When I was in college, majoring in English, I had this really eccentric professor that I actually took three classes with. He wasn’t my favorite professor, but I liked him fairly well, and I actually took more classes with him than with any other professor in my college years. I’ll call him Ernie.
Ernie was a rail thin man who was in his mid to late fifties, with a shock of gray hair and a mustache. He wore dress shirts and slacks with cowboy boots and a cowboy tie – you know what I mean, one of those thin little garrots of braided leather with some kind of stone, usually turquoise, where a knot would be on a conventional tie.
He used to read us passages from great poems and the Romantics and Transcendentalists interspersed with these tragic little vignettes from his life. He would then pretend to cry until he fell into a kind of giddy giggling like a teenage girl. He would do this with his hand over his mouth as if he were self-conscious about his own self deprecation. Come to think of it, he laughed a little like Ernie from Sesame Street.
The stories from his own life usually involved some kind of humiliation in love, an unrequited love gone just this side of stalkerdom. I vaguely remember a story about a dozen long stemmed red roses left on some woman’s windshield in a parking lot. If I had been any older or more worldly I probably would have found this appropriately creepy. However, I found it charming in a pathetic sort of way, and I felt for the guy.
Once, when I was taking a required class on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales we were happily interrupted (I hate reading that shit in the original Middle English; who decided this book was a classic? It’s nothing but a bunch of unintelligible dirty jokes and a scathing criticism of the Catholic Church). There was a mad woman roaming the halls. The Chaucer class was not taught by Ernie, but this involves Ernie.
A grey haired woman in a hospital gown was walking around the halls of the Liberal Arts College, screaming, “Ernie!” repeatedly at the top of her lungs. My professor walked out into the hall and calmed her down, closed our classroom door and escorted her somewhere. I can’t make this shit up.
The woman, as it turns out, was a friend of Ernie’s who had escaped from the state mental hospital. The university I attended actually changed its name while I was going to school there, in part, because it was frequently mistaken for the same mental hospital. There was really no doubt from her ramblings that she and Ernie had been lovers and drinking buddies. I wondered if she was in the mental hospital because she’d pickled her brain from all the liquor, which is a distinct possibility.
Maybe a semester or a year or so later, I am again taking a class with Ernie. One day I am abruptly no longer taking a class with Ernie. A note is written in chalk on the blackboard, and we are all told that the head of the English department is now going to be teaching our class. Nothing more is officially said regarding the matter, but the rumor is that Ernie has been fired for sexual harassment. I don’t believe that rumor. This is the third class I have taken with this man, and I have never seen him do anything inappropriate, and I cannot believe the world is picking on this poor, fragile man.
That very semester, the head of our English department invited the hotshot author, Ethan Canin to read to us from his new book of short stories. At the reception afterward, I am standing next to a freckled red head in her thirties who was also in my class with Ernie. We’re leaning against a window, watching everyone grab punch and cheap sandwich cookies and attempt to swarm around wunderkind book writer. So, in typical Gooseberry fashion, I proceed to open mouth and insert foot by telling this woman that I think it’s a shame about all this nonsense about Professor Ernie.
And that’s when I learn that the mild mannered, freckled red headed woman from my class is the one that’s brought the charges against him. She’s not the first woman to do so. She just happens to be the first woman to be either smart enough or fortunate enough to get him to repeat his advances with a witness present. Ernie has taken numerous sabatticals for just this reason (previous sexual harassment allegations), as well as some big, big mental problems, which probably explains where he met his schizophrenic friend.
Apparently, he was straight out offering grades for sex, and he called her one day to repeat his proposition, and she happened to have a friend at home who overheard his end of the phone conversation. And that was the end of Professor Ernie’s academic career at State Mental Hospital University.
Later, Professor Ernie sued the school for libel for supposedly ruining his reputation because he couldn’t get another teaching job, and I think he at least got a settlement out of the deal. Your tax dollars at work, folks.