The professor was brilliant. He was so brilliant, I didn’t understand a word he said. Or, rather, I understood the words he used–most of them–but not the meaning once he was done putting them together.
I don’t remember the name of the course, and the only substance I can recall is that we spent a great deal of time with Plato’s Phaedrus. There may have been other topics, but I don’t remember them, and even what we did cover was a blur to me at the time and has not cleared up in the years since.
I do remember that Phaedrus was the unlucky soul who Socrates happened upon after Phaedrus had listened to a speech that Socrates was curious about but, evidently, not so curious that he actually attended the speech himself.
The first thing Socrates says to Phaedrus is “Whence come you and whither are you going?” and that’s the first, last, and only thing that I understood over the weeks that followed. When the prof had wrung from the text all that was possible and a couple weeks more, I had no idea where I had come from, and I was certain I was going nowhere near whither. If when the course had finished, the university president had decided that I could have, at that moment, without further coursework, whatever diploma I wanted, I would have asked for the Dolt Diploma because I was certain that my head was as empty as a volleyball and, strangely, as dense as a croquet ball.
And it wasn’t the prof’s fault. He was just up in front of the room for three hours every Friday afternoon being brilliant, but as hard as I tried, I couldn’t decode his messages, as if he was sneaking part of his lecture into the original Greek that somehow sounded like English but wasn’t.
For the first five minutes of every class, I was hopeful, optimism personified, my spiral notebook open and my pen poised. But for the last two hours and 55 minutes, I despaired of being able to write down a single sense-making word in my notebook, and the minutes didn’t pass as minutes, not even as seconds; instead, time glacier-ed forward imperceptibly, and I would glance at the clock on the wall in disbelief after what I thought must be at least an hour only to discover that the minute hadn’t hadn’t even moved. At times, I swore it went backwards. I sat silent, as did everyone–did anyone raise their hands with questions as Christ told a parable? Is there any record of someone telling Lincoln to slow down at Gettysburg? And at MLK’s “I have a Dream” speech, did anyone interrupt to ask, “Is this a real dream or are you speaking metaphorically”? No. When brilliance is speaking, everyone else has a simple job: listen and take notes in your spiral notebook if you are able.
There were always two breaks in the class: the first was the normal halfway-point intermission when everyone stood about in the hallway, dazed; the second occurred when the school’s marching band passed by the classroom building on parade on its way to Friday afternoon practice. From where the professor stood, he could not see out the window to the passing musicians, and I don’t think his mind, located between Socrates and Phaedrus, would not have been able to accomodate a passing tuba and drum section; instead, every week, he reached up to his ear and tried to adjust his hearing aid, which he probably believed was tuning in on a nearby radio station. He never said exactly what he thought and no one asked. We weren’t being mean in not mentioning the band: it was just hard to imagine raising a hand to say, “Excuse me, Professor, I realize that there are four types of divine madness, as you say, and that the first is derived from Apollo, but do you realize that the marching band is going by the window.”
So instead we sat and listened, enthralled if not understanding, in awe if not comprehending, and while I never broke my silence to shout out my agitation, I did take to chewing life savers throughout class–it was something about the crunching that I thought focused my thoughts. I assumed that the crunching sound kept itself inside my head, but the third Friday of my chewing, halfway through a cherry lifesaver, the student in front of me lurched about, glared at me, and gnashed his teeth up and down. I swallowed. After that point, I have no memory of the class, and I can still not watch a marching band without wondering how things turned out between Phaedrus and Socrates.