I had been warned that he was weird.
I am not convinced that I’m a mainstream member of society myself, so weird is a totally subjective concept to me. I am born of a blue-collar family in a city that can’t decide if it is progressive or backwoods and where weird is frankly just commonplace. After my experiences in high school where our student class president had blue hair and my peers and I went to poetry readings just for fun, I’d go as far as to say that, in my circle of friends, weird was the new black. So at the start of my sophomore year of college, when students informed me of the Mythology professor’s odd qualities, I was intrigued.
Mythology seemed to be an obvious selection as an elective course for a journalism student, so I enrolled for the class and looked forward to meeting my new professor. On the first day of the semester, following the standard introductions, the professor (let’s call him Mr. H) directed our attention to the piñata that hung to the left of his podium. It didn’t appear to be a significantly large piñata. Yet despite its meager size, it managed to conceal the professor’s contrivance for arousing sleeping students.
His weapon of choice was a Nerf bow and arrow and he relished the opportunity to launch his arrows at any student who opted to snooze during his lectures. To my joy, several students that semester failed to heed the warning and were rightfully pegged in the head. Mr. H happened to have terrific aim.
Fortunately, shooting darts was not the only talent he possessed. He was indeed a superb teacher. His passion for mythology was quite evident in the colorful way that he delivered the subject matter. I often felt as if I were sitting in on a one-man play as he divulged the tales of the heroes and legends of old.
One day, to my horror, my cell phone started to ring loudly during the lecture. I panicked as I fumbled to quickly turn it off, berating myself for being THAT person who absentmindedly left my ringer on in inappropriate settings. My intention was to silence the tone before the professor associated me with the clamorous distraction, but my effort was in vain. He turned his wild eyes in my direction and walked towards me in his standard over-exaggerated gait. My heart was thumping nervously as I peered up at his towering frame from my desk. I valued his assessment of me and I hated to disappoint authorities whom I respected.
“Who was that?” he asked loudly as the whole class turned in anticipation of my response.
“It was my mom,” I answered sheepishly.
“Oh, great!” he countered enthusiastically, donning a grin that I expected to feign sincerity; yet there was no hint of sarcasm in his friendly demeanor. “Please call her back.”
“Call her back?” I was so confused. “Now?”
“Of course,” he said matter-of-factly. “Oh, and put her on speaker.”
What proceeded was a supremely awkward conversation with my mother, who sounded even more bewildered than me when I cautioned her that she was on speaker phone with the entire class. She made a futile attempt to end the conversation as promptly as possible, insisting that her phone call was not pertaining to any matter of importance. Regrettably, my professor was using my embarrassment to motivate the other students to avoid similar cellular interruptions. After several minutes of small talk, he drove the point home by instructing the entire class to chant “Goodbye Lisa!” in one loud, harmonious chorus prior to my hanging up.
I was so relieved when he finally seemed satisfied with the spectacle and resumed teaching. He never mentioned the phone call again. I suppose that I should consider myself fortunate since I managed to bypass being attacked with any soft, spongy projectile during the ordeal.
I have to admit, he had won me over. I appreciated every strange tendency that he possessed, welcoming his oddities as a break from the staleness of some of my other classes. While some students playfully suggested that he was walking around with a few loose screws, I defended his distinctive nature- insisting that he was just a classically quirky intellectual.
A few weeks into class, we had all grown accustomed to his penchant for peculiarity when something happened that abruptly disrupted the rhythm of his lectures.
On a Tuesday morning that proved to be anything but typical, two jets slammed into the World Trade Center towers. If I were to describe the depth of the emotion that I experienced as that September day unfolded, it would be another post altogether, but suffice it to say that I was irrevocably changed as a result. I sat for the better part of the day huddled together with my roommates, watching the transpiring events on TV with shock and trepidation. It was on that day that the remnants of naivety that dwelled within me were smothered for good and I saw the world in a new, sadly more accurate light.
The following morning, with the reinstatement of normal class times, I found myself in Mythology class once again. A heavy silence saturated the room full of students; the usual lively chatter and smiles were replaced with somber faces and quiet fidgeting. I remember wondering exactly how we would navigate through class today under the weight of such tragedy. I wondered what Mr. H would say…what any of us would say.
When he solemnly entered the doorway, his usual upright posture was burdened with a slight slump of his broad shoulders. His goofy grin was understandably absent, but there was something else different about him that was a little less conspicuous. His step and his subtle expressions were slightly off their mark. Were we staring at an imposter? When he finally cleared his throat to address us, even his tone of voice was altered.
“I don’t think any of us are in the mood for my usual antics,” he said purposefully and resolutely. “So I think for today, we will skip all of that and just get straight to the course content.”
My eyes had welled with tears. He was right, after all. Certainly, in that moment, none us had a craving for comical clowning or tomfoolery, but my tears were not conceived by his choice to eliminate humor from the syllabus that day. They were the product of a stark realization.
It had all been a persona.
All of the stories from students of years passed; all of the jovial debate over the intactness of his mental faculties; all of the times they fondly called him weird- had all resulted from a persona.
It was a benevolently cultivated persona that everyone loved. No one truly minded if he was weird or not. Every student who had the privilege to sit on the edge of their seat in his class had no hesitation when naming him as one of their favorite, most memorable professors of all times.
I imagined him driving to work that morning, anguishing over what he could say to us kids that might be appropriate- but he knew what we all knew: there just weren’t any words that would smooth over the heartache we all felt. So he chose not to stand before us with some pretense that he could offer up any solution to a day’s events that were bigger than any of us. My respect for him that day only intensified and I resented the terrorists even more than ever. I resented them for the pain they had inflicted upon so many people who had lost loved ones as a result of such callous, violent actions. I resented them for the small ways that they altered each of- and even for forcing Mr. H to expose his persona.
They didn’t win though. Mr. H quickly resolved to suit back up in his full personified gear. The remainder of the semester was rampant with laughter and learning.
I think it takes a certain measure of confidence to be weird when most people strive to just blend in- but blending in doesn’t often leave impressions on those around us. Blending in doesn’t make for a life well spent. Who will remember us when we’re gone if we spend the breadth of our lives just blending in?
To this day, I admire Mr. H for being bold enough to be weird and for being wise enough to know when to be conventional. I suspect that boldness infused with wisdom are qualities that would serve us all well.
1 Peter 3:8 Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. (ESV)