The next problem we confronted was that of grading. Almost no institutions take pride in giving low grades, or advertize the fact if they do. The good ones would think that a pattern of low grades reflects badly on their admissions procedures while the bad ones would be afraid of driving away students.
One might thus ask how it is that low grades are ever given in any quantity. One phenomenon is fairly easy to isolate. Many faculty members identify their own worth with having high standards, and then identify having high standards with harsh grading practices. Having done so, they look at the grades assigned by their colleagues and accuse anyone more lenient than themselves of pandering to the masses. If this sort of thing goes unchecked, any but the most secure college is likely to drive away enough students to destroy itself.
The other cause of low grading is anger, pure and simple. College students, particularly ones of our sort, can be irritating and obnoxious. The desire to inflict vengeance can be very great. In some cases, for example that of Mecklenburg, the desire may be irresistible. Of course, such students generally earn their bad grades, and, since there are never very many who are so very irritating, the loss of their tuition monies may be overbalanced by the great good of getting rid of them.
The problem occurs when an instructor becomes infuriated with his whole class, or with students in general. If he retaliates on a large scale, he quickly becomes known, hated, and avoided. When students do decide to transfer to another college, or drop out altogether, they often point to such a teacher, if not as the cause of their departure, as a symbol of what they dislike in the college.
At about this time, I overheard a girl in our lounge say of one instructor,
"He gets mad at some rowdy boys in the back row, but then he takes it out on all of us."
This remark was made by one who felt herself the object of considerable injustice. As I pointed out to Lefty later that same day,
"Even if she hasn't been treated badly, we can't have students saying things like that. It's bad for morale."
It turned out that Lefty had been aware of that sort of problem all along. He said,
"It don't do much good to talk to instructors like that. They think you're trying to interfere in their business. Generally, the best thing is to get rid of them."
I took the matter up with Brenda that evening, not omitting to mention that Lefty was apparently in the habit of firing instructors whose grading practices didn't meet with his approval. She replied,
"We can't do that if the instructor is competent. For one thing, I think Ralph is now grading with some severity. I certainly don't have the nerve to speak to him about it."
"Nor do I."
"Moreover, he wouldn't stand for it if some other instructor were to be fired unjustly. He must know practically the whole faculty, and he's made many friends."
"Just the same, I think he'd be concerned if an instructor lost his patience and flunked a whole class out of pique."
The man closest to doing that seemed to be a young history instructor who was in his first year with us. After some discussion, I was elected to have a talk with him.
Mr. Abbott had been a graduate student at the University of Cincinnati before the war, completing all his Ph. D. requirements except for the thesis. He had then gone into the army, been wounded at Anzio, and was now finishing his thesis. In the meantime, he made slightly more money teaching for us than he would have as a graduate assistant. He seemed to be quite a good man, too good, really, for us. Moreover, Jack thought highly of him. None of that, however, precluded the possibility of his sinking our ship before it was fairly launched.
When I dropped in on Abbott, I found a rather handsome young man with curly black hair and a ready smile. He greeted me affably despite my rather odd standing in the college. In such a small place it was inevitable that Brenda and her followers would be the object of much speculation. There were all sorts of rumors afloat as to her past and her wealth. More to the point, there was a great deal of uneasiness as to her present intentions, both for herself and for the college. Although it was known that Ralph was her nephew, he had established an independent reputation. I, on the other hand, was seen as nothing more than Brenda's henchman.
Even as Mr. Abbott waved me to one of the chairs in his tiny cubicle of an office, I could detect a certain wariness. I must say, I was rather gratified. I was, after all, the man who had once affected wide lapels in the gangster style. Now, with a certain poetic license, I could style myself as the right hand man of a beautiful Mafia countess. I began by asking him pleasantly how things were going. That question, seemingly inocuous enough, opened the flood-gates.
"I never imagined it'd be like this. These guys haven't the slightest understanding of history. I could tell them that Adolf Hitler was trying to convert the world to Roman Catholicism, and they wouldn't question me."
It appeared that, while Abbott didn't have Mecklenburg and his cronies, he, too, was confronted with a hum of conversation while he tried to lecture. I told him how, in my experience, that phenomenon had been an expression of hostility, a hostility toward me for making them deal with things they would rather let alone. Abbott replied,
"I've sensed in them a hostility toward the whole historical enterprise. I think they suspect me of being about to say unpleasant things about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln."
"Yes. History can be almost as sensitive as religion. The naive may believe that, if our heroes had imperfections, something much worse may be wrong with us."
Abbott threw back his head in a characteristic way he had and replied,
"Finally, I got tired of this. I pointed out that most of them have a deep concern for the past. They gather in bars to tell each other lies about their war experiences. They there make historical claims hand over fist. However, they systematically misunderstand what they've seen. Their perspectives are extremely narrow, and they don't try to broaden them. Their judgements about such things as good and bad generals are worthless. Not only that, they sentimentalize everything they think about. They're in the process of creating the kinds of myths it's the business of history to destroy."
"You told them that, and they didn't charge the rostrum?"
"They made a lot of unpleasant noises, but, then, I announced a new topic. We're starting to study the Second World War. The conclusion is going to be that Russia did the most to defeat Germany. That's true, of course. Our bombing never accomplished much. The eastern front was everything."
"It's a good thing that you're a veteran with combat experience. They wouldn't take that from anyone else."
I soon found that Abbott intended to teach his students a lesson of a practical and far-reaching kind. Any student who, in his answers, was jingoistic or expressed what Abbott called "sentimental patriotism" would be failed. As Abbott said,
"You can't even begin to understand history until you get beyond such things, at least in their most blatant forms."
"From what I've seen of our students, most are hopelessly jingoistic. That means that they'll be motivated not to say what they think in order to pass your exam."
"That's okay. I know I can't change their underlying brain processes. I'm not a neural surgeon. I'll be happy if they learn what jingoism is, and also learn that serious history excludes it."
As I left Abbott, I had many conflicting thoughts. He was angry at his class, and had shown it. While the former is probably inevitable, the latter is generally a mistake. On the other hand, his anger wasn't arbitrary, and was the outcome of a serious desire to teach his subject matter. It was conceivable that the expedient Abbott had in mind would work. More realistically, on the other hand, there would be only a handful of students on whom it would have a lasting positive effect.
I had been wandering across the campus in the direction of the student lounge. The inhabitants of that place acted powerfully on my thoughts. It was enough to see and hear our students to know that Abbott was courting disaster. These young people hardly knew what it was to think reflectively, and, as a result, they had virtually no self-awareness. They were obviously not ready to isolate their own attitudes as subjects for examination and evaluation. Still less were they ready to be told that much that they believed was stupid. In addition to anger, they would react with an utter lack of comprehension.
Ralph was present that evening when I discussed with Brenda my conversation with Abbott. I quickly discovered that Ralph and Abbott were friends, and that I had best tread carefully. In response to my outline of Abbott's position, Ralph replied,
"There's a bit more to it than that. He's concerned about growing American arrogance, including the notion that, since we won the war, we must be right about everything."
Ralph obviously agreed with Abbott. I caught Brenda's eye. In view of his attitude, there was really nothing to do. I even let Ralph believe that my meeting with Abbott had been a chance one. I had no idea what Ralph might have thought if he had known that Brenda, Lefty, and I had been on the point of getting rid of his friend.
It had been a custom at Hiram Mason University to give grades for each two-week period, these grades being reported to the college office. At the end of the semester, they were averaged together and balanced against the final examination, which latter could not count more than one third of the course grade. It was a rather curious system, reminiscent of a high school, but it suited our purposes.
Most important, each student knew exactly how well he or she was doing at any given time. Anxieties were markedly reduced, when compared to those created by other systems. The result was that complaints were held to a minimum. Moreover, when there was a problem, we found out about it quickly.
It was in late November that Abbott, having introduced a topic close to the experience of most of his students, was to give his test. It would, he told me, include factual questions about the number of men engaged in the various campaigns during the war and about the number of casualties suffered. There would also be some more general essay questions about grand strategy and the policies of various statesmen on both sides.
It happened that, at just the same time, Ralph was introducing some material which he considered genuinely mathematical, and which dealt, as usual, with infinity. The curriculum was such that a majority of freshman would have a class either with Abbott or with Ralph, and, in many cases, with both. As we entered that period, Brenda and I were both quite nervous.
On the financial side, the news was rather uneven. Receipts remained good, but weren't growing as fast as we had hoped. Only two students out of the freshman class of four hundred had dropped out. Our residences were full and our building programme was on hold for the winter. We had met every mortgage payment with ease, but would soon have to decide whether to raise more money to build single-family homes.
On this score, we had done some modest advertizing both within the college and outside it. However, we hadn't found a single student with any interest in living near the college after graduation, much less buying a house there. Nor had we found anyone elsewhere in the city who had shown the least desire to move there. We could make money renting rooms to students, but it wouldn't be the kind of money Brenda had in mind.
Quite apart from long-term developments, we needed to be thought of as "that old college in Western Hills that's now doing so well." Of course, many of the better educated people would think of us as a diploma mill, but we would, in any case, be a port of the very last resort for their young people. Our aim was to be, in the eyes of the mass of the people, a college that was a little different, not at all staid, but which ran smoothly and efficiently. We wanted the bare minimum of complaints circulating around town, and it was critical that we not be thought of as a place which generated controversies. That might be acceptable in New York, but it would be taken as a mark of inadequacy in Cincinnati.
With these concerns on our minds, we were, I think, rather quick off the mark. Before Abbott could give his test, Lefty hired Jack to grade for him. Since Abbott and Jack were already friends, they were both pleased with the arrangment. While Jack would follow Abbott's instructions, he had exactly that sense of social reality which the other lacked. Moreover, since they were much of an age, Jack's humorous objections to flunking most of the class wouldn't be ignored. As I said to Brenda,
"Jack will introduce an element of benign contempt for the students into their deliberations. Even without our saying a word to either of them, he'll convince Abbott that flunking everyone won't do any good."
"Let's hope so. If the students get only somewhat lower grades than they expected for one two-week period, the grumbling won't cause any permanent damage."
Another measure that Brenda took was to have Lefty appoint her Assistant Dean, in effect, in charge of the complaint department. The idea there was both to allow her to assess the seriousness of our problems and to give her a chance to pacify the disgruntled.
In the event, our strategy with Abbott worked quite well. The grades given were rather low, but only a handful of students came in to complain to Brenda. She reassured, mollified, and flirted with them with no little success. The two most bitter were passed on to Lefty, who managed to give them the impression, in his own inimitable way, that they would be recompensed for their failure later on. I suppose he must have treated them as he had people to whom he had sold defective furnaces.
These events also marked another epoch, the first time, as far as I knew, that Brenda and I had acted without making everything clear to Ralph. Of course, he knew of Jack's appointment, and had no thought of disapproval. But, as far as we knew, Ralph didn't comprehend all of our motives in this matter. He would certainly have disapproved of any course of action designed to influence a friend, Abbott, in a direction in which that friend didn't wish to be influenced.
Similarly, Ralph had seen nothing wrong in Brenda's own appointment, but, if he had known the exact line Brenda had taken with disgruntled students, only giving Abbott moderate support, he would have objected.
I was reminded at this time of something Brenda had said to me a month or so earlier. She had urged me gently not to bring Ralph and Lefty together more then necessary. She had put it humorously,
"They get along fine, but there are depths in Lefty's character that I don't think Ralph fully appreciates."
In the next week or so, the situation for Brenda and myself became more difficult. We had slid through with Abbott, not worried for the minute about his future actions. On the other hand, Ralph had given grades almost as low as Abbott's in the last period, and there was reason to think that the worst was yet to come.
Ralph really couldn't understand that certain concepts which seemed simple to him were hopelessly beyond most people. The fact that many persons react to infinity with panic and hysteria was entirely lost on him. It was ironic that, just as Abbott's median student had no comprehension of history, Ralph had no understanding of the intellectual milieu in which such a student functioned.
Indeed, Ralph himself, because of this deficit, didn't have a good feeling for history. He understood economics and military affairs, but not the passions and jealousies which have accounted for so many social changes. In the present case, it took a less abstract intelligence, one rather like Jack's, to understand what was really happening at Hiram Mason University.
Ralph's sense of the possible wasn't improved by the fact that he continued to teach Maria mathematics. It was always a joy to teach her anything. He was now giving her the axioms of various systems of mathematics and logic, including some devised by her father, and having her prove theorems. So far, she hadn't proven anything that hadn't been proven before, but that was only because she was travelling well- trodden paths. Ralph knew perfectly well that Maria was as far from an ordinary student as anyone could be, but, still, his experience with her added to his confidence in his teaching ability. It was easy for him to conclude that he knew how to present his material, and, if his students weren't learning, it was their fault.
Ralph could also point to Jack, who was having to work hard in his class, but was mastering the material. Indeed, Jack, who denied having any particular mathematical aptitude, said that Ralph was a good teacher, and that anyone of normal intelligence should be able to learn from him.
It was the consensus among us that, if he had had a small class, Ralph would have been as successful as he had been the previous spring. It wasn't the veterans who made the difference, but the fact that he now had classes of eighty. We probably should have anticipated this outcome, but our high student-faculty ratio tended to preclude small classes. In any case, we could take no corrective action until the next semester.
Within our group, the tension arising from Ralph's increasing frustration was easily absorbed. Maria was happy at school, and Jane was continuing to do well, both with her interior design and her dress designs. Neither of them had any clear idea that anything was wrong, and Brenda and I said nothing to cause them concern. Life, both in our lodgings at the college and in Covington, flowed on as usual with many moments of gaity and continued good fellowship. Ralph was as pleasant with us as ever, and, when outsiders asked him how things were going at the college, his answers, while not false, were cheerful enough in tone. It was only when questioned closely by people he trusted that he gave vent to any anger or bitterness.
I suppose I might have known that Mecklenburg and his friends would eventually be at the center of any trouble. Ralph flunked them for the late November marking period. He was entirely justified, and there was no personal element. They simply gave wrong answers. But that didn't keep them from complaining to Brenda in high righteous indignation.
Brenda had heard all of us talk about Mecklenburg et al, and listened to them in a neutral way, saying only that she would look into the matter. She then sought me out.
We decided that these three students, if not quite the worst, were easily the most difficult and obnoxious. It was worth getting rid of them, even if they went crying and complaining all over Cincinnati. We didn't think that reasonable people would give them much credence, and, if prospective students of like mind and heart decided not to come to Hiram Mason, we wouldn't mourn them. The question was simply how to send them on their way with maximum speed.
I remembered, at that point, that Jack had complained that the Mecklenburg group did its homewark together, often handing in papers that were almost identical. I hadn't made an issue of it. Many students collaborated on homework, and I had no wish for a confrontation with Mecklenburg. However, it now occurred to me that I could give a surprise quiz on material most students had in their notes. I would announce that, as usual, it was forbidden for the students to consult their notes or communicate with each other. I was morally certain that at least one of that trio, which had returned to the back row, would sneak a look at his notes. The other two would copy from him. It would remain only to catch them.
The very next day, I announced the first surpise quiz I had ever given. I treated it almost as a joke, and gave the impression that it wouldn't count much. I said,
"I'm curious to see how much of what I say you remember."
I put my questions on the board and gave my stricture against using notes or communicating, not with any moral force, but as if I were afraid of spoiling the experiment. I then handed over to Jack, with the air of one going out for a cup of coffee. I was on fairly good terms with my class by this time, and they didn't seem to resent my little quiz. There was, in fact, something close to a holiday atmosphere as I went out of the door.
Brenda was waiting by arrangement, and, like two conspirators, we went about our business. There was, in the back of the lecture room, a fire door reached by a short corridor. I had previously propped the door open, and we now entered the little corridor, still concealed from the class. Brenda removed her shoes, but, on the carpet, it was hardly necessary.
The Mecklenburg group was right below me when I poked my head around the corner. They showed no signs of looking behind them. The other students in the long narrow room were looking down at their papers or straight ahead. There were a few signs of collaboration here and there, but Jack, at the front, seemed unconcerned. That was according to plan. We wanted to foster an atmosphere in which it would seem easy to cheat, but we actually cared only about the back row. Distressingly, there seemed to be nothing improper going on there.
Brenda now moved slowly past me and stood, perhaps a yard back from the rail behind the last row. We were some six feet above the objects of our attention and were entirely unnoticed. Even Jack gave no sign of being aware of our presence. But, still, Mecklenburg, in the middle of the three, was silent and was looking down. Then, Brenda touched my arm and pointed. By moving a little, I could see a notebook open on the floor just to the left of his feet. His eyes were evidently good enough to allow him to copy from the notebook on to the paper on the arm of his chair. His friend on the left was also engaged in the same task. The one on the right was writing nothing, evidently waiting his turn.
Brenda had become quite involved in the planning of our little melodrama, and had insisted in bringing with her a small camera. There was plenty of light coming in the rear windows, in addition to the artificial lighting, and her angle allowed her to focus on the notebook on the floor. When Brenda was ready, I gave Jack a pre-arranged signal. He announced only,
"When you're done, you can leave the papers on the desk and go enjoy yourselves."
In making this seemingly harmless announcement, he jumped up suddenly and shouted the first words. Strange as this performance must have seemed to the others, it caused the boys right below us not to notice the click of Brenda's camera. We then retired swiftly and soundlessly.
Out on the lawn, Brenda used up the rest of her film on me. I posed as Napoleon, with my hand in my vest, with a Winston Churchill glare and snarl, and as a recently institutionalized poet, leaping in the air and sticking my tongue out. We then rushed off to the nearest drug store to have our film developed.
This was a Wednesday, and we found, to our consternation, that we couldn't have our pictures until the following Monday. Brenda and I conferred briefly. We could probably find someone to do it more quickly, but, then, it seemed that the ejection of Mecklenburg could wait until the following week.
It was unfortunate that Mecklenburg again came to see Brenda about his failing grade from Ralph on the next day. She simply put him off until Tuesday, saying that other things had come up in the meantime. He was quite rude, but Brenda replied in kind and got him out of her office.
The next morning, Friday, dawned late. It was cold and gray with a hard driving rain. I awoke in my unit, my bed under the slanting skylight, with something of a glad cry. To be warm and comfortable with the truly horrid weather only a few feet away is, for me, a decided luxury. I particularly like it when rain, in this case mixed with sleet, pounds hard at the skylight, as if to threaten me with extrme discomfort, but slides harmlessly away.
As the girl I had hired from a nearby dormitory let herself in and prepared to make my breakfast, I reflected with satisfaction on a decision I had taken even earlier that morning in a state between sleep and consciousness. I would teach no freshman English after the end of the present semester. We could now hire people to do such things. I had found out all I wanted to know, and then some, about our students.
I would continue to teach poetry, in a relaxed way, simply because my own poetry was going well, and I wanted to talk with other poets. The net upshot was that, while I would have to get up and go out in the rain in an hour's time, I would see the end of freshman English in a few short weeks of classes. After the Christmas vacation, it would be necessary only to conduct a few reviews and give examinations.
My first class went much as usual, with myself and Jack wandering around the room with grammatical advice. Afterwards, we escaped to a little coffee lounge which the students, for some reason, didn't patronize. Jack said,
"Did you notice Mecklenburg today?"
"Not specially. I make a point of leaving him to you. Besides, with any luck, at least two of them will be expelled on Tuesday."
"Well, yes. But that's four days away. He's more ready to explode than anyone I've ever seen. Even in wartime."
"Not too much. I looked over his shoulder and pointed out a sentence with no main verb. Okay in colloguial speech or dialogue, but not the best thing for a job application. He looked up at me and said he didn't fucking care whether his fucking sentence had a fucking main verb. The amount of passion was beyond belief. Neither of his friends laughed. I thought of saying that I was going to fucking leave him to his fucking ignorance fucking fast, but I'm not big enough for that kind of speech."
"Too bad. It has a nice ring."
The words "fucking fast" reverberated around in my skull for several seconds. Recovering myself, I pointed out,
"That was after he thought he'd done well on the test. What would he do if he knew?"
"He'd want to kill someone. You, maybe, or Brenda. I still don't think he'd hit a woman, though. His background is respectable."
"Just in case, I'll have one of our policemen stand by while Brenda interviews him. For ourselves, we should keep strictly away from Mr. M and his friends on Monday."
"Those are the kinds of orders I like to hear."
Not for the first time in my dealings with Jack, I felt like an officer with an experienced sergeant whose understanding of practical affairs exceeded my own.
After my afternoon poetry class, I waited in my office for Ralph's class to finish at five, at which point we would all make our way to Covington for the week-end. In the hope, probably vain, that Ralph would dismiss his class early, I went along to his room a quarter of an hour early. I there met both Brenda and Jane, who had come with the same hope.
Looking in the open door, I could see Mecklenburg in the third row, in the seat next to the one on the near aisle. I pointed him out to Jane, who had never seen him, adding,
"He usually sits in the back row with his two friends. I'm surprised to see him without them."
"Isn't he with that girl on the aisle? Look there, he's speaking to her."
"That must be the girl that Jack told us about. The one that used to be his girl friend, but has found a veteran she likes better. She still goes out with Mecklenburg, but only on week nights."
"What a strange arrangement."
"High school students do things like that."
Jane shook her head.
"He must love her to put up with it."
"According to Jack, it's one of the things that's driving him nearly crazy."
The girl in question was certainly a very pretty one, blonde and nordic looking. She was also quite dressed up, as if for a date. Although Mecklenburg often whispered to her, she hardly responded. Brenda said,
"I see what's happened. This being a Friday, she probably has a dinner date with her veteran. She didn't have time to go home to get dressed after class, and she slipped in late and took the aisle seat. She may have hoped Mecklenburg wouldn't notice, but he was looking for her, and came up to take the next seat. She's irritated, and she'll try to get away real fast after class."
Brenda's analysis seemed quite likely. As I watched, the girl petulantly turned away from her neighbor toward the notebook on the arm of her chair, and crossed her long legs away from him in our direction. I could see under skirts, and must have made an appreciative noise. Brenda was amused, but Jane urged me not to look, saying,
"She doesn't realize that there's a voyeur out here in the hall."
The discussion that followed between my two companions was quite charitable to the lady. She was, they said, nicely dressed and not at all tartish. She had probably been queen of everything in high school, but had presumably been too impecunious to manage a better college. As Brenda said,
"It would be natural for her to move to a better boy friend in college. If she still goes out with Mecklenburg, it's probably just because he pesters her."
I asked, watching her shift her legs,
"Is she a virgin?"
Jane deprecated my question as being unworthy of an answer, but Brenda replied,
"She just might be, Thomas. I think she'd certainly be upset if she knew how much we can see."
I replied, for once defending Mecklenburg,
"If he has experienced that girl, even partially, he'd find it almost impossible to get her out of his mind. Finding her dressed up, only to go out with someone else, is twisting the knife in the wound. He'll spend the evening wondering what they're doing together."
Brenda eyed me with interest.
"So that's how a man's mind would work? He's still trying to talk with her."
Just then, a young man came up the hall toward us, evidently also waiting for the class to let out. The girl gave him a little wave, at the same time arranging her skirt. We all, I think, had a sense of impending drama as we heard Ralph getting to the end of his lecture and the students shifting in their seats.
In the event, there was no direct confrontation. The girl was actually the first out of the room, walking quickly past us and kissing her date lightly. As Mecklenburg, quite flushed, stared after the disappearing couple, Brenda said,
"That little kiss was to show him what's what."
"Wasn't that a little cruel?"
"It may nonetheless have been necessary."
Jane seemed to have lost interest in these matters, and poked her head around the corner to locate Ralph and lead him off. This wasn't easily done. Ralph had handed back a test, and the results had apparently not been good. Many students were waiting on him with questions. From my experience, almost all of those "questions" would turn out actually to be demands for more partial credit on the problems.
Mecklenburg, having started only abortively to follow his erstwhile girl friend, had now been joined by his usual friends. They, too, seemed inclined to speak to Ralph, and were evidently willing to be last in the queue. I suspected that they were operating on the theory that the other complainants would wear the lecturer down, and that, anxious to get away, he would be more likely to give away points.
Ralph was working his way toward the door, and had gotten quite near us when he encountered the Mecklenburg group. I could tell from Ralph's face as he looked at the papers, probably almost identical, that the requests were ridiculous. The questions had been concerned, not with calculation, but with theory. I could easily imagine that these boys were entirely out of their depth. Ralph, obviously tired, handed back the papers and said,
"Those answers are hopeless."
I already knew from Jack that Mecklenburg had a tendency to become obscene when irritated. Flushing with indignation that did look sincere, he said,
"What the fuck do you mean, they're hopeless. I'm no more hopeless than you are. You don't even have a college degree. You shouldn't be teaching at all."
It was true that Ralph, despite a growing reputation as a mathematician, had never bothered to graduate from Columbia. Mecklenburg must have noticed that he had no degree listed in our catalogue. Ralph ignored this last charge and said,
"I mean that those answers are nowhere near right. I find no sentence in them that happens to be true. Therefore, I didn't give them any credit."
Mecklenburg, only an inch or two shorter than Ralph, moved closer as he said,
"That girl, Laurie, had the same god-damned thing, and you gave her a fucking C."
This sort of argument is always difficult for the instructor. He might, after all, have slipped and given so-and-so a higher grade for the same thing. He can tell the present student that, if he did give the other student a higher grade for the same thing, he erred on the other paper. But that's weak. In the present case, Ralph obviously knew that he had never given any such nonsense a passing grade, and he denied that the girl had given the same answer if she got a C. But, of course, Mecklenburg was claiming to have just seen the other paper and he said, indeed, fairly shouted,
"You're calling me a liar, aintcha?"
It is extraordinary that so many students will expend many times as much energy and intelligence in trying to get a grade changed than in trying to get a better grade in the first place. The instructor faced with this dilemma generally tries to say that, while he isn't accusing the student of lying, he still believes him to be mistaken. This, too, is weak. Ralph replied, still fairly calmly,
"It's my experience that students who understand as little as you do generally can't tell when two answers are the same, or even similar."
That was too much for Mecklenburg. It was one defeat too many for him that day. He turned purple and shouted,
"You son of a bitch."
At the same time, he swung at Ralph, his right hand glancing off Ralph's forehead. I was simply thunderstruck, rooted to the spot. So were Jane and Brenda and most of the bystanders. However, I did see in those instants that Mecklenburg's two friends were entirely comfortable with what was happening. They had expected it, but they made not the slightest move to restrain their friend.
Ralph dodged a couple of blows and looked as if he might try to restrain Mecklenburg without hitting him. In this instance, it was Mecklenburg's ill luck to be big, strong, and athletic. Although no boxer, he couldn't easily be handled. Moreover, the crazy look on his face, a look full of lust, indicated that he wouldn't soon desist.
I happened to notice a look of satisfaction on Ralph's face as he took the offensive. It was, in an awful way, fascinating to watch. A couple of swift lefts to the head sent Mecklenburg reeling back. He might have fallen except that his friends were behind him pressing him forward. In doing so, they may have interfered with his defence. In any case, as Mecklenburg came forward, still at some distance from Ralph, a right caught him square in the face. It happened before Mecklenburg's friends could catch him, and there was a terrible crack as his head hit the floor.
Mecklenburg did come to a little before he was rushed to the hospital. His skull turned out not to be fractured. He merely had a concussion and a broken jaw.
American law, in its practical aspects, can be quite peculiar. When there are confrontations in which someone is injured, there are two categories. One is best represented by a street assault. The victim is justified is using all necessary force in order to defend himself. If he really is assaulted, he can even kill his assailant.
The other category is simply that of a fight, best typified by a bar-room brawl. In that case, it doesn't, in practice, much matter who has started the fight. The one who can sue, and who can press charges, is the loser, the one who is more seriously injured.
Ralph's case lay a little nearer the first paradigm than the second, but it was uncomfortably between the two. One could imagine two different newspaper captions for the story. The first would be,
"Student attacks teacher, who defends himself successfully."
The second would be,
"Teacher seriously injures student in dispute over grades."
Again in practice, a great deal depends on which model the responding policeman uses in his initial report on the incident. In this case, the policeman was one we hired to police our campus. Fortunately, he was a regular Cincinnati policeman who worked for us in his spare time. He interviewed the witnesses and built up a case against Mecklenburg which we never had to use. We simply expelled him that same day.
The notification of his expulsion reached Mecklenburg a couple of days later in the hospital, where he lay with his jaw wired shut. His family consisted of respectable lower middle class Cincinnatians who weren't inclined to litigation. Indeed, in her one conversation with Mecklenburg's father, Brenda gathered that the man was horrified by his son's behavior. We never again heard from any Mecklenburg.
The photograph Brenda had taken came out as sharply as anyone could have desired. Brenda called in the boy who had been sharing Mecklenburg's notes, and I was present as well. He was a slimy little character who might have kicked someone who had been knocked down by someone else. However, having seen what had happened to his leader, he was a pushover for us. We displayed the picture. After recovering from his surprise, he mumbled something about a second chance. We refused. He left, closing the door gently as he went.
We had nothing on the other crony, but we reasoned that the disappearance, in their different ways, of both his best friends would act powerfully on his mind and behavior.
Unfortunately, matters lay in a quite different way with Ralph. He was appalled at what he had done. Only our lawyer was able to keep him from trying to make amends. Even then, he continued to talk of a substantial cash settlement. We each attempted to convince him that he couldn't have acted otherwise.
In the end, it was Maria, the only one of us not to witness the incident, who seemed to put his mind somewhat at rest. I don't know what she said. She may have said that, if she could live with the lead-pipe incident, let alone what might have happened earlier, he should be able to accept the necessity for the blows inflicted on Mecklenburg. It would have been like Ralph to be convinced by such an argument.
Despite all this, Ralph remained adamant on one point. He would teach no more. Again we argued, suggesting that he merely take a vacation. We pointed out, quite truly, that Mecklenburg was disliked by the other students. I recounted for Ralph the story of my Marine veteran who had, much earlier, offered to do for Mecklenburg substantially what Ralph had eventually done. If anything, Ralph had become something of a folk hero. None of this made any impression. There was nothing for it but to cancel Ralph's Monday classes and hire a journeyman to take them, beginning on Wednesday. A number of students wrote to our excuse for a school newspaper voicing their support for Ralph, but that, too, did little to dispel the only thing approaching a depression which I have ever seen overtake him.
It was only in the following weeks that we gradually discovered the true dimension of Ralph's problem. He felt that he had been refuted, that his ideas about education had been shown to be bankrupt. As he said,
"It wasn't just Mecklenburg. I wasn't getting anywhere with anyone, except for Jack and one girl."
"Well, that's something. We're certainly making a difference to Jack, and there'll probably always be one or two like that. After a few years, we might be able to point to quite a little handful of people we've educated."
"You know I expected much more than that, Thomas. I thought we, and a good many like us, could educate the ordinary person. This fall, I've found out that it's impossible to do that."
I could only agree, and added,
"If that were possible, someone would have done it long ago. And don't point to the ancient Greeks. They kept slaves to do the work, and thought it dangerous and unwise to educate their women. Plato and his friends were a bit like Thomas Jefferson and his friends."
Ralph laughted heartily for the first time since his knockout of Mecklenburg.
"I've been thinking things over since the incident, and I suppose I've retreated to something like that. I want to gather together a group of people who already are educated, together with some young people who are headed in that direction. This time, there won't be any classes, and there won't be any coercion, not even any bribery."
"Where do you plan to do it?"
"Little Venice seems as good a place as any."