Saturday, June 24, 2006

Legends

Every school has legends. Some are students, who become the mythical figures of inspiration, their names evoked in hushed tones by those hoping to emulate them. Some are professors, whose teachings follow a generation, future architects noting the day, the class, where they learned the invaluable lesson that helped them reach their current success.

You wouldn’t know it, the way architects go on and on about studio. But, we do have other classes, which we generally try to attend. And sometimes, these classes, rather than studio, are the definitive experiences of the semester. These are the experiences reminisced about, years later, at reunions, with classmates.

For at least a decade, if not two, the third year curriculum at my school was defined by Site Engineering class. Less because of the material – which was a snooze – but because of the professor, a granddaddy of the school, you might say. He was a graduate, who became a teacher, who became a professor, who became dean. Institution doesn’t quite capture his presence.

We were the last class to have him. Some might say the last to have the privilege. After all, most of the older students spoke reverently of their “site” experience. How much they learned, even if they struggled. How highly they valued him, even if he might seem a bit gruff, a bit high-handed. “You’ll appreciate it, after it’s over” was said more than once.

So, with great anticipation, I sat down for the first site class of that fall semester. I was going to learn from a legend, and I was ready to take it all in. Notebook out, pencil at ready, I waited, baited breath, for this legend’s arrival.

He walked in with an authoritative air, which probably became a part of his everyday attire after his first decade of teaching. We quieted down automatically, instinctively, and with slow deliberate motions, he laid out his lecture materials.

At first, it seemed rather normal, as classes go. He was an elder professor, a gentleman of respect and dignity, standing before a group of eager students. And then the lights dimmed, and the overhead projector came on. In that shift, the man of quiet authority transformed. Features sharpened in the dim light, and as he stepped forward, into the light, a new face emerged, one frighteningly dark and sinister. I kid you not, Hannibal Lecter now stood before us. The same silver/black hair, combed straight back. The same dark shadows hiding his eyes.

In that darkened room, he took center stage, his voice a deep and low monotone, reading off facts and figures from his never-ending stack of overheads. There was a frantic scratching of pencils as we tried to follow. But it was fruitless, and we would soon learn the impossibility of ever getting everything down. It was all part of the charm, I was later told.

For the rest of the semester, I found myself attending class with equal parts fear and apathy. Fear for this man who, looks alone, would silence any notion of rebuttal; apathy for a class, which despite religious attendance, yielded no actual learning. At least, that’s what my quiz scores were telling me, which I was failing with unsettling regularity.

His uncanny resemblance to that unsettling screen villain could, alone, be enough to cement site class permanently into my memory. But one class in particular made sure that site class would never, ever be forgotten.

It was closing in on the end of semester. Inevitably, attendance was waning, as sleep deprivation set in. Even for those who made it, the early morning hour and the numbing sound of his voice made sleep an easy, almost impossible, temptation. We were nodding off faster than the minutes were passing, and he noticed.

Suddenly, the lights came on. The brightness caught those dozing, and they snapped to attention. He moved forward, his voice rising.

“This is important. Listen to me. What you do has consequences. People die. Do you get it?”

We were stunned. No one said a word, and our silence seemed to madden him. His voice rose again.

“I want you to repeat after me…buckling causes death.”

We looked at each other, but made no sound.

“I said, repeat after me. Buckling causes death.”

We mumbled in reply. A couple snickered. He spoke with greater emphasis.

“Louder.”

We repeated, this time, more uniform in our intensity.

“No, Louder.”

And so we said it, louder.

And then he shouted at us.

“Louder. I mean it. Say it LOUDER. MEAN IT!”

So we did what he asked. And shouted. “BUCKLING. CAUSES. DEATH.”

For a moment, he seemed appeased. Then I saw him tilt his head, fix his eyes on a specific point. And I followed that cutting glare to a still-sleeping student. He moved quietly, like a tiger stalking prey. He was now standing above the sleeping student, and we waited, transfixed, not sure what would happen next. We expected a train wreck. We got one.

He leaned down, until his face was just inches away from that student’s closed lids. He watched for a few seconds, observed the slow, steady breathing. He said nothing. Just looked, his eyes unflinching, totally still.

It was a flash of movement. The air cracked, his hands slapping hard on the writing table. His voice boomed, suddenly filling every cubic inch of that lecture hall. We all jumped.

“You just killed someone!”

The accosted student jerked, his knees cracking against the seat in front of him, his eyes flying open. He recoiled, but going nowhere, rattled the row of connected seats in his efforts to move. He stared, eyes front, as he tried to compose himself.

“You fall asleep again, and you’re out of this class. Get it. This is serious. Now pay ATTENTION!”

Needless to say, that lecture ended with no droopy eyelids. And for a few sessions afterwards, we were remarkable focused. Had it been earlier in the semester, we may have slipped back into our desultory state. But, he got us, at least for a time.

The class lived up to its reputation. We all passed, but just barely. His last trick was to write the final exam without consulting our Teaching Assistant. Thus, as we met for our final review session, our T.A. had no insights on how to prepare. I remember laughing out loud, while taking the final, as I read several of the questions; I felt like the hours I had spent studying were for a completely different class. People talk of grade inflation in college, but there was little chance of this class contributing. We were just relieved that we wouldn’t have to repeat.

In the end, the class was, for me, not quite what I had hoped, what I imagined. Where was the transcendent experience I had been told of? Where was this deep knowledge that I was supposed to have grasped? Instead, let’s just say that I’ll be doing some intensive reviews for the site engineering portion of the ARE. But, I’ll grant him this. I remember one thing, as clearly now as the day he spoke it,

“Buckling causes death.”

Good to know, really, it is. I just have one tiny question…how do I stop buckling?

3 Comments:

Anonymous stefan said...

was it 'buckling causes death'? I thought it was water causes death or something.... this was hilariously accurate though! I still have nightmares and that final exam was a joke! I think Iscored a 5% and surprisingly that was better than a few of my classmates! I wish I remembered who it was that had fallen asleep, I remember that! I also remember a similar experience in archictural history with D.S. and 2 girls I was sitting right beside.

10:23 AM  
Blogger the silent observer said...

LOL...it was Buckling...the chant still rings in my ears...

I won't mention names to protect the identities of those involved...but let's just say, you wouldn't be surprised by who it was....

8:08 AM  
Blogger Norman Blogster said...

Nice.

11:18 AM  

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