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March 18Berkeley, California
Ten minutes before the phone rings, Sue Ellen Wright—tenured professor of classical studies, beloved recipient of countless teaching awards, wavering wife, and mostly good mother—is wondering how, exactly, she got here.
“Teach? You okay?”
Blinking, she looks across her desk. There, one of her students slouches in a chair. His name’s Connor McFarland, and he’s a freshman, with a face still caught between the doughiness of adolescence and the resolution of everything else. Despite the weather (it’s cold and raining), he’s wearing a T-shirt, flip-flops, and a pair of mesh shorts. A San Francisco Giants hat is pulled low on his forehead, and from beneath its flat brim his eyes stare at her expectantly.
“I’m sorry.” She tries to regain focus. “What were you saying?”
“I was saying that I think you made a mistake. I’m pretty sure I got this one right.” Connor points to a picture on his midterm, which he’s come here, to Sue Ellen’s office, to dispute. It’s an artifact that he was meant to identify and, in his defense, he has, albeit incorrectly: beneath the picture, in sloppy, blue ink, he’s written: BONG.
“That’s not a bong, Connor. That’s a Corinthian urn from the fifth century B.C.E.”
He spins the paper around so he can look at it again.
“But can’t you see how it could have been a bong?”
“No,” Sue Ellen says. “Actually, I can’t.”
He’s been arguing about his grade for the better part of an hour. Twice now she’s been tempted to kick him out. She wants to tell him that the 35 percent she gave him should have been a 25. That his answers were so dismal, so laughably bad, that halfway through grading the exam she actually began to feel sorry for him, and in turn padded his failing score with an extra ten points. (He spelled Argos correctly, she thought, as she added things up. That had to count for something.) Instead, though, she’s let him talk, hoping that he’ll hear himself when he tells her that the Agora was a movie theater. Hoping that, in that pivotal moment, he’ll realize just how ridiculous he sounds.
“You’d put the weed here,” he says, pointing to the vessel’s base. “And then you’d drill a little hole and—”
“It’s an urn, Connor. It can only be an urn.”
He looks at her and twists his mouth to one side.
“I could have gotten that if you’d given us a word bank.”
“Well, I didn’t.”
“Because this is college.”
He’s in her biggest class—a fifty-student survey in classical archaeology. She’s volunteered to teach it for the past decade—a fact that earns her ribbing from both her colleagues and her husband, Dean. One of the most distinguished classicists on the West Coast, they say to her, and you spend your afternoons pointing to Sparta on a map. She laughs along with them; she says that she’s bad at geography, and she needs a reminder of where Sparta is each spring. The truth, though, is that she enjoys it—the wide-eyed energy that freshmen bring to the classroom, the way their optimism fools her into forgetting her own mistakes.
Or, mostly she does; she kind of does. While she’d never admit this to her colleagues (she finds it tedious and cliché when they complain about undergrads’ laziness), privately she worries they might be right. She worries that kids like Connor are becoming less an anomaly than the norm.
He sits in the front row every day. He comes to class in varying combinations of sweatpants and hoodies, and fills one seat with his six-foot frame and another with his backpack, a green JanSport whose label has been covered with a Giants patch. He is, she suspects, good-looking—not to her, but to the young women who always elect to sit behind him, a pair of blondes and a redhead named Kristen, Kristin, and Kristyn. Watching them watch Connor, she wants to tell them not to worry—that, in a few years, once they’ve learned to appreciate men who care about proper hygiene and wear proper pants, they’ll look back on this infatuation with a sort of hilarious disgust. Until then, though, they hang on Connor’s every word. And, as it turns out, they’re not alone. The whole class quiets when Connor speaks—never with a hand raised, always in a booming voice. More often than not, his questions aren’t questions so much as critiques or challenges: last week, he told her he was skeptical of her recounting of the Battle of Thermopylae, citing the movie 300 as evidence. She still remembers how he took off his hat and ran a hand through a mop of oily hair.
“In 300, it’s just the Spartans who beat the Persians,” he said, disappointed that he was the one teaching her.
Two rows behind him, she heard someone whisper: He’s right.
“It’s a movie, teach. Check it out.”
Later that evening, she recalled the incident for her colleague Charlene. Over a glass of wine she explained, with a bewildered excitement, how she had been forced to ditch her notes and spend the next hour teaching her students how to distinguish between Hollywood and fact.
Charlene listened and shook her head.
“There’s always one of them,” she said. “Usually there’s more, but there’s always one.”
“One of what?”
“Some entitled eighteen-year-old man suspicious of female knowledge. They want to know everything, but they’re not willing to work for it. And they’re angry that you did.”
“I don’t want to turn this into some gender issue.”
“Then you’re an idiot.” Charlene finished her wine. “You should see 300, though. Those guys have great abs.”
Now, Connor slouches down further and folds his hands across his stomach. “Maybe you’re the one who’s wrong,” he says. “Maybe it actually was a bong, and you’ve been wrong this whole time. I mean, it’s so old, who knows for sure? It’s not like you were there.”
He smiles, satisfied.
Sue Ellen says, “I don’t think that’s likely.”
“And why not?”
Why not, Connor? Because there’s something called context—the necessity of interpreting an object’s meaning as part of a greater picture. Because as it turns out, pieces of old pottery aren’t so different from middle-aged professors or failing college freshmen: it’s only when we consider the sum of their stories that we can begin, maybe, to understand them.
She says none of this. She waits for the Teaching Moment to pass before she flips back to the first page of the midterm, which she slides across the desk to him.
“Connor,” she says, “it wasn’t a bong.”
Copyright © 2019 by Grant Ginder