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The Best Question: A Short Story
“So, can anyone tell me what was the first documented battle of the American Revolution?” asked Professor John Thomas. A large number of hands rose in the air.
The class was tightly packed with nearly 300 in attendance. It was an auditorium shaped room with seats lined up in rows. The rows curved inward. Behind the professor hung the green board with several white scribbles of various names: George Washington, Minutemen, Continental Congress.
Professor Thomas had just turned 60 this semester. He sported a gray checkered style coat with a red vest sweater underneath it. He also had a red bow tie and gray pants. He was bald and wore gold-rimmed spectacles. While he dressed the part of someone who lived through the years, he always delivered his lectures with a tone of enthusiasm and command in his voice, earning him a great deal of respect from his students.
“Yes, Ms. Jane?” asked the Professor, who picked a female hand that was raised.
"Lexington and Concord, sir,” she replied.
“Correct! And the forces that fought the British troops? What were they called and why?” Many hands filled the air again. Professor Thomas then pressed his glasses closer to his face and fixed his focus on one student: Jason Turner.
Jason was 20 with well combed black hair and dressed in a collared white shirt with brown slacks and penny loafer shoes. Professor Thomas let out a quite sigh as he witnessed the usual method of Jason trying to avoid attention: placing his left hand over his temple while keeping his eyes glazed at nowhere else other than his notebook on his desk. The right hand kept scribbling away upon his pad even though the professor had not been uttering any words at that moment.
The professor then turned to a male student. “Yes, Mr. Whitlock?”
“They were the Minutemen, sir,” Mr. Whitlock replied, “Ready to respond in a minute.”
“Excellent!” Professor Thomas then moved behind his desk, pulled out a large book and slammed it on his desk. The sound of the impact shot out like a gun, and more than half the class jumped slightly out of their seats. The professor strolled confidently to the front of his desk and picked up the book with the cover facing the students: America’s Greatest American Literature.
“So, who can tell me what famous poet commented on the Battle of Lexington and Concord?” asked Professor Thomas. Virtually all of the students slumped back in their seats. Some whispered to each other while others crossed their arms and just stared in bewilderment.
“Anyone?” he said with a hint of glee in his voice. One student, James, raised his hand, which shook nervously as if he suffered from a sudden chill that had befallen the room. Professor Thomas quickly pointed at him.
“Professor?” began James, “I, uh, don’t mean to…ya know….come down on your lesson or whatever, but….aren’t we doing American History? Where did that book come from? That’s like…you know…not something you told us to read.”
“I most certainly did,” quickly replied the professor, “As you recall, I often reiterated the fact that many well-known writers during the Revolution gave very vivid and valuable accounts of what happened during that time. They used words and witness accounts not commonly found in the average text book. That should have been a clue that I would asking about such figures. It would therefore make sense to refer to sources outside of the list of textbooks I provided for you earlier this semester.” Professor then pointed to his temple with a smirk on his face and continued, “Remember, you have to expand this in order to see and learn everything you need to understand what happened and why.”
Some of the students nodded their heads in acknowledgement while others quietly groaned.
“Well, I’m afraid we won’t have time to answer to this one today, so class dismissed,” a large rumble of students standing up from their desks. As they did, Professor Thomas continued to speak to them, “Remember, extra credit will be given to those who ask me well thought-out questions for this semester. Also, don’t forget mid-terms exams are coming up in the next two weeks. Have good weekend!”
The rumble of footsteps and random conversations filled the room for at least a couple of minutes and then silence with only two occupants remaining in the classroom. Professor Thomas leaned backwards on his desk with his arms crossed, starring at Jason.
“Are you ready to answer my question now?” Asked the professor with a slight disapproving tone in his voice. Jason, now realizing the room was empty, had finally lifted his face from his hand and looked at the professor. He gathered up his notebook and began to stand up.
“It was…Ralph Waldo Emerson, sir,” replied Jason with a quiet and shaky voice, “He called it the ‘Shot heard around the world’ since it started the whole conflict between America and another country thousands of miles across the ocean.” He began to walk away from his desk and out towards the door.
“Just a moment, son,” said the professor and Jason turned. “I need you to come with me to my office right now. We need to have a talk.”
“Undeclared??!!” roared Dr. Turner as he stood over Jason and pointed his massive finger in his face. “What about going into pre-med like we discussed??”
Dr. Turner was a man in his late 40’s, wearing a gray suit and tie. He was round in the middle, which made him look all the more intimidating to his 17 year-old son.
Jason sat quietly down on a wooden chair, wearing a white polo shirt and black suite pants. He had a blank expression on his face while Dr. Turner continued to berate his son.
Dr. Turner’s office was rather extravagant. The carpet covering the marble laden floor was made of the finest silk with traditional drawings found on Persian rugs. The walls were decorated with golden frames, containing numerous awards and certificates won by Jason’s father for his years as chief of staff of one of the most prominent hospitals in the state of Colorado. In front of Jason stood a wooden desk, which shined as if it were just polished.
Dr. Turner then backed off from Jason and leaned on his desk.
Jason looked up and saw Dr. Turner give him a hard stare, so he spoke up but with a solemn tone: “Dad, the fact is that I’m just not sure what I want to do. Being on call all the time and waking up stressed while trying to save someone’s life…I’m not sure if I can live like that.”
“And how exactly do you want to live, son?” asked his father.
Jason gave no response and just stared. Dr. Turner stood and walked around to his chair behind his desk. He sat down and buried his face in his hands. Jason could have sworn that he heard Dr. Turner muffle some harsh obscenities under his breath.
“Jason,” said he began and Jason looked back up again, “You are 17 and are just now becoming an adult. You can’t expect to just walk into the next stage of your life without any kind of plan. If you want opportunity, then take my advice and go into pre-med. The job security is excellent and being in the position I’m in you could go up the ranks quicker than any medical student in any medical field you want! I am trying to give you direction, Jason!”
Once again, Jason sat quietly and then stared down at the floor. Dr. Turner suddenly stood up and walked away towards the door. He grabbed door knob and opened it.
Before stepping out, he looked back at his son and spoke again with strong contempt in his voice, “I don’t want you going through life without at least some kind of college education, so I will still pay for your tuition. However, IF your time ever comes to graduate…” he took in a deep breath, shook his head, then said, “….you can forget about me being there on the day that you walk at your commencement.”
He left the room and slammed the door shut behind him. Jason just continued to sit there, staring down on the floor with tears filling his eyes.
Professor Thomas held the door open for Jason to his office.
The office was a simple design. The desk was of comprised of a light wood. There were two stacks of paper sitting to the left side of the desk while the right was taken up by a white coffee mug, a black stapler, and several blue ballpoint pens in the mug. The professor’s chair had a small green cushion for back support with metal arms. It looked rather old. There was a window peering out to the campus grounds.
As Professor Thomas walked over to his chair, he reached below his desk to pull out a one of his drawers. He placed a green folder with a white label on his desk, which had typed letters that read: “American History 101: Participation”.
“Please Jason, have a seat,” said Professor Thomas as he gestured his left hand towards the chair in front of him. Jason sat down on a wooden chair. He placed his black backpack to his left and clasped his hands quite tightly. In Jason’s mind he saw his father, sitting before him with a disapproved look on his face and ready to berate his son for not putting together a map for his future.
“Jason,” Professor Thomas started. “I brought you here because I’m concerned about your progress. You really have shined in this class….on paper at least.” He then flipped open his folder. Jason could see there were several white pages with horizontal and vertical lines. On side he could see some names and at the top seemed to be numbers with slashes…possibly dates.
“This is my grade book for participation,” Professor James said. “I actually keep two folders: one is for all the paper assignments I have given you: essays, pop-quizzes, exams…you get the idea. That folder you don’t need to see. Your grades there are nothing short of stellar. However…” he opened the folder to a page filled with grid-lines and names on one side. He then continued, “It is this second folder I have here that I am rather concerned about. Take a look.” He then put his finger on the page.
Jason leaned over from his chair and focused his eyes on the professor’s finger, which was pointing at his name. He saw nothing but zeros lined up with his name throughout the page, which made Jason sweat a little. He leaned back and nodded in acknowledgement.
Professor Thomas then spoke again: “I know most of the professors here don’t grade you on participation except for possibly showing up to class, but that’s not how I operate. I want my class engaged on the subject. I want them to talk to me about what I teach them so I know they are actually getting something out of my class. The idea of history is to learn about the important lessons of past lives so you can improve your life today. On a more practical sense, active participation accounts for 15% of your grade. Although you have done a good job with your paperwork, it isn’t perfect. It is only at 82%! I know you can do better than that!”
Jason let out a sigh and found himself staring out the professor’s window. He saw an American flag on a thick metal pole, with its stars and bars flapping gently as the wind blew.
Professor Thomas ignored the fact that Jason’s faced was turned away and kept talking: “Jason, you are an incredibly talented young man, but you are holding yourself back. Why is that?”
Jason did not answer and continued to stare at the flag, finding himself oddly fascinated by its colors as they continued to waive with an air of majesty and grace in the wind.
“Never mind, son,” Professor Thomas replied and began to rise up. “I won’t pry into your personal life. Just bear one thing in mind: we still have another month worth of classes. If this goes on, it could really have a negative impact on your final grade. More importantly, it will do nothing to help your self-confidence issues and yes I can tell you have them. When you go out into the real world, that’s not the way you want to live your life.” He leaned forward and spoke again with a little more authority and concern: “When I see you tomorrow, I want you to think real hard about what I said. In fact, I will even adjust your participation grade in your favor…if you can challenge my mind a little in front of the class with a well-thought out question like I mentioned today.”
Jason then turned to the professor, nodded in acknowledgement, and stood up from his chair. Professor Thomas then walked towards the door and pushed the knob outward, then said, “See you in class on Monday.”
“Good morning, class,” began Professor Thomas. “So we just left off last week about the Battle of Lexington and Concord. Let’s now get into…”
“Excuse me, Professor Thomas,” said a voice in the room. The professor turned his head towards his right and his eyebrows were raised in surprise. He saw Jason stand up from his desk with his right hand raised. The students throughout the room stared at him, shocked that Jason was the first one to say anything besides the professor, much less say anything at all. Professor Thomas nodded his head.
“My apologies for interrupting, sir,” Jason said timidly: “However, when I was going through our reading assignments last night, a thought crossed my mind…about the American flag.”
“Oh?” inquired the professor with a pleasant sense of curiosity in his voice. “What about it?”
“The colors red, white, and blue,” Jason began, “What exactly do they mean? Of all the colors on the flag, why did the Continental Congress chose them?”
Professor Thomas found himself leaning back on his desk and stared at Jason. Suddenly, he gave a loud chuckle and motioned his finger towards himself. Jason timidly walked towards the steps that were in the center of the rows of desks. Once he reached the steps, he walked down slowly to the Professor and breathed rather heavily. He then stopped in front of the Professor, who put his arm around Jason’s shoulder and turned him to face the entire class.
“That, my friend, is a heck of a question!” Professor Thomas shouted with a tone of joy. “I have no doubt you know the answer to it! How about you tell us…Professor Turner?” The professor gave another chuckle, walked over to his chair and sat down. Jason continued to look at him and saw the professor pull out from the left drawer the same green folder he saw yesterday in the professor’s office. Jason gave a bright smile and the professor nodded.
Jason then turned towards his classmates, cleared his throat, and spoke: “Well, according to the document ‘Our Flag’ published by the 109th Congress, the reasons for the flags’ colors are not really documented. However, they were the same colors used for the Great Seal of US that was devised by a committee of the Continental Congress sometime in 1782. According to this book, white signifies purity and innocence, red is hardiness and valor, and blue is vigilance, perseverance, and justice.”
Suddenly, a female student from the front raised her hand, which took Jason by surprise. He slowly moved his hand to point to her.
“So you know something about flag’s origin, then?” she asked, “Can you tell us about the Star-Spangled Banner then? I was curious about that one too.”
Jason looked behind him and saw Professor Thomas nodding as if he encouraged Jason to continue. Jason smiled again and turned towards the student. As Jason answered her question, Professor Thomas crossed his arms and smiled, watching his once timid pupil grow into a real individual.
Thank you Jason, Professor Thomas thought to himself, for reminding me why I love this job so much.