Professor Dawn Canterbury walked into the first class of the semester as she always did. She set her briefcase down on the desk, took off her raincoat, folded it in half two times, placed it on the seat of the chair, took three red markers from her pocket and made sure they were all red—one time, she accidentally grabbed blue markers from her desk at home by mistake, and she absolutely hated writing in blue. After assuring herself that they were red, she walked up to the board, wrote “GEN/LIT 111” and proceeded to address the class as she always did.
“Some of you are freshman, while others are beginning your final semester. Regardless, this will be an equally rigorous course for all of you. You will be challenged critically on not only your ability to read and write, but on your general knowledge as well. Let’s begin, shall we?” she said, picking up the list of registered students to take attendance.
A girl in the second row sat up straight and raised her hand, “Here.”
“Greetings Ms. Bonnevale,” said professor Canterbury, putting a check next to Meredith’s name. “Jackson Cauldwell?”
In the back, an older student wearing a sweatshirt and a baseball hat raised two of his fingers like he was waving for a cab, “Right here. And if you wouldn’t mind, I prefer to go by ‘Jax.’ Jackson sounds too much like my father.”
The class snickered. Professor Canterbury looked at him, “Thank you Mr. Cauldwell. Out of this classroom you may go by whichever name you prefer, but while you are on my time, you will go by the name on this sheet. And please remove that cap; this is not the baseball diamond.” Jax nodded at the professor, took off his hat and ruffled his shaggy, brown hair.
After attendance was taken, Professor Canterbury walked back to the board and wrote in large, cursive handwriting: “Ignorance is the curse of God; knowledge is the wing wherewith we fly to heaven.” She then began, “Can anybody tell me what knowledge is?”
The class fell silent. Many of the students looked down at their desks, hoping to appear invisible. In the second row, Meredith Bonnevale, with a pleased expression, raised her hand in a perfect, vertical line, without the slightest bend in the elbow or any of the fingers.
Professor Canterbury smiled, “Go ahead Ms. Bonnevale.”
Meredith let out an exhale of relief, “Thank you Professor. Knowledge is familiarity or conversance, as with a particular subject or branch of learning.”
“That is correct, Ms. Bonnevale. Very well said.”
In the back of the classroom Jax made a ‘hmpf’ sound to himself and shook his head disapprovingly, folded his arms on the desk and put his head down to rest his eyes. But as he did so, Professor Canterbury called out, “Is something funny, Mr. Cauldwell?”
Jax looked up surprised, but receptive, “No, Professor…sorry…nothing is funny.”
“Well, you seem to find something amusing. Don’t exclude the rest of the class. Why don’t you share your source of humor so we can all share a laugh.”
“Um,” he hesitated, but decided to continue, “alright. Well, first you wrote one of Billy Shakespeare’s lines up there, and don’t get me wrong, I love the Bard, but then she quoted the dictionary, like, word for word and…I dunno…it just seems funny to me. I mean, we’re supposedly discussing knowledge, right? Like we’re philosophers or something—but nobody is using any. They’re just quoting other people’s thoughts on it. It’s kind of funny, you know?”
The classroom vibrated with the low rumble of comedic relief at Jax’s comment. But then it immediately ceased as the professor addressed Jax.
Professor Canterbury folded her arms and said, with an air of jest, “No, Mr. Cauldwell, I do not know. But since you seem to be so informed on the subject, please, let us hear what you believe knowledge to be.”
“I didn’t say I’m more informed. I just said memorizing something doesn’t make it knowledge. I dunno...knowledge is a paradox.”
The room squeaked and vibrated from some of the other students turning in their chairs to look at Jax. He relished in it though, like a songwriter singing to their largest audience—with the complete balance of nerve and excitement.
“How very philosophical of you, Mr. Cauldwell, thank you for that. Moving forward…” she continued, but Jax cut her off,
“I mean, it’s just like heroin.”
She stared at him, eyes squinting, not blinking. Her hands slowly moved to her hips. Jax did not continue. He waited for her to respond. Unsure if she would, he sat there, not speaking, not smiling, not pushing forward, but making sure to keep eye contact. To ease his own anxiety of pushing another professor too far, he unfolded his arms, put his right foot on his left knee, interlocked his fingers together and rested his hands in front of him on the desk in an attempt to come off as politely as he could.
“Interesting thought,” she acknowledged, “and how do you suppose knowledge could be related to a heroine such as Jane Eyre, per say?”
The class slowly turned again to look at Jax as he responded.
“No,” he said, calmly, raising his hands to gesture up and down like a maestro arranging his symphony, “not heroine like a female hero. Heroin like the drug-- without the e. Knowledge does what heroin does when it goes from the eye of the needle, through your flesh, through your muscle, and then in your veins, you know?”
“Oh for goodness sake,” she rebuked, “that’s enou—” but Jax’s voice rose to speak over her.
“It starts out incredible. You get high and feel like you are capable of anything. But after that’s gone, it becomes disheartening. It sucks the life out of you. I mean, it doesn’t just, like,take the wind out of your sails; it takes the power of the wind out of the universe. It leaves ships stranded at sea with nothing to eat or drink but rum and sand, until the time comes when the sailors eat each other. That’s what knowledge does. The more you read, the more you learn, the more things make sense, and then the worse it gets. The more you know, the harder it becomes to be happy, the harder it becomes to believe in anything at all. Like Ernie Hemingway said, ‘Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing there is.’ I mean, look at what all the supposed knowledge did to him.”
“Okay, Mr. Cauldwell, enough,” and she began to recite one of her favorite lines when a student tried to overpower her, “Who you are speaks so loudly I can't even hear what you're saying.”
But Jax answered her, “You aren’t even listening to me. If you’re going to throw out Emerson like you’re a student of his, then you should at least know his thoughts, you know? Like, how about us right now? As he said, ‘The secret of education lies in respecting the pupil. It’s not for you to choose what he shall know, what he shall do?’”
The class fell silent. Other students oscillated their looks from professor Canterbury to Jax, in both humor and reverence to the tension building in the room.
Jax continued before professor Canterbury could get a word in, “It seems it happens to all the brilliant minds, you know? Knowledge becomes unbearable. And the understanding of, like, how awful the world is, how terrible people usually are, it becomes so addicting that you can’t help yourself. You simply can’t stop. You have to learn more and more because you feel like you don’t know anything at all. And the more you learn the more miserable you get. It’s like the only formula for happiness is: Stay ignorant, stay unintelligent, stay happy. But you can’t do that. Knowledge makes you want to be as intelligent and knowledgeable on more and more and more. So you constantly ask yourself, why do we do this? Why do we read and write and try to figure out what all of this is for if it’s going to make us miserable? Maybe we’ve learned too much, you know, maybe we’ve gone too far? I don’t know, do you?” But he didn’t wait long enough for her to respond.
He continued, with even more conviction. “So why not just stop right? Yeah…quit learning anything. Quit it all cold turkey; quit reading and learning and just be happy. Take what you’ve learned and go on the rest of your life with that knowledge. Sounds pretty good, right? You’ll be smarter than most people. But you can’t. You can’t just quit heroin. Your body, your nervous system, your life depends on it now. So you try to wean yourself off, slowly killing yourself, but slowly staying alive at the same time. Until there’s that one time where you think you’re strong enough, think you can outsmart the smartest minds, and decide to give it a whirl one last time. It’ll be different this time, you’ll control your happiness more…or so you say. But you don’t. Of course you don’t. Don’t misunderstand me-- who doesn’t want to get more and more knowledge? Who doesn’t like the learning, or feeling like they’re a step above everybody else in the barroom? I know I do. And it’s not because I’m arrogant, it’s because I’m honest. It makes everybody happy to feel smart. That’s what we all want, isn’t it? To be happy? And think about it: Nobody says they hate heroin, they just say they hate getting off it. Anyway, that’s my take.”
The class was completely silent. Students looked at Jax for a few seconds and then turned around to face professor Canterbury, wondering how she would react. But she didn’t really do anything; she just stared directly at Jax, deadpanned.
“Thank you for that, Mr. Cauldwell,” she said, calmly.
“Anytime, professor,” Jax said smiling and nodding to some of his classmates for their approval. “Thanks for listening.”
“Now,” she said, raising her right hand and pointing toward the door, “please leave my classroom.”