The old prof revisited

The last day of classes before Thanksgiving vacation was like every other day, except for one thing: I found myself thinking about one of my all-time favorite profs.

Dr. Briggs was an excellent teacher and I took as many of his classes as I could. Beyond that, we became friends of sorts. I say “of sorts” because back then the distinction between student and teacher (like the distinction between almost all adults and children) was huge. I talked to him a lot outside of class and we often had coffee together. We stayed in touch for decades, but I never called him by first name. Still, I liked him as much as some of my best friends.

When I first met him, I thought he was ancient (even though he was 20 years younger than I am now). He looked like a perfect leftover from the ’40s. He wore big fedoras and long overcoats and carried a briefcase whose previous owner might’ve been Mr. Chips.

His classes were like Mr. Chips’. He lectured from notes, sometimes word-for-word, speaking at a steady pace and tone for the entire hour-and-a-half. Meanwhile we took page after page of notes, filling entire notebooks before the semester was over. Every now and then we’d ask for a clarification about something and he’d answer it, but that was it for in-class student/teacher interaction. I never remember him deviating from a lesson or telling a personal anecdote.

In addition to his notes, we had extensive required readings, many of which took a lot of REreadings to understand. On top of that, his tests were brain-busters and I sweated my way through all of them. I never got above a B in his courses and was damn proud of it, since many students did worse, and most students avoided his classes altogether because of his grading and workload.

Coffee and sarcasm

But as much as I liked him as a teacher, I liked him a lot more as a person. And I think to a great extent that was due to his humor. He wasn’t a Yark-yark, hubba-hubba, anything-for-a-laugh kind of guy; in fact, he was the exact opposite. Dr. Briggs’s was the paradigm of wry, dry, and bitingly sardonic. However, his delivery was so low-key, his manner so unexceptional, and his speaking voice so soft, I’m sure a lot of his quips and whips were lost on many people.

I still remember the first personal conversation we had.

It was early in the semester and I was waiting in the hall for his class. I always wore the same outfit: Work boots, and jeans which I’d altered myself (in other words, I’d cut off the cuffs but never hemmed them, so they had that great frayed bumpkin look). My shirts were blue chambray and I never ironed or got them out of the dryer in time, so they were wrinkled from top to bottom. My hair was as rebellious as me, and it stuck out everywhichway.

To top it off, I was leaning on the wall, smoking a cigarette the very picture of blase, post-adolescent degeneracy.

When Dr. Briggs approached I greeted him. He then came over and said, “You know, I always wish I’d had a son. Because if I did, I’d point you out to him and show him what he should never grow up to be.”

He said it with a straight face but a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. I cracked up laughing.

I know a lot of folks would’ve had their feelings hurt, but I had an advantage most people didn’t: I was weaned on sarcasm. Although no one in my family was mean, they were a sardonic lot (at least the funny ones were). We were much less like Red Skelton, and much more like George Carlin.

See, in my tribe, we’ve got an unwritten rule on humor: If something’s funny, it’s funny. If it’s also biting, or even a bit on the scathing side, that’s fine, because you can always fire back an acidic retort or two. And if you can’t? Well, then you can keep your counsel or put yourself up for adoption.

So Dr. Briggs’ sarcasm I enjoyed and appreciated. And here’s the thing about him: As opposed to many sardonic types, he could give it and he could take it.

Once, I finished an exam and put the blue book on his desk. And as soon as I did, he picked it up and at the top wrote a big red F. Then a strange look crossed his face.

“I’d better not do that,” he said, crossing out the F.

“Oh?” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “If I died suddenly, that grade would stay.”

I knew he’d been having health issues, but I also knew a good line when I had one.

“That’s all right,” I said. “It’d be worth it.”

He was not the type to burst into explosive laughter, but he did chuckle a bit — audibly, no less.

I considered that my greatest accomplishments of the semester.


But, still, why was I thinking of him the day of T’giving vacation? The answer eluded meuntil my last class of the day.

It was a 2:30 class and the students asked if I’d let them out early, what with vacation in the wings and all. I told them I had work to go over that was due the day we got back, but if they worked hard in class, I’d let them go early. It was, of course, a ploy on my behalf.

They did work hard and when I finished with the lesson, I looked at my watch with a faux flourish and then announced, “All right, the class should end at 3:25. It’s now only 3:22but since I’m a man of my word, you can go.”

The room immediately emptied and when it did, I knew why Dr. Briggs had been on my mind all day.

On the day of Thanksgiving vacation, lo those many years ago in Potsdam, my last class was a 2:30 one that ended at 4:00. I was hitch-hiking home, so I wanted to get on the road as early as I could and I just knew good old Dr. Briggs would never hold us the entire time, right? Wrong. He did.

Of course he didn’t do it to punish us – he did it to educate us. And you can’t get educated if you’re not getting a lesson. And a lesson means a full lesson. Period.

I didn” understand or appreciate that at the time. But over the years I’ve come to understand and appreciate that what he did was for both our sakes.

So there I was, on the day of vacation, holding a bunch of kids in my class who wanted to leave as badly as I’d wanted to leave, lo, almost 50 years ago.

I’d been thinking of Dr. Briggs all day because I knew I’d end up acting just like him.

And to be completely honest, there’s no one else I’d rather act like.