I’m an English Professor In a Movie.
BY Teddy Wayne
Good morning, and welcome to Advanced English Literature—I’m Professor Anglosoundingname. As you can see, I have a mane of silver hair and wear a corduroy blazer with leather elbow patches stitched with corduroy threads that have their own leather thread-patches, and pace briskly into this lecture hall from the New England autumn just as class starts.
I’m waiting sternly as the laggards straggle in like Leopold Bloom wearily climbing into his bed in the “Penelope” episode of Ulysses… yes, I expected you all to laugh at that impromptu erudite quip, with the exception of one newcomer, that Midwestern freshman in the middle row looking around anxiously with her neatly arranged panoply of multicolored pens, wondering if she’s out of her depth because she can’t understand an offhand literary joke at this elite institution which is, once again, in New England—take a quick, establishing gander at the outside foliage.
Turn to the student on your left. Now turn to the student on your right. The odds are that one of you can’t do it all the way and thus has serious neck-rotation problems. I know a good chiropractor.
I will accept nothing but your finest work in this class, even though American academe has produced a generation of professors whose career status is far more dependent on publishing than pedagogy and who, once they receive tenure, basically phone it in until retirement. Nevertheless, everything you’ve heard that’s intimidating about me is true from upperclassmen who refer to me in foreboding tones solely by my surname.
To whom does that ringing cellular phone belong? I use “whom” accurately and don’t end sentences on prepositions because I’m an English professor. I’ll just walk toward the sound and eventually locate its source. I can’t imagine it’s that Midwestern freshman, who is currently squirming in her seat with perspiration dotting her brow. I’ll approach her anyway, and if the phone continues chiming, I’ll know she’s the culprit… it’s still jingling that benighted popular-music ringtone… I’m just a few feet away now, inching along as if I’m in some decelerated temporality…
Harrumph. It stopped ringing, just as I reached her. Now that there’s silence I can no longer punish the guilty party, whoever it is.
It’s time for my lecture on a well-known book everyone read in high school or has at least already heard of. I’ll discuss an obvious theme while deploying a few highfalutin words, such as “deploying” and “highfalutin,” and perhaps my address will contain a few metaphorical corollaries to what that Midwestern freshman is currently experiencing in her own life. Her head will tilt up and her eyes will widen in recognition as I speak indirectly about her situation with that boy in her dormitory hall. To summarize: Captain Ahab’s tragic flaw is his monomaniacal pursuit of the White Whale that blinds him to all else, and by obsessively pining away for the handsome, blond, All-American quarterback Chris, who’s using you to write his history papers for him and is actually a jerk, you’re ignoring your intelligent, bespectacled, nerdy lab partner, Simon, who’s assisting you in a completely ethical way with your project on chemical bonds—another metaphor?—and is a really good listener.
I’ll take this precise moment the Midwestern freshman is distracted by a smugly obnoxious classmate to call on her. She clearly hasn’t heard my question, so rather than repeat it in full, I’ll simply over-enunciate and ask, “What do you think?” and she’ll grope for words and perspire again and finally answer nonsensically. Yes, smugly obnoxious classmate, that is the single correct answer to what Ishmael symbolizes.
Well, five minutes have elapsed, so class must be over. Furthermore, the rustling of your knapsacks as you prepare to leave reminds me of Odysseus’ men yearning to remain in the land of the Lotus-Eaters, except the exact opposite. I’ll pause here for your sophisticated chortles. Note that I began with a humorous allusion to Ulysses and ended with a gracefully worded one to its precursor, The Odyssey. As the callow youth say these days, in a manner I will sardonically emulate, that’s just how I roll. You may all LOL.
If the Midwestern freshman approaches me after class, I do hope she stammers insecurely while asking a question I’ll dismiss that reeks of naïveté. But imagine the triumphant arc at the end of the semester when, with a subtle nod of curmudgeonly respect, I hand back her term paper on Moby-Dick with a circled “A+” and whisper in her ear, “Remember to turn off your phone before class.”
As you depart I’ll call out next week’s assignment, even though you all have it on your syllabi and the act of shouting is incongruous with my profession and age.
Don’t forget your essays on the theme of coming-of-age in all of Western literature!
Teddy Wayne will be on a book tour for his new novel, The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, starting February 5 in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, St. Louis, and Boston (with our own editor, Chris Monks). For tour dates, click here.
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