“Professor Hartke,” Jason Wilder said to me gently, reasonably, when the tape had reached its end, “why on Earth would you want to tell such tales to young people who need to love their country?”
I wanted to keep my job so much, and the house which came with it, that my reply was asinine. “I was telling them history,” I said, “and I had had a little too much to drink. I don’t usually drink that much.”
“I’m sure,” he said. “I am told that you are a man with many problems, but that alcohol has not appeared among them with any consistency. So let us say that your performance in the Pavilion was a well-intended history lesson of which you accidentally lost control.”
“That’s what it was, sir,” I said.
His balletic hands flitted in time to the logic of his thoughts before he spoke again. He was a fellow pianist. And then he said, “First of all, you were not hired to teach History. Second of all, the students who come to Tarkington need no further instructions in how it feels to be defeated. They would not be here if they themselves had not failed and failed. The Miracle on Lake Mohiga for more than a century how, as I see it, has been to make children who have failed and failed start thinking of victory, stop thinking about the hopelessness of it all.”
“There was just that one time,” I said, “and I’m sorry.”
Cough. One cough.
Wilder said he didn’t consider a teacher who was negative about everything a teacher. “I would call a person like that an ‘unteacher’. He’s somebody who takes things out of young people’s heads instead of putting more things in.”
“I don’t know as I’m negative about everything,” I said.
“What’s the first thing students see when they walk into the library?” he said.
“Books?” I said.
“All those perpetual motion machines,” he said. “I saw that display, and I read the sign on the wall above it. I had no idea then that you were responsible for the sign.”
He was talking about the sign that said “THE COMPLICATED FUTILITY OF IGNORANCE.”
“All I knew was that I didn’t want my daughter or anybody’s child to see a message that negative every time she comes into the library,” he said. “And then I found out it was you who was responsible for it.”
“What’s so negative about it?” I said.
“What could be a more negative word than ‘futility’?” he said.
“‘Ignorance’,” I said.
“There you are,” he said. I had somehow won his argument for him.
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“Precisely,” he said. “You obviously do not understand how easily discouraged the typical Tarkington student is, how sensitive to suggestions that he or she should quit trying to be smart. That’s what the word ‘futile’ means: ‘Quit, quit, quit’.”
“And what does ‘ignorance’ mean?” I said.
“If you put it up on the wall and give it the prominence you have,” he said, “it’s a nasty echo of what so many Tarkingtonians were hearing before they got here: ‘You’re dumb, you’re dumb, you’re dumb.’ And of course they aren’t dumb.”
“I never said they were,” I protested.
“You reinforce their low self-esteem without realizing what you are doing,” he said. “You also upset them with humor appropriate to a barracks, but certainly not to an institution of higher learning.”
“You mean about Yen and fellatio?” I said. “I would never have said that if I’d thought a student could hear me.”
“I am talking about the entrance hall of the library again,” he said.
“I can’t think of what else is in there that might have offended you,” I said.
“It wasn’t I who was offended,” he said. “It was my daughter.”
“I give up,” I said. I wasn’t being impudent. I was abject.
“On the same day Kimberley heard you talk about Yen and fellatio, before classes had even begun,” he said, “a senior led her and the other freshmen to the library and solemnly told them that the bell clappers on the wall were petrified penises. That was surely barracks humor the senior had picked up from you.”
For once I didn’t have to defend myself. Several of the Trustees assured Wilder that telling freshmen that the clappers were penises was a tradition that antedated my arrival on campus by at least 20 years.
But that was the only time they defended me, although 1 of them had been my student, Madelaine Astor, née Peabody, and 5 of them were parents of those I had taught. Madelaine dictated a letter to me afterward, explaining that Jason Wilder had promised to denounce the college in his column and on his TV show if the Trustees did not fire me.
So they dated not come to my assistance.