Dread and Action
The professor turned his back on the class and began writing on the blackboard, his right arm circling like a crankshaft as the chalk clicked and squeaked.
The students rustled and whispered restlessly. A couple of the football players stretched their legs straight out and their hands behind as far as they could reach, attempting to wake themselves up. Several girls in the back row closest to the wall-outlets, had laptops set up and were obliviously engaged in emailing or chatting or updating status.
Professor Sorensen abruptly spun around. His glasses caught the ceiling light and glinted, then became brightly opaque. His few remaining strands of hair flew off in different directions. His angular and aging body displayed his oversized, wrinkled, and outdated clothing as if he were a manikin made of wire hangers. “Now class,” he said with a deep and dramatic tone, “do you see these two words that I have written here?”
There was murmuring and shifting among the thirty-three students seated before him.
“Mr. Hernandez, could you read those two words for me.”
George Hernandez looked startled. He was ensconced in the far corner of the room, to the professor’s right, where he could see the leaves falling from the trees outside the second-floor windows. “Uh….” he started. Then he craned his neck, and read, “‘Dread and Action.'”
“Indeed,” Professor Sorensen said with seeming jubilation. “That was miraculous, Mr. Hernandez, well done. ‘Dread and Action.'”
George looked over at Talia Moschos, in the seat next to him. She shrugged. Maria Copely, behind him, kicked his chair.
“Now class, one presumes that you have some idea of what these words mean in the context of our subject of study?”
Amelia Bethel in the very first row raised her hand, as she usually did.
“No, not you Miss Bethel, one of these other fine products of our public education system.” He smiled at one of the football players, also in the front row, whose outstretched shins exposed white ribbed socks. “What about you, Mr. Holderby? For example, why do you sit in the same place every day, completely self-absorbed and obtuse, daring me with your attitude and smug self-satisfaction?”
“Huh?” Bret Holderby muttered as he pulled himself up to a sitting position and reflexively tucked his knees back under the desk top.
The class became quiet. Several laptop lids popped shut. A candy wrapper crinkled for a few seconds, and then that too stopped. Bret Holderby’s football buddies on either side of him began snickering self-consciously.
Professor Sorensen ambled closer to the desks. “You are my other, Mr. Holderby, my Existential other,” he said with a lilt to his voice. “Now, what do you think that means?”
“Uh, it better not mean what I think it means,” Bret said seriously.
The class exploded in laughter. Bret began smiling as he realized he’d said something that must have been funny. Professor Sorensen chuckled as well, as he walked nonchalantly over to Bret Holderby’s seat, bent over and clutched the desktop with his large, veined and bony hands. He paused then shouted as loudly as he could directly into the teenager’s face, “Do you know what dread is, Mr. Holderby?”
Bret’s face reddened and a kind of shocked then wild look came into his widened eyes. “Hey, hey, get away from me, I don’t have to put up with ….”
Professor Sorensen straightened, and grinned broadly. He took one step backwards. “What is Existential dread, Mr. Holderby?”
“Shit, shit, you’re crazy, man….”
“Aha! It looks like Mr. Holderby has committed that gravest of Existential sins … he is pathologically unaware of himself!” Professor Sorensen spun on his heel and strode to his desk. It was an old, dented and scratched piece of brown wood furniture that dated back to the first year Midland School opened in 1964. He moved around to the far side, his back against the chalkboard’s eraser-tray. He stared at the students as he yanked open the middle drawer. He pulled out a twelve-inch, curve-handled butcher knife and swung it high over his head.
There was utter silence.
Professor Sorensen continued to grin as he hefted the knife in his left hand. His glasses looked like blue-white discs. “This,” he said, “this is a butcher knife all the way from the Philippines. It can cut through anything.” He brought the thing down with a thud against the desk top, where it stuck quivering half way up the blade.
The class erupted in screaming. Bret Holderby tried to disentangle himself from his desk in order to make a quick escape.
“Students!” Professor Sorensen said sternly. “You, Mr. Holderby, Messieurs Mikowsky, Liebowitz, and Turner, please sit down.” His voice was soft and reasonable. “This class is not dismissed yet,” he reminded them.
The boys eased back into their desk-chairs but in full defensive mode, barely touching the plastic, ready to spring into action in a moment. The sound of someone crying came from the back of the room. The whimpered words, “I’m going to tell my mom,” hung in the air. Even philosophy major Amelia Bethel, her face looking like a Greek tragic mask, had flattened herself into the back of her chair as far away as it was possible to get from Professor Sorensen.
Who now squatted down behind his massive ancient desk and pulled out a bottom drawer. He rose, holding something large and round in both hands. He lifted it up and posed it above his head. Several members of the class screamed again. “Behold,” Mr. Sorenson intoned, “the cantaloupe!” He lowered the melon and held it at his chest as if it were a basketball and he was on the free-throw line.
The students gasped and moaned; some put up their arms as if blocking themselves, several ducked next to the legs of their neighbors.
“Fear,” Professor Sorenson said, “is different from dread.” He suddenly plopped the large cantaloupe on his desk. He smirked as he tugged at the butcher knife; it took him a few wrenching tries before he jerked it free. “See, this round muskmelon — and a rather humongous one at that — isn’t alive, it cannot think. Does it care one way or the other if I hold this cutting instrument in a threatening position over it?” He hovered the knife about ten inches above the cantaloupe. “But, if this were one of your heads, for example … perhaps yours Mr. Liebowitz….”
David Liebowitz, president of the wrestling club, glowered from his position directly behind Bret Holderby. He hit one fist into his other hand and said, “I’m not afraid of you.”
“Of course you’re not,” said Professor Sorensen, as he hoisted the knife once more. “That is precisely the point.” And he swung the sharp edge down, striking the melon, splitting it exactly in half. Juice and stringy seeds spurted and spit on Amelia’s sweater.
“Oh my gosh, oh my gosh,” Amelia said, dropping her pen and splaying her fingers.
“And there we have it,” Professor Sorenson said gleefully, gazing at the black wooden haft buried in luscious orange fruit. He wiped his hands on his black skinny tie, then on his slacks. “If this cantaloupe had a brain, it would justifiably have felt fear. But you, my dears, my little texters and cheaters and children of the computer age, you witnessed a play, a spectacle, something created and enacted to produce an emotional reaction, which would be … what?” He stretched his arm gracefully and pointed to a young women midway towards the back who was cautiously returning to her seat. “You there, Miss Sheldon, what would those feelings be?”
Her eyes were dark circles, her mascara was running, and her rainbow-colored hair was in tangles; she hugged her desktop like it was a life-preserver. She started to make a high-pitched “eeeeeee” sound.
Professor Sorensen punched a triumphant fist, thumb up, into the air. “Yes, exactly! You get an A+ for the day, Miss Sheldon.”
The bell rang.
There was a moment of crystalline stillness, followed by a burst of chaotic noise as the students couldn’t move quickly enough to stuff laptops, notebooks, papers, and books into backpacks, and shove their way out of the room.
Professor Sorensen extended one finger. He cleared his throat. “This class is not dismissed until I say it is.”
The students froze in place, as if playing a game of musical chairs. A desk toppled over.
“I want an essay from each one of you, on the concepts of ‘fear,’ ‘dread,’ and ‘action,’ in the works of Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Nietzsche, and Sartre. It is due tomorrow. As usual, I will have ‘Googled’ the same, and will have all pertinent pages printed and waiting for comparison. Now you may go.” Professor Sorenson turned his back on them and moved once again to his old desk. He put his knuckles on his hips as he stared down at the mess. He debated whether to clean it up or not before the next class. He glanced up.
Amelia Bethel was standing to the side of him, slouching to the point of cowering, and hugging her book-bag in front of her like a shield. “You know, Professor Sorensen,” she said, her voice shaky, “you should dread what some of these students are going to tell their parents and the school administrators.”
He folded his arms and laughed. “But Miss Bethel, what is the one way out of the Existential Dilemma, other than death — and while I think some of those boys might want to tear me into pieces, I doubt they will risk it.”
She frowned, and that turned into a pout. She looked close to tears. “A person could go crazy….”
“Yes, yes that’s it in a nutshell,” Professor Sorensen said, snapping his fingers for effect. “Now you’d better get going or you’ll be late for your next class.”
Amelia Bethel slipped her eyes to the cantaloupe mash on the desk, and her pout twisted into a full-fledged look of disgust. She carefully backed away, then turned and tiptoed for the door.
Professor Sorenson rubbed his hands together. “I think I’ll let this stay just as it is,” he said aloud. “What a wonderful day this is going to be, and I’ve got four classes to go. Philosophy 101, that’s the ticket!”