However, I’m certain if things had turned out worse that fateful night, some of my fellow students would have sold me down the river. I can picture them even today, accusingly pointing their finger across the courtroom at me. “There he is! That is the man who did it! That is the monster!”
The funny thing is there is actually a precedence for poisoning teachers in my family. Back when my grandmother was a principal at monthly meetings one of the heavier set teachers used to eat all of the snacks before the other teachers had a chance. My grandmother, being my grandmother, decided that she was going to send a “subtle” message to that teacher.
At the next full staff meeting, my grandmother brought in “special” brownies. Oh, they were fine. Perfectly fine… except for the biggest piece which was filled to the brim with laxatives.
That teacher called in sick the next day.
“But that is my grandmother!” I would say to the judge. “She is not me! And I had no idea that I was technically poisoning the guy. I throw myself on the mercy of the court.”
I had been a creative writing student at the University of Southern California for about a year when I got a call from the head of the department. Not a typical occurrence, of course. “Scott, there is a class I want you to take.” he began immediately.
I wanted to point out that I had a full semester, but I reminded myself that he was the head of the department and he had to already know, right?
“Have you heard of Mr. G?” he asked me.
Of course, I had heard of Mr. G!
Mr. G had written a culturally ground-breaking novel in the 1950’s, and had some further important books over the 1960s. He led a literary movement! I had read some of his work a few years ago, but I wouldn’t have called myself a fan. Still this is someone with an artistic legacy.
“Well, Mr. G is teaching a class this semester and I think it would be good for you to take the class. And, I’d like for him to see some of your writing.”
I was flattered, sure, but I still considered interrupting the head to bring up my schedule. Jeepers! I had to write an entire screenplay in one of them! Plus, I was starting to think about my thesis which I planned to be a novel. Sadly, I didn’t have a chance, the head of the department was already giving me information on the class, and the uniqueness of it startled me out of my own whiny thoughts. For example, the class only met every other week, and it was at his house. (“He doesn’t go out,” it was explained to me quickly.)
“Anyway, the class needs nine people in it and right now it only has eight,” he said with a sigh.
“Oh, is that a requirement of the school?”
“No,” the head of the department replied and I could hear the reluctancy in his tone, “he just likes that number.”
I have always been the kind of student who likes to get to class early, settle into my chair, make sure I am ready for the lesson ahead (pencils and papers and soda in their right spots), but when you are having a class at someone’s house it is a different story.
“Welcome,” Mr. G said to me with a very dramatic flourish at the door. “You are here early.”
Mr. G was in his sixties, thick gray hair, and was wearing a pair of jeans and a white t-shirt, very casual. The funny thing that I quickly figured out, looking at the pictures that he had of himself around his house (and there were a lot), is that the “casual” 1950 grease monkey look was a thing for him. Of course, in the earlier pictures he was very muscular, with his arms almost ripping through the t-shirts. Age had been a cruel mistress to him and the shirt was almost baggy on him now.
In front of his door he had a little table where his books were on display. You couldn’t miss it, it was almost directly in front of your line of vision upon entering. And then (“Oh, you noticed my books!”), he happily pretended to be flattered as he showed me book after book. It was obviously an old speech and I allowed him to go through it, but I was studying him more than really listening. Then I noticed something that surprised me.
Next to all of his literary classics was a DVD of The Nutty Professor. And this was not the Jerry Lewis version but the Eddie Murphy version, filled with flatulence and fat jokes. “Oh, my partner made that,” Mr. G explained noticing my gaze. “He makes the world laugh.” (I had to bite my tongue from using sarcasm right there.)
Mr. G then gave me a tour of his entire home. He was particularly proud of these giant images he had around his dinning room table of 1930 starlets. It was their faces blown up to outrageous proportions. While he found it bewitching, I was nervous around them, reminded strangely of a fourth grade teacher I had that had a glare just like one of them.
By then the rest of the class (who were smart enough not to come early) began to arrive and he welcomed each of us in (I heard the speech about his books on the table five or so more times). As we settled around the table I quickly realized why he liked the number nine.
He had only 10 chairs around the table.
Mr. G seemed to enjoy sharing secrets with us and began by explaining why the class was at his home and only every other week. He didn’t go out anymore. He hated crowds, they freaked him out. And the idea of being on a campus was just too much for him to consider. He rarely left his house now.
He then went on to explain that it made writing difficult for him since he likes to study people. It was then that he pointed to the window in his front room. “But don’t worry about me,” he explained. “I still watch people. I have my ways.” Those “ways” seemed to rely on the giant binoculars sitting on the couch.
He was on medication for this fear. He was also on medication for depression and anxiety. He further took pills to help fall asleep. Going into his bathroom reminded me of working in a pharmacy as a teenager. There were bottles everywhere. He had to have been spending hundreds of dollars every month on it.
Surprisingly, I only saw him take pills once. It was around the third class and he was definitely down in the dumps. He almost looked like he would cry or fall asleep at the table, or maybe both. Then he went into his kitchen, and when he returned it was as if an on switch was flipped. He was hyper and giggly. I immediately wondered if all of his medications were prescribed by an actual doctor.
The first class though was all about… well… him. He began by giving us all of these secrets and then after his long speech about his career (which included a short reading by him of a selection from his first classic), he said we could have a break.
Usually, when you are in a class and the professor says you can take a 15-minute break, students sprint to the doors. They are on phones, they are getting food and drinks from the machine, they are using the bathroom, etc. But when you are in the professor’s house, you rise out of your seat.
You stand awkwardly around… and wait… and wait…
Then you sit down again.
And that is the break.
The professor viewed these breaks as an intermission and when he returned to the room it was like a performer returning to a stage. It was during the “second act” that he passed out a syllabus and discussed the class structure.
Usually, when a professor teaches a class they have a lesson plan with some kind of a goal or overarching theme. In other words, you can see the end target and the path to get there in the document. Not this guy. His class seemed to have been something he came up with based on his whims of the moment. There were movies to review and a lot of short random writing assignments. These writing assignments were juvenile and obviously stolen from a book on how to learn creative writing. (“Write a paragraph without adjectives!”)
The movies assigned for our viewing were probably the oddest part of the class.
For one, why would this literary great be assigning movies over books; and, two, why for God’s sake these films? One was an Ingmar Bergman film, another was a banned film that contained Nazis having an orgy (I’m not joking), and a western (“That one is for fun,” he said with a little giggle). The first film was a romantic-comedy from the 1930s and it was out of print.
You would think going to a school like USC that I would have access to all of these films easily, but they even didn’t have that first film. Luckily, one of the more passionate students (who seemed to idolize Mr. G) found it on reel some place and even rented a projector for it. We all sat around her little apartment that next Saturday and watched it (it took her an hour to figure out how to use the projector). After the film was over, we all stayed and talked about our unique professor.
Most of the kids seemed thrilled to be taking this class with Mr. G and sought out the class. I was in the camp that were more tricked into taking it than overly thrilled. We were the suspicious lot and while we wanted to joke about him, the others looked at us as if we were crazy.
- Didn’t they think it was funny that his bookshelves were only filled with his books?
- Didn’t they feel a little odd when he showed off his binoculars, bragging about how he spied on all his neighbors and passing cars?
- And how about The Nutty Professor?
They even thought the treat assignments were fine!
Our own nutty professor loved chocolates and he actually had a schedule prepared of when we were required to bring chocolates to the class. He even made it clear what kinds he liked. (He liked the expensive kind, of course.)
At the second class, it was obvious who the treats were for and the plate of chocolates were closer to our eccentric teacher than to us. I don’t think I had a single piece!
“It was here, your honor,” I would have said to the judge, “that I made my error. See, I wanted to impress my teacher, stand out from the crowd of chocolate boxes. I wanted to make him something.”
“But,” the prosecuting attorney would say in front of the jury, “he told you what he wanted.”
“Yes, but who doesn’t like cookies? And these were not just cookies, but homemade peanut butter cookies.”
I was so proud of myself that day when I arrived with my cookies. Even Mr. G acted happily surprised by the gesture, and snacked on one cookie after another as we began talking. I was so delighted with myself that I even dared to smugly look over at the “fans.” (Check me out.)
Finally, after his third cookie, Mr G asked me. “I can’t place this flavor, it is really unique. I can’t stop eating them, Scott. What is it?”
And that is when everything fell apart!
Mr. G. sprinted from his chair, knocking it to the ground as he went. He first went to the kitchen and flushed his mouth out with water. Than he began to gag over the sink. “I’m highly allergic to peanuts!” he shouted at me from the kitchen.
I looked around at the other students. Most looked at me like I was a bully found out on a playground, a few looked oddly impressed. “I didn’t know,” I mumbled. “Seriously, I didn’t.”
“I noted it on the syllabus!” He shouted from the kitchen, as if he could hear me over his own hacking. He sprinted past the table then, heading to the bathroom.
“It’s on the syllabus?” I asked my fellow students, trying hard not to focus solely on the sound of forced retching from the bathroom.
“Yes,” one of my students said slowly as if she was speaking to an idiot, “he said no chocolate with nuts.”
“Oh,” was the best response I could come up with. After years of writing and studying the English language, the best response I had to almost killing a man was “Oh.”
I skipped the next class.
I did go to the one after that, and Mr. G was fine but a little aloof towards me. He spoke over me a few times and would skip past me when he went around the table. Luckily, there were only a handful of classes left, but it was awkward.
I ended up getting a B in the class, but based on his assignments I have no idea how I even got that grade. He never graded our writing, nor even collected them from us; he was perfectly happy to just have us read our assignments to him. He never took notes.
After the class was done, I never heard from the professor again. However, I would drive past his house from time to time while getting around the city. And each time I did, I couldn’t help wondering if he was spying on me at that moment, his binoculars pointed directly at me.
“There he is,” he would darkly whisper to himself, pounding his fist on the windowsill like a gavel. “There is the bastard who almost got me. There is that guilty soul.”
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