THE COLOR OF WARM
People assume when you are a professional that you have things figured out. I know that’s the way I think. I look at men in their fancy BMWs, women in their business attire and think, they have it all together. And generally, that’s how our society has been able to function. You see a judge up front, he passes sentence, and you assume that he has thought it all out reasonably and come to a fair conclusion. And that’s because we think that he has all of his marbles in his head. Our nightmares are made from the belief that beneath that polished, professional exterior might lurk a serial killer or a rapist or the next Lee Harvey Oswald.
We live in peace because we rely on those in positions of trust to be who they appear to be.
I guess that’s where I come in. I am a professional, a professor to be exact. I stand in front of scores, if not hundreds, of students every day. I talk about subjects and tell them what I think they need to know in order to succeed in the world, once they pass my class. There’s a modicum of trust that comes with having a PhD after your name, gaining tenure, and being called “Professor” or “Doctor.” It’s easy to get used to that trust, and even take it for granted. After a while, you start thinking that what you have to say is actually important, earth-shaking even. And that’s when the danger comes.
I know better. More than anything, I am just a man. But by being one, I have betrayed that trust.
I could say it started with fall semester and a class that I teach to mainly freshmen called Intro to Modern Mythology. Even though I choose to begin there, I really know that it started long before that. But for argument’s sake, let’s start there.
Intro to Modern Mythology is taught in Heffner Hall, room 101. The lecture hall seats 250 students, and I usually get close to that number. It’s hard to keep track of that many students, especially freshmen, many of who won’t be around in another year. But I do my best, even though many of those names slip through the cracks in my brain.
I’ve taught the class many times, and since there’s no point in taking record of over 200 students in a class, when the clock got to 9:30, I left the small desk off to the side and stepped up to the podium.
“Welcome to Humanities 102, Intro to Modern Mythology. My name is Professor Martin Steinbrenner. I hope you all took advantage of the opportunity to pick up a syllabus on the table by the door. If you didn’t, please do so now.”
I watched as the inevitable large number of students got up from their seats and went back to get a syllabus. As I paused for them to get what they needed, I saw her.
She was obviously a freshman; she couldn’t have been more than 17 or 18. She was dressed in shorts and a pink blouse. She was medium height, slight of build with dark brown hair that fell gently over her shoulders. In any other time or with any other professor, she would have been just another number. But the moment I saw her stand up in the fifth row and walk back to get a syllabus, I knew that she was different.
Time stood still, and the rest of the room disappeared as I watched her walk back up the aisle to the small table, reach for the stack of syllabi, take one and spin on the front of her sandals to return to her seat. I felt my heart catch in my throat, and felt it pounding loudly.
No. No. No. I thought. This is wrong, this is bad news. Look somewhere else. Do something, stupid. But instead of looking away, I continued to stare at her. I watched as if in slow motion, she walked the several steps down the aisle toward me. And then she looked up.
And I realized what it was about her that made her special.
Somehow, I was able to break away from staring at this young woman, who in another life could have been my daughter. I fumbled my way through what should have been a basic introduction to the new course for these frightened new college students. But all of the time I was lecturing, I was thinking about this girl in the fifth row that made my heart pound in my chest when I saw her.
After class, I made a point of collecting my papers and throwing them into my satchel for my escape back to my office, at the same time chastising myself for acting like such a fool. I was a disgrace to my department, to my school, no to teaching itself. My thoughts alone should be cause for my dismissal. On the other hand, I hadn’t acted on those thoughts…
I had just snapped my leather satchel shut and turned to go when I heard a soft voice. My heart sank and raced at the same time.
“Dr. Steinbrenner,” I heard the voice say, and I turned to see the mystery girl standing in front of me. Just as I had dreaded, she had large grey eyes with long thick eyelashes. She stood staring at me, and I knew I had to respond.
“Yes,” I said abruptly. “How can I help you?”
“My name is Marta Hartwin,” she said. “My mother told me to look you up.”
And then it all came together.
“Yes,” I said dumbly. “How is your mother?”
She smiled, and it echoed another person that I had known years before.
“She’s fine. She says to say hi.”
“Wow, how is Elizabeth?” I said, realizing a minute later that I was repeating myself.
Surprised, Marta smiled again. “She’s fine, professor. She teaches fourth grade.”
“Fourth grade,” I echoed. “I used to be in the fourth grade. Of course, that was a long time ago.”
Marta didn’t answer this time, but bit her lower lip, apparently a bit embarrassed. And even that little action made my blood roar in my ears. Elizabeth was the one that got away, many years ago. Somehow, it hadn’t been the right time, even though there was obvious passion for both of us. Time had changed many things, but for some reason, it hadn’t changed this.
We stood there awkwardly looking at each other for a long moment, each afraid to break the silence. Finally, I did.
“Well, I hope you enjoy the class.”
She smiled slightly, obviously as embarrassed for me as I was for myself.
“I’m sure I will. Thank you very much.”
I tried hard to not think about Marta in the next two days, but secretly I looked forward to my class meeting again on Wednesday. But when class period started, there was an empty seat in the fifth row. I was both disappointed and relieved. I jumped right into my lecture comparing Greek and Roman mythology. When the class period ended, I was surprised, however, to once again be face to face with the girl who caused my heart to race.
She handed me a white slip of paper. It was a drop slip.
“I see,” I muttered more to myself than to her, and pulled out a pen to sign it.
She looked around us as the others filed out. As I signed the paper, she spoke again.
“I’m really sorry,” she said. “It’s not that I don’t appreciate you as a teacher or the class. It’s me.”
“It’s you? How?” I asked, then wondered if I should have asked.
“Mom always talked about this boy that she fell in love with in college, and I wanted to meet you. You are just as handsome as she said.”
Once again my heart raced, and I had a hard time believing my ears.
“But…but…I just think it would be best for both of us if I didn’t take your class.”
I stared at her, realizing that she had enough wisdom for both of us, and the courage that I had lacked. I nodded mutely.
“See you around, Professor,” she said, smiling over her shoulder.
I waved goodbye to her back as she walked up the aisle and out the door.