In 1997, while attending Illinois State University, I decided I wanted to be a business major. This shocked no one more than me because I’d spent a lifetime (up to that point) cutting every corner I could in my math classes. Numbers were like the afterlife, I believed in them, but they didn’t make a whole lot of sense. You know what did make sense? Cents. And dollars. And big amounts of those two things combined. Sure, literature always proved to be my specialty, but who ever got rich off of books?
So, there I was, a newly minted business major struggling through my first semester, and sitting in Accounting 101. Class occurred in a large lecture hall that could seat around 200 people. I opted to sit in the fourth row from the front. I was all-in on this business thing. I wanted to look like a good, conscientious student without also seeming like a kiss-up. I don’t know why, but the fourth row struck me as the sweet spot I sought.
The professor—I can’t remember his name. It had something to do with an animal. Dr. Katz? Dr. Byrd? Dr. Gil! That was it. Anyway, on the first day of class, Dr. Gil alerted us to the fact that we each had a number on the front of our table. (Mine was D9.) He made it very clear that he would call upon us by those numbers since there were too many names to learn. We were to memorize our numbers for when that day arrived. Foreshadowing, anyone?
About halfway through the semester, I found myself dead in Gil’s waters. For the first time in my life, I had a “D” average and simply could not grasp accounting’s fundamentals. I’ll admit that I didn’t go out of my way to help myself. Maybe I could have found a tutor? Perhaps I could have studied on a nightly basis? I don’t know—who knows? Hindsight is 20/20, right?
So when Dr. Gil would pose a question to the class and ask us to work on it for a few minutes before he called on someone to answer, I would often stare off into space without even trying. I knew this business dream would not reach fruition. I already envisioned the next semester surrounded by my fellow English bookworms who had no aspirations of wealth, much less a reasonable income.
I shot to attention and found Dr. Gil’s eyes staring straight at me. I pointed to my chest and said, “Me?”
“Yes, you,” Dr. Gil grumbled. “D9. Tell us your solution.”
Dr. Gil squinted before saying, “To the equation.”
I looked to the students on either side of me. I didn’t know the girl at all. The guy lived on my floor and we sort of knew each other, but he suddenly needed to study his table’s surface. Neither of them would even glance in my direction. I was alone.
“I don’t have a solution.”
Dr. Gil said, “A wrong solution is better than no solution. Tell us what you have.”
“I don’t have anything.”
“You didn’t even try, D9?”
“I mean, that’s not my name. My name is—”
“Inconsequential. You have nothing. You attempted nothing. You’re doing nothing. Is this correct?”
I could feel the sweat forming on my brow as Dr. Gil and 199 other people gawked at me in disbelief. “Um … yeah. I guess that’s correct,” I said. “I don’t have anything.”
Dr. Gil folded his arms, looked down his nose at me, and barked, “From now on … shape up, D9!”
“That’s not my name,” I mumbled. Of course, because I sat so close, he heard me.
“I don’t care what your name is!” Dr. Gil shouted. “You are wasting my time! You are wasting a seat! From now on, you will attempt to participate in this class, or you will leave!”
At that point, I set my chin, glared into his watery eyes, and said, “You can’t talk to me like that.”
The whole lecture hall gasped.
Dr. Gil seethed, “What did you say?”
“You heard me,” I replied. My voice remained steady. I had complete control over my emotions. But I needed to let this man know that he had no control over me. “You may be the professor, but that doesn’t mean you can talk to me like that.”
Dr. Gil unfolded his arms before methodically stretching one of them out and pointing at me. He hissed, “Leave.”
“Leave … now!”
“You can’t make me leave.”
Dr. Gil truly lost it. He shrieked, “Leave or I will call security!”
I stood, folded my arms just as he had done, and lectured, “I’m a student paying tuition. I’m essentially your customer. Yes, I’m here to gain knowledge from you, but you’re not my boss, my supervisor, my manager, my superior, or my parent. You have no authority over me other than to assess my comprehension of your material. You can fail me if you want, but that is where your power ends, pal.”
At that point, Dr. Gil fell over and we could no longer see him behind his podium. Imagine my shock when seconds passed and not a single person moved from their seats. Since I was already the star of the show, I raced to the end of my row, flew down the steps, and found Dr. Gil on the floor. High school health instantly popped into my mind allowing me to realize that Dr. Gil suffered a heart attack.
I ordered, “Somebody find a phone and call 911!” (Remember, this was 1997.) I then dropped to my knees and initiated CPR. I don’t want to brag, but after they arrived, the EMTs credited me with saving Dr. Gil’s life.
He obviously couldn’t finish the semester, so the school decided to excuse us from the course while awarding all of us A’s. Even though I didn’t learn jack squat, I still managed to score an A in accounting!
I visited Dr. Gil regularly in the hospital and, against all odds, we actually became friends. After I graduated with an English degree, he pulled a few strings and helped me find work in the corporate communications department of a large accounting firm.
What a great story, right?
Of course, that’s all it is.
I wish that was how things had happened.
The truth is, he told me to shape up after he caught me daydreaming. I turned red as an apple, muttered, “Yes, sir,” and then, from that moment forth, only showed up to class on test days. I failed, ruined my overall GPA, and promptly switched majors at semester’s end.
I learned a lot about myself that day.
I’m still thinking about it all these years later.
Copyright © 2022 by Scott William Foley
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved. No part of this story may be used or reproduced by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping or by any information storage retrieval system without the written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews or articles.