When my favorite professor revealed that he was human, too, I knew I'd never look at him the same way again.
“Stop by anytime, I’m always there,” my favorite professor told me when I
couldn’t make it to his regular office hours. So, late that afternoon, after
most people had left campus for the day, I found the building and room number
he’d typed on the syllabus: Sci170. The door was locked. I checked the
number again, saw my professor’s name printed on the door and figured he’d
probably stepped out for a minute. Renowned professors pee, too, I thought. I
sat on the floor in the empty hallway and waited.
That’s when I heard hushed voices coming from behind the door across the hall. I couldn’t make out entire sentences at first, but then the voices sounded more urgent and the volume rose slightly. I picked up snippets of
“She started it, I …”
“It doesn’t matter who …”
“If I’d known you’d react this way, I never would have told …”
“How do you expect me to …”
“I just thought, Jim, that you’d understand …”
“Understand that your student blew you in your office?!”
“Would you keep your voice down?”
“Everyone’s gone by now …”
“Look, I know it’s wrong, it’ll never happen again …”
“You have to swear it won’t, because if it does …”
“Can we talk about this later?”
“You mean at night, with your wife in the other room?”
“Don’t be cruel, Jim. I have an exam to write …”
Feeling eerily like Linda Tripp, I decided I didn’t want to hear any more and quickly stood up to leave. When I reached the end of the hallway, I peered
around the corner and saw my professor walking back into his office. Tiptoeing out of the building, I hoped he’d forgotten about my request to stop by
“Did you get your questions answered?” Dr. S asked when I took my seat in
lecture the next morning. I tried to look innocent, like Betty Currie when she
said she never saw anything. I guess it didn’t work. “Didn’t you say yesterday you needed help?” Dr. S repeated. His tone was inscrutable. Was he
trying to find out if I’d overheard his conversation? Was he hoping for an
office-hour blow job from me, too? Flustered, I replied, “I, um, couldn’t
make it yesterday, but I’ll try to come by today and work on those problems.”
“Good,” he winked on his way to the board, “because the exam’s tomorrow.” Did
that wink mean something?
Watching Dr. S draw molecules on the board was like watching a Charlie Brown character. His lips would move, but all I heard was WAW, WAW, WAW.
Distracted, I began scanning the room: Who’s the one blowing him? The girl
in the crop top with the perky breasts who never takes notes? The chubby
Russian girl who sits in the front row and smiles coyly when he glances her
way? The girl with the three-inch sandals and the Tommy Girl perfume? I
tried to concentrate on the lecture, but every time I looked at Dr. S, he no
longer seemed like a respected science professor with distinguished awards. I
couldn’t help imagining him with his pants unzipped.
The whole thing reminded me of a game I once played with my boyfriend:
Tell me your deepest, darkest secret, and I’ll tell you mine. This was clearly
asking for disaster, but Glamour magazine had assured me it would strengthen
our bond. Since it was my idea, I had to go first. I told him about the
horribly embarrassing experience of losing my virginity to an older guy at
school. I’d lied about my virginal status, unaware that the blood on the
sheets, among other things, would betray me. My boyfriend and I lay in bed
laughing and then, as he was rubbing my back, I turned and kissed him and
said, “OK, honey, you go.” I don’t know why he chose to reveal this — maybe
because we were already on the virginity theme — but he told me that when he
was 15, he and his friends had lost their virginity to a prostitute, a
petite Hispanic teenager who did the four of them in sequence. “We didn’t
have a lot of cash and it was cheaper than getting four different hookers,” he
added by way of explanation.
For no good reason, this revelation instantly changed my perception of him, as though he’d been Superman the whole time I’d known him and now I spied him in a telephone booth turning back into Clark Kent. From then on, I’d
picture him all sweaty and pimply, in some sleazy upstairs room, prematurely
ejaculating on a young Hispanic girl’s stomach. Years later, after we broke
up, I ran into this boyfriend on the street, and the first thing I remembered
wasn’t the time he asked me to marry him, but the image of a horny 15-year-old groping a prostitute who’d just done two of his pubescent friends.
Sitting in class, it occurred to me how dangerous it is to idealize people —
boyfriends, professors, presidents even — because one day they’ll inevitably
disillusion you with their humanity, and you’ll never look at them the same
way again. That day is always a bummer.
Because of the test the next morning, I decided to stop by Dr. S’s office
after class. The door was locked again, so I sat down in my spot on the
floor. A minute later, I heard a sound, like a chair moving, from
inside the office. I stood up and tapped lightly on the door. Silence. I
sat back down on the floor and started going through my notes. Then I heard
the noise again and wondered if he was in there with one of my classmates, her
lipsticked grip on him so forceful that the chair he was sitting on was
actually sliding across the room.
Just as I was about to make a run for it, the door opened and Dr. S invited
me in. “I thought I heard a knock,” he smiled. On his desk were pictures of
his wife and kids, and on the walls, framed diplomas and prestigious awards.
Piles of arcane-looking textbooks were strewn across the floor. As we went
over the problems, I was mesmerized by his tales of enzymes and catalysts and
biological buffers gone awry. Concepts that had seemed as confusing as the
manual that came with my laptop now made perfect sense. I almost forgot about
the conversation I’d overheard. Suddenly it was office hours as usual, and
for a few minutes at least, Dr. S became the inspiring teacher I used to
Lori Gottlieb's new book, "Stick Figure: A Diary of My Former Self," an L.A. Times best seller, has been optioned for film by Martin Scorsese. She is a first-year medical student at Stanford. More Lori Gottlieb.
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