom assertively.

The professor’s name is clearly inscribed in his fading memory. The textbook personages and preconceptions persist ungoverned and meander into the daily quest of knowing better and clamoring coherently in social gatherings: the public ones or the private ones. What the pupil once deciphered from the early masters of the discipline, he has only begun to encode diligently himself. Yet—as pen presses against paper, ever-present is the beckoning essence of the professor, the doubting whispers from past colleagues, and the remnants of an early civilization.

He entered the classroom not knowing what to expect. All the seats claimed by them with arms bracing the stacks of books and folders. The students, as always, gleaning as he set the plan in motion. The questions rolled in unison, “Do we have a test today?” Taken aback he wonders, “Why do you ask?” One of them wagers, “You are not carrying the usual load.”

In their stead, he shuffled and prodded the morass of principles rippling through his thoughts: in their wake, the bristling moments of a professor and a pupil of long ago who studied ancient Greek civilization without knowing why.

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