Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Take a little turn on the catwalk

The ghostwriter

The math department secretary was even happier than usual to see me. (People are always happy to see me.)

“Professor Madison was looking for you. She's in quite a state.”

The secretary had enough to do without dealing with distraught faculty members.

I headed down the corridor toward Lillie Madison's office. For some years now I had been her eminence grise, a sounding board for problems great and small. Previous crises had dealt with her children or her spouse or her pedagogy. The pedagogy part was okay; I was, after all, a fellow math instructor. As for the other stuff, I was not sure how a childless bachelor became a valuable counselor on family and marital issues. Perhaps I should have been a priest like my grandmother wanted.

Lillie's office door was ajar. I tapped on it. Before I could say a word she had grabbed me by the wrist and pulled me inside, closing the door behind me. A trap-door spider could not have done it any better. I sat down on the chair by the side of Lillie's desk. She leaned toward me and whispered, “I got a message from the president.”

The closed door and the whispering were certainly an excess of caution. It was the lull between summer session and fall semester. The building was almost empty. I considered Lillie's news and made a suggestion:

“You should tell the president to stop bothering you. Even a ride on Air Force One isn't worth getting Laura mad at you.”

She froze for a moment, staring at me, and then emitted a short, sharp laugh.

“No, no, no! The college president!”

“Really? But he doesn't even have an airplane!”

Why does the poor woman even put up with me? She was shaking her head and laughing. At least she was laughing. It tapered off rapidly, however. She really was quite worried.

“The president says I'm on the program for the fall faculty meeting. I'm supposed to be getting a service award. I don't want to go! I've got to get out of it. Maybe I'll call in sick. Yeah, Zee Zee, that's what I'll do.”

Zee Zee. Why does she call me that?

No one loves the fall faculty meeting. The president's pep talk welcoming us to a new academic year usually isn't too bad, but they always feel an obligation to keep us there the entire morning on a day we'd rather be getting ready for the first day of instruction. Still, I didn't understand Lillie's concern. Most teachers are immune to stage fright. Was it something else?

“I can't imagine why you're upset, Lillie. It's nice to be honored and it won't take more than a minute, will it?”

She leaned forward and lowered her voice again.

“You don't understand, Zee Zee. It's a length-of-service award. They're presenting me with a gift for thirty-five years of service.”

I did the mental math. It was true. Lillie had just completed three and a half decades of full-time teaching at our school.

“Wow! Congratulations! The gift should be much nicer than the useless pen and pencil set they give the quarter-century professors.”

But they're going to know how old I am!

Finally the nature of the crisis was clear. As the first order of business for the new academic year, the college president was going to out Lillie Madison as an old lady. She had long taken pride in her age-defying appearance, enhanced by her slender build, fine bone structure, and the high cheekbones of her Asian ancestry. Except for a handful of people who were aware that she had been at the school forever, most of the campus denizens were completely unaware of her seniority. Her true age was a closely guarded secret, and I was one of the few entrusted with the age she admitted to. (She was actually two years older than the age she admitted to, but I never told her I knew that.) Now the president proposed to honor her at the fall faculty meeting in such a way that her age would indirectly but unavoidably be brought to the attention of all of our colleagues.

“But no one will really know, Lillie. No one will actually care.”

I care! And they will know! Even the English professors can do that kind of arithmetic. I have to call in sick! I won't go to the fall meeting.”

“Wrong,” I said firmly. “You will go. If you're not there and the president announces your thirty-five-year award in absentia, everyone is going to say, ‘Where is Old Lady Madison?’ You have to be there. You have to brazen it out. And I know you can pull it off.”

Lillie dithered for several seconds.

“Do you really think so?”

“Absolutely. Without a doubt. Here's what you need to do....”

The fall faculty meeting

Lillie had not been easily persuaded, but she has an inordinate faith in my advice. She followed my instructions precisely, plus an embellishment or two of her own. At the math department on the morning of the faculty meeting, she grabbed me in the hallway.

“I don't remember my line!”

“Sure you do. Recite it for me.”

She rattled it off with only a moment's hesitation.

“See? You're fine! Good work on the outfit, too.”

We traipsed off to the auditorium with a large group of colleagues. Lillie hung back where she was less visible. It was both a strategy and a means to soothe her nerves. She sidled up to me again in the lobby.

“Zee Zee, are you sure about the line? I'm going to forget it!”

“The line is fine. Say it.”

She said it. No problem. We grabbed a spot near the left aisle, where Lillie would have a clear shot at the stairs to the stage when they called her name. The program began with a greeting from the college's information officer. His PowerPoint slides highlighted our slow but steady progress through the morning's events. The president gave his sprightly pep talk. It was about as well received as ever. We've had much worse speakers in the executive office.

The president then stepped aside and was joined by the dean of instruction for the ceremonial handing out of the service awards. The information officer returned to the microphone as emcee and announced the ten-year awards. The recipients filed forward. It was a large group. The president and dean shook hands with each professor and handed out the commemorative gifts. Our info officer worked down the list in five-year increments. The number of people called forward dwindled dramatically at twenty-five and thirty.

The emcee cleared his throat.

“Now we come to the final awards. It's the thirty-five-year service award. We have only two honorees.” He called the name of an English professor, whereupon a fusty instructor rose up and began a slow promenade to the stage. “And our second thirty-five year honoree is a math professor: Lillie Madison!”

Lillie bolted up from her seat as if spring-loaded. Heads swiveled in her direction and quickly took in Lillie's bright blue satin cocktail dress and the sparkling jewelry that glittered at her neck. She grinned nervously and sashayed down the aisle on spike-heel pumps as she waved at her faculty colleagues on all sides. The math department sparked the cheering and clapping, but soon it was taken up throughout the auditorium. As the English professor hovered tentatively at one end of the stage, Lillie swept up the other side, her grin getting wider and less forced. Quick to pick up a cue, the information officer leaned toward the mike and announced, “And this, ladies and gentlemen, is what thirty-five years of math teaching does for you at this college!” The crowd roared its approval as the laughter mounted and the applause got louder.

There had been too many award recipients in the earlier rounds for individuals to thank the attendees, but now there were only two on stage. Lillie accepted her memento from the dean, shook hands with the dean and the president, serenely accepting a peck on the cheek from the latter, and then made a bee-line for the microphone, which the emcee graciously surrendered to her.

The auditorium grew silent. Lillie smiled out at us.

“Thank you, thank you all. I just want to express my gratitude to those wonderful people thirty-five years ago who had enough faith in me to appoint me to a faculty position when I was only four years old!”

Peals of laughter and renewed applause rang out as she shook hands with the emcee, grabbed the befuddled English professor by the arm, and the two thirty-five-year honorees carried their awards off the stage. A giddy Lillie Madison returned to her seat with her math colleagues, who effusively congratulated her.

“Nice delivery of the line, Lillie.”

“Did it work, Zee Zee? It worked, didn't it?”

“Obviously. The only people who didn't applaud are still trying to add thirty-five and four.”

“It's thirty-nine!” she blurted.

“Actually, I did know that, Lillie, but thanks for confirming it.”


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

A fine story and well told.

Jens Knudsen (Sili) said...


eProf2 said...

A great story with a great punch line!

The Brutal Gourmet said...

My mother in law has had quite a few years practice being thirty-nine. Things have gotten more complicated now though -- her son and eldest child turned thirty-nine last year...

Anonymous said...

TBG: I remember the party for my grandmother's 57th 29th birthday, and my mother was 31 when I was born.

Anonymous said...

Excellent story!