The room’s warmth doped me like I’d burned a strong reefer—Panama Red or Acapulco Gold—and the drone of his words floated over me, damned near put me in a trance. Sentences strung out like a long trail of smoke: John Stuart Mill and the never-ending battle between the liberal and the conservative. I wondered if I studied Plato and Zeno and all those old guys, would they wrangle over the same concepts, traditional versus something more avant-garde?
The professor was a CPA and an attorney and he’d written tax policy for Congress. The big congress back in DC, and now he was teaching Philosophy of Law at the university. What a come-down, or hell, maybe it was a come-up from working beneath the heel of politicians. I wouldn’t know, and as I drowsed, I’m sure I’d thought, and who cares?
I needed a class like Philosophy of Law to graduate with my BS in Accounting. Or some course like ethics or one of those esoteric subjects that, once you got on the job, may or may not mean anything since the real business of business is to make money.
Our texts for the class were little pamphlets printed on cheap paper with the pages stapled at the spine and the authors—besides John Stuart Mill, who is the only name I can recall—were mostly a bunch of sirs and lords of the conservative bent in England during the mid-19th Century. Boring prose that bored into no place in my brain. I tried to stay awake and compiled copious notes in my chicken-scratch cursive in my lined paper notebooks. I doodled on the pages where I tried to sketch—like stick women and men—the people in my class, a bunch of pre-law, philosophy, or business majors.
At test time, I’d go to the bookstore and buy the little “blue books”, cheap paper with flimsy white pages between pale blue covers where I’d regurgitate all the notes I’d written down in the class—if I could remember them—if I could recall my scribbled notes.
I’d learned that about the learning process. A lot of my profs—the ones who taught stuff like philosophy, political science, and basic economics—preened themselves in their imaginations, or so I imagined, when you regurgitated onto the flimsy blue books required for exams the exact words they’d pontificated.
But the CPA lawyer’s drones were hard to capture. The paragraphs crooned and you swooned and you dozed, your eyelids like doors slipping shut and your attention like a hazy dream.
And then one morning in the late days of the semester he jumped up and smacked his big flat hand on the top of his desk and screamed, “And what the fuck I mean is!” The heads of my classmates jerked and a chorus of “Huh?” rose from their mouths. Suddenly alert, I figured he’d changed character to ensure we understood what Mill meant and what Mill’s adversaries meant, and how it all played out in law and the constitution of the United States.
Standing with a contorted face, his shoulders thrown back, the prof reminded me of a mean drill instructor I might have had at Marine Corps Recruit Depot in 1966. He was, for that moment, monstrous.
Something about his eruption, and about him, the professor, resonated with me.
I mean, how often did one hear that word “fuck” blast out of the mouth of a stuff-shirted CPA lawyer college professor in the 1970s, and one so dull he could cause you to dream while sitting at a desk?
Later that day, I laughed. And I laughed that afternoon as I headed back home, the forty-five miles to my house. And I still laugh.
Except for John Stuart Mill, I have forgotten the names of all those other lawyers and philosophers that came up in that class, but I haven’t forgotten that “And what the fuck I mean is!”