by David L. Brown
The Psych professor stands at his podium peering at the strange faces before him. All eyes are on him, and he can’t help but feel pride in that. Not a one is doodling or is asleep or is daydreaming. It looks like this is one of the few classes full of minds that want to learn, that want to know all the secrets.
He wants to set the tone up front, so the professor produces the worst sour, stern expression he can. In his gruffest authoritative voice, he says, “We will start our semester with an exam. How you do on this initial exam may very well determine whether or not you pass this course.”
He feels the tension rise as the whole class busies itself pulling out notebooks. Fear seeps into the eyes of many of the students. Even though the students quickly prepare for the assignment, before they can settle down, the professor bellows, “If we are all ready!”
He waits a beat as the room goes silent. He then continues, “Good, then I will begin. This exam has but one question. It is a simple question, one that a preschooler can answer. But I want you to think about it very carefully. Your answer to this question will resonate throughout your time here. It will be the basis for everything that comes after.”
He runs his gaze back and forth across the crowd of students and says, punctuating each syllable with a knock on his podium, “Remember that.”
When he thinks he has built enough anxiety in the room, he says, “My one very important question is… Why?”
The question lingers in the air for several moments before getting any reaction. Some begin to write furiously. Others stare at him with astonishment. A hand tentatively goes up in the back of the room.
“Yes, what is it?” the professor asks.
All eyes turn as a squeaky voice asks, “That’s it, sir? Why?”
“Yes, that is it. Do you have a problem with that?”
“Well, no sir. I guess…”
He cuts the student off, “Then get to work. You can put your hand down too.”
As everyone works to answer his question, the professor watches with admiration. Some students look off to some distant nothing and ponder the question while others begin to write essay answers. And still others look like they are just staring at their paper wondering what they have gotten themselves in to. He keeps a close eye on those.
The professor allows the students that are steadily writing enough time to get about half a page done, and then says, “I’ll give you all another minute.”
Panic strikes many of the face in the crowd. It doesn’t discriminate either. The students writing the essays are sweating just as bad as those who haven’t written anything.
The professor waits the promised minute and then says, “Time! Pencils down. Who has the answer?”
A few hesitant hands go up, and he scans the room looking for one of the essay writers. He points at a young man in the front row, “You, what do you have to say for your self?”
The student gets up and with confidence begins to read what he wrote, “Aristotle said that…”
“Sit down!” the professor barks. “I did not ask what Aristotle’s answer was or anyone else for that matter. I asked for your answer. Anyone else?”
He looks around for another victim. He finds another essay writer and says, “You, young lady. What is your answer?”
The girl stands and begins to provide a thorough analysis of the word why. Before she can get very far though, the professor tells her to sit down.
“Before we go any further,” he exclaims, “let me tell all of you something. Everyone who decided to write an essay on the subject has gotten the answer wrong. Go ahead an get rid of your papers.”
With many groans of bewilderment, papers are wadded up and put away. A few of the students grumble objections, fearing for their future in the class.
The professor puts up a quieting hand and harshly says, “Alright, settle down! This is a very simple question and deserves a very simple answer. Now let us try again.”
He decides to find one of the ponderers. He points to a young man near the end of the third row and says, “You, what is your answer?”
The young man stands and asks, “A simple answer, sir?”
The professor gives one silent nod.
The student swallows, and says, “Well sir, why not?”
“Well, that is a start,” the professor says without enthusiasm. “Who else?”
He points to another student who blurts out, “Because, sir!”
The professor looks blankly at the student for a second and then says, “Yes, I guess that is an answer also. Who else?”
The professor decides to finally end this charade. He points to one of the students who doesn’t have her hand up — one of those who was just staring at her paper during the answer period. It is a young woman who is obviously lost and wondering what she is going to do. The girl notices that she is being pointed out and, with a start, sits up, glances behind her, and then questioningly points to herself.
The professor says, “Yes, you. Please tell us your answer. You remember the question do you not?”
She tentatively stands and says, “Yes sir, but…”
“Yes… Come on. Spit it out,” the professor demands.
With a look of utter hopelessness, she finally answers, “I’m sorry professor, but I just don’t know why.”
With that, the professor relaxes his stern face and smiles. He raises his hands and gives a small elegant ovation.
With pride, he says, “Very good answer.” He then asks, “Do you want to know something?”
Stunned, but with obvious relief, the young lady nods and says, “Um… Yes sir.”
The professor leans forward on his podium and in his most playful voice says, “I don’t know either. How about we explore the question together?”
The young lady smiles and says enthusiastically, “Yes sir!”
The professor turns his attention to the questioning gazes of the rest of the class, some of them with their hands still up. With a bit of a laugh, he says, “You can all put your hands down. I am sorry I put you through so much anxiety, but I wanted to emphasize the importance if this question.”
As the class breaths a collective sigh, he continues, “As I said in the beginning, the answer to this question will resonate throughout your time here and be the basis for everything that comes after. Well, that is true. Everything a scientist does begins with one basic question: Why? The first answer to this basic question is invariably, ‘I don’t know.’ Once you get that out of the way, only then can you begin to explore the possibilities. Welcome to Psych class everyone. As you all probably know, my name is prof…”