The pencil was tapped absently on the stack of exams while Jonathan stared at nothing in the hallway. Since his “office” was nothing more than a glorified rodent’s burrow, the hallway was the only thing that could barely count as a distraction. The hallway was boring, but the exams were depressing. Jonathan would take boredom over depression any day. Depression over Intro to Calc exams just lead him down the anti-yellow brick road. He would start thinking about how these poor innocent freshmen, who wanted nothing more than to be engineers or doctors or biologists or geologists or whatever, would walk into their very first class, their first step towards the real world and get bitched slapped by Professor Hyde. Of course, truth be told, if one was entering the real world, getting bitch slapped was just the tip of the iceberg. Around the next bend in the road was not a singing scarecrow, but the freakin’ Blare Witch. First impossible professors, then stupid frat parties, then rejection by the entire female race, then GREs and scrounging money for grad school (his grandchildren would be paying off that debt) and grad school and TAing for these poor kids who were so fresh faced and hopeful. One big vicious cycle. On every first day of classes, Jonathan felt like what Elliot in E.T. must have felt like before he let all of those frogs loose. Be free! Run back to Trig and Geometry!
He sighed and looked down at the top exam. It was a 56%, and one of the higher grades thus far. No wonder. The first problem was taken from the chapter covered in class the day after the exam. Not that covering things in class helped the students much. The very bravest person Jonathan knew was the TA that actually stood up and pointed that out to Professor Hyde at the last meeting. Hyde had stared blankly at her and then said if the students were on track than the problem was the next logical step. They had to start thinking on their own. And Goliath squashed David that time. The profound look of horror on the poor girl’s face had almost brought tears to Jonathan’s eyes. After that meeting they had all gone out and gotten hammered on $1.00 pitcher specials, toasting the damn Greeks for spawning modern Calculus and England for spawning Hyde. After some brow furrowing and chewing on his eraser, Jonathan made a couple of chances on the exam. The kid was up to a 60%. Passing at least. With any luck or great sacrificing to the god of the curve, the kid could still get the “c” he needed for his major. Jonathan moved that paper to the bottom of the pile and stared at the next one. This guy had left two of the five problems blank.
He was back to starring out into the hallway. Classes had just changed, so things were a little more interesting. Hustle, hustle. Bustle, bustle. OK, not really. He was on the fifth floor of the math building for chrissake, in the back corner, farthest from the elevator. If he was lucky five people went by, usually lost, searching for their TA’s office, that place of last hope for the hopeless. He always asked (prayed really) for the girl of his dreams to walk by.
Suddenly she did.
She had incredibly long, curly dark hair, swept away from her face by a handkerchief. Her nose was splattered with a touch of freckles, and her eyes were the warm gray of his grandmother’s hair, but as if someone had added glitter. As she walked by, she was hitching up her shoulder bag a little, and by some great act of the gods, it turned her head enough that she glanced up at him. Then she actually smiled. Smiled, at him. Of all people, of all the offices, at him. It was a wonderful smile. Full of compassion, humor and most of all confidence. What business did a smile like that have on the fifth floor of the math building?
Then she was gone. His lungs refused to fill. His mouth refused to close. As did his eyelids. Most of all his synapses refused to fire, like she had been too much to take in and his brain couldn’t handle it all. The disruption of pure joy to his sullen mood was too much. How? Wha…who can…suppose…suppose. Suppose. Had he been able to smile back? He couldn’t remember. What if he actually had? What if she had liked his smile?
OK, now he was just plain delirious. He shook his head, shoulders, arms and looked down at the first problem on the top most exam. It was blank. Blank….
His legs stood up. He stared at the hallway. Then his brain caught up with his legs, and he rushed into the hall. The elevator. Had to be. Nowhere else to go. The damn thing was ancient and slow. Please, oh, please oh, please. Pell mell , break neck speed down the hall. He had to grab the wall as he rounded the corner to stop from crashing into the opposite wall. Only he didn’t notice the wet floor cones until it was too late. His sneakers carried him halfway down the hall until he lost his balance and slip on his ass the rest of the way. He crashed into the heater at the end of the hall just as the elevator doors were closing. He looks up under his armpit into the girl’s face as the doors slipped shut on her. She laughed.
He lay there for a minute, waiting for the usual rush of humiliation.
It didn’t come.
It was funny. He imagined what he must have looked like. He would have peed himself looking at someone do what he just did. It didn’t mean he would value the poor soul on the floor as less than a human being. Huh.
Slowly he untangled himself and walked back to his office. He returned to staring at the exams. He picked up his pencil. His tongue worked its way between his teeth and his brow furrowed in concentration and he went to work. Three hours later he had a stack of exams where the lowest grade was a 73%. With a chuckle he shuffled them into a straight pile, put them in his bag and headed off to the exam follow-up meeting.
* * *
“Well, Mr. Sumners, your class seems to be catching on much better than the other sections. Congratulations.”
“Thank you, Professor,” Jonathan replied.
“Why don’t the rest of you take a look at Mr.Sumners’ exams, and learn something, so that you can teach something,” Professor Hyde entoned before he started rambling on about the next chapter.
The rest of the TAs past around Jonathan’s exams, and one by one their heads shot up and stared at him, leaning back in his chair with his hands behind his head, in amazement. The amazement grew as they realized what he had done with such ease. Really, why not? Hyde hadn’t actually graded anything since the Dukes of Hazzard where in prime time. The amazement turned to grins. The possibilities were endless. Maybe it wouldn’t be sure a horrible semester after all.
After the meeting, the brave person he knew asked Jonathan out to dinner.