Sunday, April 29, 2007

The smart-mouth student

A chip off the same block

My nieces and nephews span a range from nearly 30 years old to approximately zero years old. The eldest nephew is drudging away at his Ph.D. dissertation and the next eldest has settled down with spouse and job. The younger of the two did not go as far in his academic career as the older, but his college days achieved pinnacles of their own. They just weren't of an academic nature. Although he may have been tempted to exaggerate his classroom escapades when he told me about them, I believe that his sense of honor would not let him stray too far. Allow me to recount one of the more notorious episodes of his collegiate years. For purposes of the narrative, it will be useful to refer to him by a name, so let's call him “Mike Chamberlain,” a suitably euphonious alias.

Mike was taking an English class in his freshman or sophomore year. It might have been American lit or perhaps composition. Mike was still living at home in those days and the college was the local community college, its faculty dominated by professors with master's degrees (as is generally the case with California community colleges). Mike's English professor, however, had earned a doctorate and made sure the students addressed him as “Dr. C” instead of “Mr. C,” as they would otherwise have been wont to do. If you can't make a point of your academic attainments at a college, then where else could you do it? Mike didn't mind that at all, although he was put off just a bit by his professor's tendency to throw his intellectual weight around. Some pedantry is fine in its place, but Mike does not respond well to bullying.

Dr. C was leading the class in a discussion of Faulker's “A Rose for Emily.” If you don't know it (and I don't), be advised that the Rose of the title is a woman who loses both her fiancĂ© and her mind. She makes the best of it by keeping her fiancĂ©'s dead body in the attic. Sounds like a good read, doesn't it? Just gruesome enough for college students. Mike's professor was trying to underscore the central theme of Faulker's short story (or, at least, what Dr. C perceived to be the central theme): “It's a tale of narcolepsy.”

My nephew's eyebrows are very mobile. They went up a mile at Dr. C's statement. The professor noticed.

“Do you have a question, Mr. Chamberlain?”

“No, sir. I do not have a question.”

“It is often said that those who do not have any questions must have all the answers.”

According to Mike, this is Dr. C's favorite aphorism. It is, indeed, often said—at least in Dr. C's classes.

The students were mostly inert, so Dr. C tried again to stimulate their interest.

“Do you understand what I mean when I say the theme of Faulkner's story is narcolepsy?”

Mike stifled a laugh, but not completely successfully. His professor's eyes were immediately on him again.

“Do you have a question, Mr. Chamberlain?”

“No, sir. Really, I don't.”

“It is often said that those who do not have any questions must have all the answers. Are you perhaps confused by my use of advanced vocabulary?”

“Uh, no, sir. Since I have all the answers, Dr. C, my answer is that you appear to be confused by your use of advanced vocabulary.”

Dr. C was startled, but probably only a little. Mike is a quick wit who often blurts things out at the least provocation (it's a family trait shared by one of his favorite uncles), so the professor was most likely inured to it. Nevertheless, Mike's riposte had to be irritating.

Excuse me?”

Mike was ready. “The vocabulary word you are searching for so unsuccessfully is necrophilia. The word you are actually using is narcolepsy. That's a medical condition that involves falling asleep abruptly and uncontrollably, much like the students in this class.”

Depending on Mike's mood when he tells this story, it ends either with Dr. C maundering on and scrambling to recover (“Oh. Yes. Good point. Necrophilia. That's what I meant to say.”) or with Mike's classmates boosting him up on their shoulders and parading him triumphantly about the classroom. Frankly, I see no reason that both endings could not have occurred simultaneously.

Thank goodness my nephew has never enrolled in any of my classes.


King Aardvark said...

That's pretty good. I was wondering when it was going to sort out to the necrophilia part. I'm just happy I was paying attention enough when I read to post to catch that. Now I don't feel stupid.

Anonymous said...

I had a conversation once with a friend during which she confused those two words, though in the opposite direction. She said something like "I've been really tired lately, falling asleep during the day and stuff. I must be a necrophiliac." I immediately responded, "That must be really inconvenient for you, what with having to drag the body around all the time just in case." She didn't know what I meant...

Anonymous said...

Guy comes into a bar with a dead woman over his shoulder.

"Hey!" said the bartender. "We don't serve necroes!"

Michael said...

I'm reminded of Tom Lehrer's joke about his friend the necrophiliac. Seems this guy achieved his boyhood ambition by becoming a coroner.