Bill Todd -- A Harvard Story
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 Chapter 6

The Allwyn Institute

Chinese 22 looked as if it might be Tom's worst course. The lecturer, Associate Professor Phelps, was a large older man who swayed back on his heels to balance his tummy, and he seemed to be the opposite of Dr. Hsiang in all important respects.

Phelps had never been promoted to full professor, and that meant something. While he must have been productive enough as a young man to get tenure, something had apparently happened. He might have stopped working once he had security. On the other hand, whether he continued to work or not, Phelps' department, having really gotten to know him, might have decided that it had been a mistake to hire him in the first place.

Tom had known about Phelps' age and rank when he signed up for the course, but he hadn't wanted to be a snob. After all, he could easily imagine that some faculty members were misunderstood and treated unfairly. Besides, how could he pass up a course on Confucius given by the Far Eastern Languages Department in English? Even now that he knew that something was wrong, it looked as if it would be easy. He'd learn Confucius and have time left over for other things.

One thing Tom liked was Confucius' Chinese name, "K'ung Fu-tzu." That was something one could mutter as one went around Harvard Square, occasionally shouting it at drivers who nearly ran one down.

Phelps had translated the Analects into English, and they were using his translation. It had some odd features. The term, "jen", generally translated as "good," was translated by Phelps as "manhood-at-its-best." That was certainly quite a mouthful, but, more important, it didn't seem to fit the text very well at some places.

Phelps didn't seem to recognize these anamolies, even when they were pointed out to him. Instead, he unleashed something of a diatribe at the scholars who were satisfied with "good," accusing them, among other things, of superficiality, an obsession with appearances, and dishonest scholarship. It was in the middle of this that Tom realized what it was that was primarily wrong with Phelps. It was shame.

Everyone who took the course had read the description, including the "Associate Professor" tag. They had expected a man in his late thirties, the usual age for the rank. Then, when they saw a man who was obviously at least sixty, they knew. Phelps knew that they knew. So he couuldn't teach in the ordinary way. He had to be a rebel of some sort to provide a suitable explanation. It was a little like Kent, but at a higher level. One never knew whether rebels were denied the goodies because they were rebels, or because they weren't very good, and became rebels afterwards.

Phelps was now comparing Confucius to an editorial writer in a Boston paper, a particular favorite of his. Since Tom already knew this writer to be a sanctimonius fool, he could only hope that the comparison was faulty.

His mind wandering away from manhood at its best, or worst for that matter, Tom wondered about shame. How, for example, would a person in a mental institution feel when dealing with someone on the outside. It would amount almost to having a placard with "CRAZY" in big red letters hung around one's neck. And, again, it might be just or unjust. Would one have to do something special to make it seem unjust? Alternatively, one might avoid outsiders altogether. Sharon might refuse to come to the phone. On the other hand, she had written MacDuff on the Allwyn Institute's stationery. Like Thoreau in jail, she might claim that it was the only place to be.

By the time Tom did get through to Sharon, he had done too much thinking. It wasn't that he was tongue-tied. He had been to too many Jolly-Ups for that, but it was Sharon who seemed more natural. She responded,

"Sure, if you'd like to come out and talk about these things, we've got a lounge full of comfortable chairs. There's lots of coffee and tea, and they'll bring out little cakes and sandwiches."

It didn't take much eloquence to accept the invitation. It was only afterwards that Tom realized that Sharon had conveyed quite a lot of information rather casually. She was going to behave in an ordinary friendly way, but she wouldn't leave the premises, perhaps becuase she wasn't allowed to. It sounded as if she might tell him, in a matter of fact way, exactly why she was there.

When Tom got back to K-Entry, Eric asked,

"How did it go?"

"She has a nice voice. Youthful sounding, but sophisticated and even authoritative in a way. She certainly has plenty of self-confidence."

"Good. She'll resolve whatever difficulty she's having, and be released. Then, with any luck, you'll have a girl friend."

"Wouldn't that be wild? I can hardly imagine having a girl friend."

"You've been out on lots of dates."

"Never with a girl who didn't also go out with someone else she liked better."

"Same with me. But, sooner or later, it'll happen. We'll have to be prepared to act in dignified ways."

"I may start screaming, 'Kung Fu-tzu,' at the top of my lungs."

"I wouldn't do that as a visitor in a mental institution."

The Allwyn Institute wasn't usually approached by the kind of car that Tom owned jointly with two other members of K-Entry, and which was shared by all. Fortunately, there was a large Cadillac in the parking lot that he could hide it behind. Tom himself had on the Harvard uniform of chino pants, sports jacket, and regimental tie. It wasn't very elegant, but it was what people expected.

The lady at the front desk smiled at Tom in a way that would have done credit to a hostess at a Jolly-Up. She then led him to an amazingly luxurious lounge. Three people were having coffee on one side of the room, but neither of the two women were young enough to be Sharon. Tom assumed that one of the three must be a patient, but he couldn't guess which. Each looked as expensive as the room.

The girl who came quickly into the lounge was obviously Sharon, but, still, Tom was very much surprised. For a start, she was a good six feet tall and had a huge amount of strawberry blonde hair swept up. Her face might have been the model for a heroic Egyptian statue. Those statues, larger than life size with full lips and prominent well-shaped noses, were meant to set the viewer back on his heels. Tom, already sitting, had momentary difficulty in finding his feet.

As Sharon approached, in a full-skirted green dress with matching pumps, Tom remembered Eric's advice. He should seem to be neuter gender at all costs.

Sharon reached out her hand with a curious little twist of her body. Tom did wonder, just for an instant, whether she might give his hand and arm a great wrench and dump him on the floor. There was instead a cool touch of long fingers which was brief, and, in its way, quite chaste. As she slid past him to one of the chairs she said,

"Except for an accident, I'd just be a schoolgirl in a plaid skirt and scuffed saddle shoes. But, here, they want us to look as if we're having trouble deciding whether to buy yet another diamond necklace."

"Yes, I half thought they might send me around to the service entrance, but they were very nice."

"Oh they are. Wait till you see the little cart with cakes and various yummy things that they'll bring around. Is that a paper that you've got there?"

Tom handed over the envelope, saying,

"You make it sound as if a philosophy paper and a little cake are equally desirable."

"Just about. Shall I read it now?"

Tom was about to say something modest about his paper when she broke in,

"I musn't be greedy. We'll have to postpone both cake and philosophy until we've had tea. Or would you rather have coke?"

"Tea will be fine. I like the way those people over there are drinking it in little glasses."

"It looks rather east European to me. I always imagine the great Polish logicians like Tarski and Lukasiewisz drinking tea that way."

"I've seen Tarski. He looks much more rumpled than these people."

"I suppose anyone of genuine accomplishment would have to be more rumpled than the people here. But there's a theory behind the madness. The director here thinks that people who spend hours every day grooming and dressing will like themselves better, whatever that may mean."

"I believe that the notion of liking oneself was invented in California."

Sharon laughed happily and replied,

"The cash value of that claim is, I suspect, that a woman in a hundred dollar dress and fifty dollar shoes is likely to be so pleased with the way she looks that she won't slash her wrists."

"She might also be afraid of getting blood on her dress."

"I'm glad to see that you like to joke about life and death."

"One of my best friends has stomach cancer. We've known since last spring, and there comes a time when there's nothing left to do but joke about it."

"Wow! I usually think in somewhat fanciful terms. I don't know that I could deal with as much reality as that."

"None of us in our little house would have thought that we could. But it happened. You can't tell someone you don't want to be friends with him any more because he might die. And so, the situation becomes, not only his, but yours as well."

"How many of you are living together?"

"There are eight of us in our little house."

"At least that spreads it around a bit. I imagine the guy with cancer started the jokes himself."

"Yes. He had a nice ironic sense of humor to begin with. It came in handy."

"All the patients here have problems they consider to be extremely serious, but I don't suppose there's even one that compares with stomach cancer."

"Eric says that boy-girl stuff has caused him more mental anguish than cancer."

"That couldn't really be true, could it?"

"I don't suppose so. Although he has had significant boy-girl problems."

"So have I. The first event in the seqence that put me in here was my trying to stab a boy in the eye with a pen I happened to have in my hand."

"What had he done to you?"

"He grabbed me from behind in a corridor and tried to kiss me."

"When you're surprised like that, it's natural to strike out with whatever you have handy."

"That's what my parents said. But there was the fact that I almost succeeded in putting out his eye. More important, the boy's a football star. The principal took his side."

"What happened then?"

"My father, who's pretty forceful, told the principal that he was an idiot. I then left the school."

Sharon paused, and Tom, not wanting to seem too inquisitive, asked a mundane question.

"Was this a public high school?"

"Yeah, in Wellesley. It's supposed to be a super-good high school, and is in some ways. One of the teachers there got me interested in philosophy. Anyhow, I was all set to go to a private school to finish up my senior year when I collapsed and got sent here."

"You look as if you're doing fine now."

"I am, mostly. The thing that really gripes me is that I apparently have too much Judeo-Christian guilt to stab a jerk who needed to be stabbed and forget about it. I wound up weeping uncontrollably in an ice cream parlor. So it turns out that I'm a jerk myself."

"I'm not sure I could count the number of times I've felt like a jerk."

"I vacillate between two strategies. One is admitting I'm a jerk and trying to improve. The other is finding reasons for thinking I wasn't a jerk in the first place. What do you do?"

"I guess that, insofar as I have a conscious strategy, I don't think about those episodes at all."

"What would an example be?"

"As it happens, one involves nearly putting out an eye. We play all sorts of dangerous games in our little house, and, in the course of one, I threw a tennis ball full force right at another guy. It was really stupid, and it did hit him in the eye. Off we went to Massachusetts General Emergency Room."

"How bad was it?"

"Serious, but he recovered some ninety-nine per cent of his vision. The trouble was that, although he'd been doing fine at Harvard, it depressed him to have to stumble around for weeks with a patch over his eye. He went back to California in a queasy psychological state, and he didn't come back this year."

"More than that must have been involved."

"He was intensely homesick for California in the first place. But this might well have been the last straw."

"In which case he may be better off in California. Anyhow, you see what it's like to come around to a psychiatric institution. There are people here who'll make you think about things you don't want to think about."

"Would I be safe if we were to meet on neutral ground?"

"I'm afraid not. I'll probably spend the rest of my life prying into people's secrets and razzing them about them."

Just then, the cart with pettit fours and sandwiches arrived. As they ate, Sharon took up Tom's paper. They were still discussing some issues raised on the first page when a nurse appeared. She looked as elegant as the other women, with just a little gold RN pin on her dress, and she smiled as she was introduced to Tom as the Miss Barnes he had spoken with on the phone.

It was clear, without her saying anything, that visiting hours were over. As Tom got up and drifted toward the exit, Sharon said,

"I was meaning to ask you. What does Professor MacDuff look like?"

"I'm not good at descriptions, but I guess he's in his late thirties, about six feet and slim with black hair. He looks sort of Scottish to go with the name. In manner, he's quiet, reasonable, and humorous at times. But he's not a showman the way a lot of the other philosophy professors are."

"That gives me a good idea."

"He's teaching his theory of knowledge course next semester. You might come down to meet him and go to a lecture."

"I'd love that. I'll be out by then, won't I, Miss Barnes?"

"I should certainly think so. You'll probably have to get leave from the people at your new school."

Tom thanked them for their hospitality, and, when he was invited back, he responded with enthusiasm and sincerity.

Bill Todd -- A Harvard Story
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