Roger Beadle shut and locked the door to his office at the University of British Columbia. He looked at his Seiko wrist watch. It was 4 p.m. and he’d just finished his last student appointment, barely getting the sobbing student calmed down and out the door. Now he was not obligated to see any more students. If any came and knocked, he’d ignore them.
He sunk into his chair, and closed his eyes. At long last, quiet. If he could get a couple hours of uninterrupted silence before he had to go home, he hoped to make some progress. He pulled out his personal project file from his desk drawer, and opened it up on his desk, feeling a tingle of excitement. The theorem he’d been working on for the last five years was finally coming together. With a little further work, he believed he’d finally achieve what he considered to be an elegant solution to what had long been an inefficient series of rangy and sloppy equations. The deadline to submit his work to the Cray Mathematical Institution was just a few weeks away. He set to work hoping to make progress, before he went home to where it was never quiet.
The knock came at the door, at first just one plain knock. He held his breath, hoping the student would go away. Read the sign - “Office Hours 9-4” he telepathically communicated. Then two knocks came, and he decided it had been a mistake to even communicate with his mind. Thought had energy, and if it had energy it could be detected and measured. The student in the hall wouldn’t be considering that, but the student’s brain possessed some sort of ability to figure out if the professor was in his office (hiding) or the professor was away from his office. No, but the student had the infantile need for him to be in his office, so the student waited there expectantly.
He looked at his papers, and picked up his pencil, and tried to focus on his work. It was so quiet he could hear his own heart beating, a little too fast. He was about to write down a few alternative variations on his equation, when another knock came, and he almost dropped his pencil. Now he gripped it tightly in his hand.
“Professor Beadle. Please open up,” the emotion stricken voice called out.
It was the student he’d just ushered out at four pm. Danny or Donny or Ronny, or was it a Jimmy. It didn’t matter, year in and year out they were all the same. Why half of them were in mathematics he didn’t know. With all their computers and calculators and access to online research and tutorials, they still showed up for hand holding. He glanced at his calendar, where he’d written the name. John Haverstack.
Oh bother, he’d just written everything out for John. If John would just go home and put his mind to it, the assignment was as easy as connecting dots. Just follow the instructions and it would all work out, he had advised John.
But instead John had wasted an hour of his valuable time crying about all the pressure he was under from his parents. Of course previously, he’d directed John to go see the counsellor, but the fool of a counsellor had sent John back to him, and worse had coached John how to use assertive communication, as if he were the problem.
Quietly he put his pencil down, and crossed his arms, and waited for John to give up. If questioned later, he’d say it was after his office hours and that he had headphones on and didn’t hear the door.
The knocking became louder and more insistent. “Please Professor Beadle. I need help,” John’s voice came through the heavy oak door.
He put his hand over his ears, determined to ignore John’s pleas. Do you do this to all your professors or have you picked me out for special punishment? Once again, he picked up his pencil and focused on his work and tried to ignore the continued knocking.
But he couldn’t concentrate. He remembered that other student two years ago, Barry Sloan, with a head full of wiry hair and thick black retro glasses, who’d committed suicide after he’d failed the math midterm. After Barry, he’d stopped trying to learn their names, but he’d hardly ever closed his door on them, and he’d let them sit in his office and pour out their problems.
He sighed and stood up, and went and unlocked the door.
John pushed past him, and sat down in the chair he’d vacated earlier, his face red with tears.
He stood at the open door. “John, my office hours are over. I’ve given you all the solutions. You need to go home and practice their applications. There is nothing more that I can do,” he tried to keep his voice neutral and hide any of the frustration he felt.
“Professor Beadle, if I don’t pass your course, my dad will kill me.”
“Your dad won’t kill you. He’ll be disappointed, that’s all. He’ll recover.” Whereas I will lose my opportunity of a life time.
“No, he’s taken out a second mortgage to pay for my education, and now he’s laid off, and all day he’s at home and if he’s not shouting at me, he’s shouting at my mom. So, if I don't pass it’ll get even worse. I wish I’d never pushed to go to University. But now, the money is spent, and it’ll probably have been wasted.
“So what are your options?” I repeated the rhetorical question I’d posed earlier.
“I know, study and pass, study and fail, or quit and work. But you won’t guarantee if I study I’ll pass.”
“And even if you study and pass, there’s no guarantee your dad will stop his behaviour.”
John hung his head. “At least I won’t feel like it’s my fault.”
He stood at the door. If he could guarantee John of a passing grade, then John would leave him alone. Shifting from one foot to another, he looked at John crumpled in the guest chair. At least he’d stopped crying.
Mental work would be good for John to distract him from his emotional stress.
“Okay, you can work on practice questions for the exam here and if there’s anything wrong with your process, I’ll let you know.” At least he hadn’t caved in and given John an automatic pass.
“Here, let me clear some space for you,” he walked back to his chair, and shifted his papers back to the file folder.
“Hey, what’s all that?” John asked, planting his fingers on one of the pages before he could retrieve it.
“Nothing, just a personal project,” he said, holding out his hand for the paper.
Instead of passing it back, John clutched it up and examined the equations. “I see what you’re trying to do, Professor Beadle.”
“No, you don’t see. You can’t possibly understand this. Just focus on your assignment.”
John stood up, still holding onto the paper, and walked around the room with it.
“That’s my paper. Please give it back to me.”
John shook his head. “Just a minute,” he continued pacing.
If not for his experience with Barry, he wouldn’t have opened the door. “I’m serious. That is my property.”
John gave the page back to him, and sat down and opened up his back pack and pulled out his exercise book. “Your single solution looks good, but it won’t work. Instead you need three of the original equations working together”. He grabbed the pencil and quickly jotted several equations.
Roger’s heart stopped and his mouth dropped open. Like a braid, the solution series that he had thought inefficient was only that way because he’d been viewing them singularly and so had every one else.
“Go home John. You don’t have any problem with this level of math. I can promise you, if you show up for the exam, you’ll pass.”
John stood up. “I’m right aren't I,” he smiled.
“Yes, and after the exam we’ll go through the proofs together, and you can submit it to the Cray under your name.
“And with your name, Professor Beadle. You did the set up.”
“We’ll talk, John. Good night.”
He stood at the door and watched John walk away, his posture was the best he’d ever seen it.
Professor Beadle sat down, then he replaced the file back in his desk.