'The Star Student' by Leon Taylor
It is unfortunate, I guess, that a professor is least likely to teach when he is most able. The problem is research. Famous universities are research mills, and if the profs don’t grind out the papers, the schools won’t stay on top. “Pour yourself into research,” my adviser said. “Teach just enough to keep the little buggers from complaining.” But the time to teach is when you are young, when the students can identify with you. Which was news to me until my first class, when I directed the students to call me Professor Smith. They chortled. It was Jimmy or nothing. As the weeks wore on, it was usually nothing.
Except for Sara, a lanky freshman and a farmer’s daughter, wide-eyed and seemingly shy, addicted to her book. She sat in the back, near the bay window deep in the pungent cedar wall, which overlooked the clanging streetcar on leafy St. Charles Avenue, where she thought that no one could see her surreptitiously read. Students never realise that I can see them as easily as they me, especially when they are trying to avoid my evil eye.
So I affixed it on Sara and called her out. “How does microeconomics differ from macro?”
She set aside her book. “It’s harder to spell.” Her voice was light and musical, like an oboe.
“What are you reading?”
“A joke-book.” She held up Keynes’ ‘Treatise on Monetary Reform.’
“OK, so you know the difference between micro and macro. Now could you please pay attention?”
She looked up with her wide blue eyes, swept back her wild blond bangs, and smiled like a saint. “You sound like my boyfriend. I’ll pay attention if you will.”
And that, of course, was when I lost control of the class. From that moment on, day in and day out, I read aloud my lecture notes without looking at the students, and they read aloud their joke-books while mugging at me. My student evaluations were scathing, except one. But I survived. Every assistant professor gets a free throw in his first year.
As the next fall unfolded, the days were hot and bright. New Orleans is a sauna, and you cannot help but relax in its humid embrace. About my classes, I was cautiously optimistic, like a divorcee in a second marriage—until I saw Sara in her old seat. “You already aced this course,” I said.
“Maybe I want to ace it again.”
“You should take the next one.”
“Intermediate macroeconomics. I did. I prefer this class.” She smiled sunnily.
I shrugged. Like most economists, I’m a libertarian. If you want to waste your time, be my guest.
So I began the lecture, and Sara was rapt. She replied to all the ritual questions—why did Keynes and Hayek fight like alley cats? Why did Milton Friedman fear that we had too much dough? When I flagged, she rescued me with a provocative question. I got more out of her repeat of the course than she did.
And I came to understand why she had returned. It was like rereading a favorite novel: the plot twist that you now can anticipate, the throwaway line that marks a change in mood, like a change to a minor chord—such illumination comforts. If you can figure out the course, you can figure out life. And Sara could figure out the course.
Each morning brought a soft-shoe routine. At eight o’clock, she shuffled into the musky classroom with a hangdog countenance—problems at home, I suppose. But once the lecture began, she fell into the familiar Socratic rhythm of question and answer, call and response; and the lines of worry etched in her forehead vanished. She became audience and performer—until the lecture was over, when her air of dread returned.
The third fall opened in one of those sudden black storms emblematic of the Crescent City, smelling of the Mississippi mudbanks and flooding the boulevards up to the grassy median. Sara was back, her pert nose buried in the 'Treatise...' the same puritanical brown blouse as last autumn, the same jut of her taut chin as she puzzled out Maynard. But she did not look up once during the lecture. This annoyed me, as if I had been denied a promised treat. As the hour ended, I rushed to her seat. “Why are you here again?” I cried in pretended exasperation. She didn’t smile. She didn’t move.
“Who are you talking to?” said the crewcut student sitting next to her.
“To Sara, of course.”
He stared. “Professor Smith,” he finally said, “Sara Meadows was murdered last year. Her boyfriend shot her in the head for putting him off. She said.…she said, she had to prepare for her early morning class.”
Copyright. Leon Taylor.
Leon Taylor teaches economics at a university in Kazakhstan, a post-Soviet country in Central Asia. Before becoming an economist, he was a newspaper reporter in the American South. He has written fiction for 96th of October, Schlock!, 365tomorrows, Sanitarium, Space and Time, and other magazines.