Like gears and levers in a throbbing engine, the occupants of the classroom arranged and rearranged themselves until they were comfortable. With every changing teacher, the engine ran slower, and by the end of the day, there was no more fuel to guzzle away. They stared at him; appearing to listen is by no means easy, but children knew it like the back of their hand. Incredible, though it seemed, when at times, we listen when we don’t want to. At the coffee shop, even the most intricately written words in the most beautiful books cannot stop us from listening to the conversations that begin but never end.
In the classroom, the students learned what it is to not learn. To gaze at something so wise and intelligent but to grasp nothing from it is an art in itself. It messes with the system of things in the world- they fail to listen and in that failing are exposing themselves to a new form of life, a form in which life moves according to their clock, not the system’s.
The Professor was called Quicksilver, because he moved through topics like lightning on the surface of water. He breezed through nothing, injected everything with dry sarcasm, and yet managed to finish well before the bell rang. The matter of the bell was another glaring reality to humanity- we need signals to move through life, signals that condition us to look up every time we hear a bell. The bell, even to a middle-aged man, might signal the next lecture, or the end of one lecture. We ring bells on our own as we grow older, an act that disguises itself with independence but is in reality bringing us closer to our deaths. We ring bells as we walk on the road- before we look at the pretty girl who walked past us, after we see the pretty girl ignore us- and it is this ringing of the bell that leaves us cold and unbothered or warm and thoughtful.
The Professor began on time, and ended a few seconds ahead of time. Rather uncharacteristically less punctual than usual, the students, numbed with information, did not notice the few seconds they lost before the bell rang again. His old body made its way across the smooth classroom floor and disappeared out the door, and the students looked up in awe at the clock. They remembered him beginning, and now they saw him ending, but they did not see the in between, for what is between is pointless with no result. Or so they believed, for students are brought up on a reality that beginning with hard work yields the right end. No one ever gives importance to the goings-on between the start and finish, because all we must do is get through it.
The Professor knew all of this as he walked home. Home, a small word with large meaning, was the coffee shop close by, where, hidden from sight, he could smoke a cigarette and sip a cup of tea. The Professor’s wife was not Home, and so the cigarette would not be greeted by scorn and distaste, only by fire and relief. An old man clutching an old bag, walking an old path, the Professor had always wanted to teach. That’s what he tells everybody who asks. At one point in time he did believe he was lying to himself. Perhaps he was teaching simply because he was old now. In the past, teaching had been a thing of splendor, of injecting minds with the salt of the earth, giving children a base on which they could build towers of thought and understanding. A decade after he began, he started to see the pointlessness of being a guide to souls that did not want to be guided. Decade after decade, the generations pass a different will along. He knew his students did not fail to listen out of malice; he knew there were more pressing matters at hand. He had, in his own thoughts, come to the realization that the larger beliefs of world, sustenance, and success had no importance when one failed in love or friendship. Love and friendship to a teenager were far more important things than learning. Thus, his mind fixed on this belief, he lost his will as a teacher. Now, perhaps, he only continued teaching because it was all he knew- to tell people about all he knew. Occasionally he would come across a more open mind, a mind that would try to convince him of the benefits of education, but he still felt like educating himself was far more important. At seventy four, he felt illiterate in today’s world, because he was hardly alive enough to change with it.
The Professor had not changed in twenty years. He looked much the same, bearded and melancholic in appearance, just thinner, perhaps, and a lot more unhealthy. The cigarettes had not changed, and nor had his little hidden position in the coffee shop. He would smoke only three cigarettes, with a ten minute break in between. He would therefore spend exactly two hours in the coffee shop. He would smoke the first cigarette at the one hour mark, then ten minutes later, the next, and ten minutes later, the next. He spent much of the rest of the two hours attempting to read a book, usually something philosophical. He had long since lost his ability to concentrate on reading that coincided with his own thoughts. Reading of thinking while one is thinking is too difficult, he thinks to himself regularly. But still, he could not find another book to be seen with- this external perception mattered to him. He could not be seen with a less appealing book; he had always read important books, and that image needed to remain the same.
He put down the book relatively quickly today, because it was hardbound and the feel of a hardbound book often made him more melancholic than he usually was. It had been only fifteen minutes in the coffee shop and he had already lit the first cigarette. The smoking stopped mattering to him years ago; it was only the cigarette that he cared about now. It had a finality about it- a finality that showed human beings that eventually, moments of happiness come to an end. The fiery torch would slowly whittle into a stub that no longer looked fine and sleek, but irregular and incomplete. It would end up tossed in the grey remains of an ashtray that had perhaps been sitting here for decades. The Professor wondered internally at the end of a cigarette. Wouldn’t it have been the best possible reason to quit? One looks at a cigarette and compares its slow death to one’s own death. As they say, at the end of one cigarette is the end of someone’s life. Accumulate so many little ends and you will find yours.
Twenty years ago at the peak of his teaching ambitions, he would have quit smoking if he had thought about it this way. But he had never thought of it this way until today. Today was no ordinary day. Today was a day in which he had lit his cigarette earlier than usual, and so it was a day in which the end beckoned to him more than the beginning. When the waitress came to take his order, the Professor was surprised at himself. He looked into her waiting eyes with his old grey ones and found that, in that moment, he had seen true beauty. He noted the easy curve of her eyelashes towards the sky, and the sharp cuts her collarbones made into her chest. There was symmetrical beauty about a woman, the Professor thought, and it made him feel fifty years younger.
As she walked away with his order, he watched. He watched the slowness of her walk, and wondered if she did it to attract attention. To him, she did not need to try. All eyes followed as she walked. He knew the man at the other table had eyes only for the curves that went left and right, but he had eyes only for the grace that came with her walk, a grace that carried burdens of a difficult job but still managed to look swan-like. Centuries of oppression by men was simply the result of jealousy, the Professor felt, for no man could imitate the grace of a powerful woman. He did not know how powerful she was, but it perhaps took power to listen to orders all day. At seventy four, he was more used to speaking than listening, but he had never been ordered to listen all day to the occupants of a coffee shop. He wondered if, in his eyes, she had seen nothing but an old man thinking of young women.