“The beginning is always today.”
-Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
New Haven, Connecticut
Every fifteen minutes or so, you must pause. Stop speaking and gaze off into the distance thoughtfully. It’s a “re-set,” you see – the brainless students who have drifted off into their witless fantasies or succumbed to the mind rot that is their electronic devices will feel the sudden silence. Like a knife through the veil that is their dimwitted nature, they will be compelled to re-engage.
It’s sad that we live in a world where this is necessary, but one must work with what one has.
Watch as one by one the dominos fall. The short creatin in the back – clearly, a future bricklayer pissing away a small fortune for a degree he will never be able to utilize – blinks a few times as he realizes that an uncomfortable silence has fallen on the lecture hall. The fair haired young woman in the front’s phone slowly slides back into her pocket as she nonchalantly makes eye contact – like you’re a bit player on a poorly written sitcom who wouldn’t notice such shoddy physical comedy. Insulting. A third student falls in line. Another. Another.
Now you have them.
Clear the throat. An unspoken acknowledgement that their fainéant ways have been noted.
“It begs the question, children – what binds us all together as a collective? We all sit in this room, we all inhabit this same space – and yet, are we… together?”
Throw some extra emphasis on the last word. They’re hooked now.
Motion around the lecture hall, dramatically… not too dramatically, mind you… just enough.
“Education? You are all students at Yale, obviously, and therefore count yourselves among the intellectual elite.”
Allegedly. The jury is very much out on that one, but that’s beside the point.
“Is that what creates our sense of shared community? Or is it at a more macro level – perhaps our status as citizens of these United States?”
A few uncomfortable glances. You smell hesitation in the air. Was that a controversial statement? Ah yes… you forgot about the Spanish student in the back. He doesn’t speak much – in fact, most of them do not – so it’s an honest mistake.
“Well…” flash that smile. “Most of us.”
Great save. But don’t lose the point! Their attention is ever so fleeting.
“What’s essential to think about, children, is whether or not you prescribe to an essentialist view of education, yes? Is it the culture – our shared pathos, mind you – that lays the bedrock for the civilization in which we inhabit? Are educational institutions obligated to ensure that their students have a foundational understanding of our shared values, our philosophical underpinnings, and our canonical literature? What role does education play in the formation of a community?”
Ah… you’ve gotten them to think. You’ve done it again, Ned. Look at their eyes as the creaky and long rusted widgets that are their brains attempt to turn. While every last brilliant syllable you said went completely over their heads, they are trying – bless their souls. Make eye contact with each of them. Make sure they know that you know that they’re struggling. Don’t smile. Ah, now they’re growing uncomfortable – I can practically see their thoughts floating above their empty craniums like some sophomoric Sunday paper comic strip: “Oh God, is he expecting us to answer? Should I have something to say here? Why is he looking at me like that? I don’t know what to say! Is this going to affect my grade!?”
There are few things in life as invigorating as the nervous energy of forty-five nitwits realizing that they are intellectually drowning. Wait. Wait. Wait. Give it another ten seconds, and then throw them the lifeboat…
Wait. A hand… goes up!?
Don’t furrow your brow. Let’s see where this goes.
“Yes? The young lady in the middle there?”
She stands. Your typical twenty-something. Glasses. It appears… half her head is shaved? Oh, boy. Stickers of various slogans on her laptop. I can smell the unearned sense of scholarship. The entitlement that fuels such a person to believe that she has something to contribute to his lecture. This is the kind of student who organizes a mob against a school speaker that has the gall to challenge their established dogma. Well. She has chosen the wrong professor to interrupt today. Let’s see what mindless drivel she attempts to pass off as insight.
“Yes, Dr. Reform,” she begins. “What about the fact that essentialism more or less dictates that the teacher be the center of the classroom? Isn’t the ‘student-centered’ approach to learning gaining in popularity these days? Aren’t the days of the know-it-all scholar becoming passe? How do you reconcile that tension?”
A beat. All eyes on you.
She… appears to believe she’s made some kind of point. Taking issue with “know-it-all” scholars. Maybe she believes she has… what do the kids say today… “dunked” on you? How unbelievably quaint.
Somebody found a thesaurus today. Well. You have dealt with this type before, Ned. Time for a reality check.
Smile. Let her know how absolutely cute you found her “question.” Pause. Stall.
Oh! Take off the glasses. Yes. Wipe them on your shirt. Continue to smile. This is funny, after all.
“This is a good query, children.” Yes – make a small concession and allow her to believe that you intend to engage her as an equal. Then dismantle her with cognition and logic that will remind her that she is out of her depth. “However…”
“Um, Dr. Reform?”
“We’re undergraduate college students. It’s a little demeaning when you call us children.”
Another beat. A small gasp from some of the braver students in the room. No, you fool! Put the smile back on. Don’t react! You’re in control, Ned. She is the blind feeling her way through the dark whereas you are the beacon of light that can save her. And yet, she challenges you. Respect must be taught. It’s for her own good.
Hold the smile. Build the tension. You’re in control, Ned.
“Demeaning?” Make yourself sound sincere. “My, my, my. I wouldn’t want to demean you, sweetie.”
Her lip curls. The sweetie got her. Good.
“That is not appropriate-”
“OH NO?” Interrupt and raise your voice – there it is. She’s taken aback. Startled. Go in for the kill. “That’s not appropriate? You know what I don’t think is appropriate, Ms. Destined To Drown In Student Debt? That you stand there and question how I, Dr. Ned Reform, choose to conduct my classroom.”
Her fists are clenching. Don’t let her speak.
“If I ever want the opinion of how I should address my students, I have many well respected and tenured colleagues with which I can collaborate. This, my dear, is quite out of your wheelhouse. Now, if I ever wanted a lecture on how the best spots on the quad to play hacky sack, or how to make myself feel better by passing off snark as insight on social media, or why my ‘vibe’ is all off because I’m a falafel on the astrology chart , or how to not understand when I should keep my mouth shut when speaking to an expert, or how to live a coddled life where I take innocuous sayings as personal assaults… well then, sweetie, I’d be sure to look you up.”
Her mouth is open. She doesn’t even know how to respond. Checkmate, Ned..
Levi Cole, the loyal teaching assistant, moves in to escort the young lady out of the room. She throws a temper tantrum, naturally, but Levi is a monster of a man and can be quite assertive when he wants. The door slams behind her as TA Cole takes her away.
Smile to the remaining thirty-nine.
“Anyone else taken offense to the use of ‘children?’ Please speak now – you know that my classroom is a family, after all. I genuinely want to hear any and all concerns with my teaching style. I crave constructive feedback.”
Silence. You got them, Ned. They understand where they stand.
“Let’s call it early, shall we? See you all on Wednesday.”
The Office of Ned Reform, PhD
Ned Reform opens the door to his office, tossing his brown satchel onto a nearby table and closing the door behind him. The Sage on the Stage sighs before flopping into the chair at his desk, running his hands through his black beard. He sighs again before folding both his hands on top of his bald head, looking at his blank computer screen. While crushing the arrogance of the smarmy college student earlier in the day had been the shot of dopamine he needed, it was not enough. Now he finds himself alone in his office – this was time that he had set aside to write – but he could already tell that the words would not be coming on this day.
Fourteen days. He had fourteen days to get the first draft of the introduction to his memoir – Slams and Semicolons: The Dr. Ned Reform Story* – to his editor. Reform was very rarely at a loss for words, but he was going through an uncharacteristic bout of writer’s block.
Ned continues to stare at his dim reflection on the black computer screen.
Finally, he grunts and removes his hands from his head. He rolls his chair slightly to the left, grabbing a remote control and clicking on a television that hangs on the wall. Perhaps a brief distraction would do him some good – a mental diversion often helps break down the dam of stagnation in prose.
A cooking show? Reform’s place is not in the kitchen.
The news? There’s little the mainstream media can do to educate one such as him.
PRIME’s Revival 11?
Professional wrestling. A topic of particular… interest to Dr. Ned Reform. You see, Dr. Reform is not only a heavyweight in the classroom, but one of the most talented grapplers that the world has ever witnessed. Reform has decided a large part of his life to professional wrestling, and yet he has never caught this particular program before. He watches with quasi-interest as Hayes Hanlon hits The Epoch on Cancer Jiles and pins him for the win. The announcers go wild.
“Not impressed,” Reform mutters to himself, and raises the remote to move on.
And that’s when the scene shifts to Melvin Beauregard walking down a hallway. And next to him…
“Lindsay Troy!” Reform’s eyes go wide. “What in the blazes is she doing? Is there any place where that insufferable harpy will not venture?”
Ned immediately stops watching the show, reaching for his phone. He clicks away, brow furrowed in concentration as he reads. He shakes his head and smiles.
The Streets of New Haven, Connecticut
Levi Cole, professional wrestler and professional toady to Ned Reform, is a hulking brute of an athlete. An admittedly good looking hunk of meat, he looks slightly out of place standing in line for a hot dog off a vendor on wheels, but when a man is hungry… a man is hungry. Cole ignores the stares of passersby – his focus is pointed laser-like on a future dog with relish and mustard. Maybe even some onions if he’s feeling froggy.
His hotdog laden dreams are interrupted by the vibrating of the phone in his pocket. He checks the screen – it’s the Good Doctor.
“Hello, Dr. Reform,” Cole always tries to sound confident when the boss calls.
“Levi! Levi! Did you know that Lindsay Troy owns her own wrestling promotion!?” Reform’s voice is almost giddy.
“Uhhh…” he didn’t know that, but he wasn’t sure if he was supposed to know that, so best not to answer.
“Listen!” Reform’s voice turns commanding. “When you hang up on this call with me, I want you to purchase us two plane tickets. Mr. Cole…”
Even though he can’t see his mentor, Cole can practically feel the evil smirk through the speaker.
“We’re going to Las Vegas.”
Reform, Benedict. Slams and Semicolons: The Ned Reform Story. HaperCollins, New York, NY. 2022.
Shelly, Mary. Collection of Short Stories: Vol 2. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1818.