A professor stands in front of his glass with two glass beakers, each full of a different color liquid. He wears tweed, but pushes it to the side to stick his hand in his pocket. He’s handsome, loud, and jocular.
“Are you ready for some flame?” he asks his class. No one moves. “Come on!” He grabs the smaller beaker and hovers it over the larger one. “This is one of the few fun things we get to do all semester, so I would appreciate a little enthusiasm!”
A cartoonishly nerdy student in the front row raises his hand.
“Yes! You, sir!”
“Professor Meindl, are we talking like an explosion?” he asks, getting ready to hide. His voice is like a kazoo.
“No, we’re just going to see a large flame!” He looks up to the old ceiling to see the mark of soot from past experiments. “It’s going to go up to near the ceiling there.” He points.
The student raises his hand again. The professor points at him with a little humor.
“I’m wondering if we know the safety of doing something like that with an older building like this. One of my fears is getting caught in a burning building while wearing polyester.” He looks down at his puffy jacket, and then back up to the professor with an “oh-no” expression.
“Your caution is much appreciated!” says the professor, attitude still bully. “We’ve done this experiment thousands of times — tens of thousands! This is Columbia! Nothing to worry about.”
“OK! I don’t mean to insult your place of work, it’s just that a lot of times I get worried about things, even though rationally, you’d think it’d be fine. I think I can trace it back to my mother. She would put twelve scarfs all over my body just to make sure I wasn’t getting a nip.”
The professor doesn’t speak for a moment, thinking the student might keep talking. “Oh, alright,” he says. “Wouldn’t want to get a nip!” he says to the class to a few chuckles. He quickly turns back to the student. “I don’t mean to mock you, of course!”
“No, it’s fine! I often phrase things in whatever way we said it in the household! My mom would say, ‘You want a SODA POP?’” He squawks the last two words like a bird. “And that was just the way we talked. Often times kids would laugh at me and call me SODA POP bird. I don’t let that get to me because you have to be proud of your family, first and foremost, you know, because that’s your bedrock.”
“Seems like you have a good head on your shoulders. I think you’ll turn out fine!” he says. He turns to the class, as if to move on, then thinks better of it. “Not that you’re not great now, of course…”
“No, I understand. I have a nerdy persona and I’m kind of whiny and I make people uncomfortable, but I’ve really come to terms with that! I’ve got interests! And I’ve got friends with those interests! Dungeons and Dragons, you know your normal nerd fair! I find that people really respect you when you’re just yourself. I can sense that even now you like me despite my obvious social flaws! Am I right?”
“Yes, actually! I’m very charmed by you. You have a great sense of self, and I find it inspiring. Class, can you hear… What’s your name?”
“Derek!” he says.
“Class can you hear Derek? I see some nods. Are you finding Derek inspiring?” People clap. “Look, Derek, you’re getting applause! I’ve never seen anything like this. Why don’t you come up here with me?”
“Ok! You know, you find your place in life and you just accept it with full force and things just sort of happen.” He’s speaking as he walks around the desk. “It’s pretty wild!” He stands next to Professor Meindl. “I would look at all of you and I would say that most of you are better off than me! I’ve got the look of a nerd, but I’m not even that smart. I just study! I’m just myself. And I believe in myself and care about my family. And I know we’re at that age where we’re all worried about how we appear to one another, but that will eventually wear off. I’m lucky that it wore off quickly for me because I didn’t have a choice! I didn’t have a fighting chance in your arena. But, honestly, we’ll all step out of that arena one day or another, and the sooner the better, in my opinion. You can learn to have a good strong sense of self and not identify so much with the opinions of others. I know that’s a natural tendency! One that we’ve evolved into, but we’ve discovered that in modern times it’s not as helpful! And it often causes a sense of disassociation and loneliness, despite the fact that it’s supposed to help with your social life. I just really encourage you to be yourself and you’ll find yourself giving a speech in front of a class, or whatever your version of that is. You know, I can sense that you’re all charmed by me! Clap your hands if you’re charmed by me!”
The students applaud and cheer.
“Look at that professor, another round of applause!”
“Well done, Derek!” he says. “Would you like to be my TA?”
“Sure!” Derek says. “I’m a freshman, but seems fine!”
“Great! Derek is my TA!” He announces to more applause. “Derek, take these papers and hand them out.”
“You got it, boss!”
Derek hands out the papers, getting pats of affection as he goes.
Originally published at https://www.tumblr.com on January 27, 2020.