Thursday, December 07, 2006

Pearl Harbor Day

Today is the 65th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
I remember that day as the catalyst for the entry of the United States into World War II.
I remember it for the millions of people destroyed by that war.
I remember it for setting mankind on the road toward Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
And I remember it because of an eccentric English professor I had as an undergrad.

Dr. X was fond of giving us surprise quizzes, which he called "Pearl Harbors."
He was 6 foot 4, 250 pounds, from the Deep South and with the accent to prove it.
He was the human incarnation of Foghorn Leghorn, the wisecracking cartoon rooster with the Southern drawl.
Fittingly, Dr. X was born on a poultry farm, we would later learn.

Copyright Warner Bros.-Sever Arts

He would stride into class, pause before his desk a moment and then say with a smile, "Y'all ready for a Pearl Harbor? Shoot, what'chy'all know?"
And that was just the opening volley of his singular approach to education.

He usually spoke to us with eyes squinted shut. But he had the uncanny ability to know precisely what was going on in his classroom, always.
He could detect anyone who violated his cardinal rule against chewing gum -- he called it "spearmint," regardless of the flavor -- even if the offender sat far in the back corner of the class and chewed in complete silence.
"Get that spearmint out yo' mouth," he would yell. "You can shoot drugs in my class, you can have sex in the aisles. But you better get rid of that spearmint."

Dr. X was exacting. Our answers to questions about literature had to be completely correct and unambiguous, and opinions had to be backed up.
Otherwise, we paid the price.
"Y'all are waltzin' to a rock-and-roll song," he would sputter like a Roman candle. "Y'all are talkin' baby talk. Ah goo goo goo. Y'all are drivin' holes in my brain! Holy water! Holy water!"

In one class, we were discussing Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story "Young Goodman Brown." Dr. X asked me some question, now forgotten, about some element of the tale. He didn't like my answer.
"Your intellectual cargo has capsized," he said with a smirk, eyes closed. "Your intellectual cargo was not too heavily laden. You're reachin' for the life preserver!"

His repertoire was as varied as it was creative.
One day, the class had been particularly diligent in our homework and the string of correct answers we gave earned rare praise. "Y'all are poppin' out ideas like pancakes from the griddle of yo' mind," he said.

The man was crazy like a fox.
He could recite entire Shakespeare soliloquies from memory. He was a yoga devotee who, despite his large frame, often sat atop his desk in the full-lotus position, eyes shut but all-seeing. Sometimes, he would stand on his head in front of his desk while lecturing.

I wonder what happened to him. I know he retired quite a few years back -- I took his class nearly 26 years ago -- but it's as if he fell off the face of the Earth. I've Googled him to no avail.
He was fond of visiting Manhattan to attend the opera and, rumor had it, to visit the porn shops in Times Square. Someone told me he may have moved to New York City.

Dr. X may offer all the wrong reasons to remember Pearl Harbor.
But he declared war on our literary misconceptions, and his X-isms are engraved in my mind.

6 comments:

Stephanie said...

I had an art history professor like this. He kept the class awake when the lights were off during slide shows by whacking the screen with a pointer. His favorite phrase was gross bastardization, drawing out the word gross into several syllables. I still use that phrase.

Michael said...

Hi Stephanie,

Many thanks for visiting my blog! Your art history teacher sounds like an interesting character.
I've had two singular teachers during the course of my education, Dr. X during college and Miss M. in my senior year of high school.
Miss M., who taught a course in humanities (focused on Western cultural history), said she was a modern-day incarnation of Athena -- and in fact, she had the broad wisdom and awareness to make a great argument for her claim.
As for Dr. X, I chose not to recount some of his more off-the-wall antics (and there were quite a few). My description makes him sound like a caricature, and in a sense he was one. But he also knew his stuff.
In any event, it's always the singular teachers we remember, and I certainly can recall many anecdotes about those two.

Mike Cross said...

"He declared war on our... misconceptions."

Hi Michael. Browsing through your recent posts, that was the nugget that caught my eye.

But then declaring war, on misconceptions, fixed ideas, prejudices, is one thing. Is it possible to imagine, on a societal level, what victory might look like?

Even on the individual level, what might victory look like? How might a person be if ever, even for a moment, he conquered all those obstacles? Maybe like a tiger before its mountain stronghold.

FM Alexander said that the most difficult things to get rid of are the ones that don't exist! Maybe he and your Dr. X were singing from the same hymn sheet.

Even absurd conceptions, like 1 black person = 3/5 of a white person, can persist for decades.

What about virgin birth? Still seems to be going strong after centuries.

Or equating the Buddha's teaching of cause-and-effect with belief in re-incarnation?

"Buddhism"? That's a spiritual religion, isn't it?

"The Alexander Technique"? Oh yes, I am familiar with that -- it's all about having a good physical posture.

A seeker of truth asks a Zen master: "What is the secret of good posture?" The Master replies: "Just keep the spine straight vertically. You need not feel anything. You need not think anything."

Keep fighting the good fight, my friend -- one misconception after another.

Michael said...

Hello Mike,

So good to hear from you again!
Yes, the abandonment of misconceptions sometimes involves turing our comfort zone into a bloody battlefield, as it were. I'm discovering that to be the case in everything from photography to philosophy.
I really value your perspective on things, and I look forward to continuing to learn from your insight.
All the very best for you and yours in 2007, my friend!

Mike Cross said...

Thanks, Michael.

Yes, when Master Dogen wrote of the vigorous road of getting the body out, he might have added "[of the comfort zone of the prejudices and misconceptions in which I feel secure]."

That you feel there is something to learn in my insight -- should I feel secure in that? Well, I don't! I'm afraid I may have conned you.

All the very best to you too for 2007.

Michael said...

Hi Mike,

In my opinion, insights presented with sincerity, as I believe yours are, can never be a con job.
I think that agreement or disagreement with those insights isn't the real point. I think getting one to thinking about the nature of things is the true gift, for which I thank you.