I’m finally a number 4. Not a pencil – is that even a thing? No, I’ve finally reached number 4 on the scale of evolution according to my former, formidable and frightening 4’5″, septo/octo(?)genarian Russian professor, Evgenia Khukharenko.
Dr. Khukharenko came as a visiting oral Russian instructor my senior year of college, and I had class with her 5 days a week, as you did if you were a Russian language major in your final year. During that same time, I had also mysteriously contracted the hiccups, but not just occasional, almost unnoticeable hiccups; no, I had them every day, convulsively and painfully. I saw any number of doctors and specialists and was finally at the end of my tether when the last doctor I visited told me to start keeping a diary of when they began and ended each day – something that should have been common sense from the outset and which inevitably solved the riddle: I developed the hiccups each day before I went into her class out of stress, they intensified during class, and then stuck with me until well after dinner each evening. So it’s hardly any wonder that when she was one of two professors chosen to review and grade my senior thesis, I quickly descended into fits of what could almost be described as rhythmic hiccups.
I actually received my final, graded thesis back from my senior seminar professor, who was also my advisor and the other one to judge it, and who proudly awarded me an A-. The subject was my theory that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and our subsequent funding of rebels to fight against them in perhaps the last of our actual proxy wars would end up creating and arming a new generation of jihadis who would eventually turn against us. This was in 1994. Anyway, usually known for his verbose and direct criticism, in this case he made only two comments: 1) please use your intelligence for purposes of good, not evil and 2) go see Dr. Khukharenko as she has something she wishes to share with you.
Cue the hiccups. I made my way over to the building wherein the Russian department offices were housed, and up the narrow stone staircase, hoping all the way that she would not be there and that I could then sail through the intervening few more days until graduation without having to see her. But just as karma has been punishing me for bad behavior since age seven, it was again there on that day to ensure I reaped what I had sewn in terms of the maelstrom of a student I had proven to be not only to her in my senior year, but indeed throughout my entire life. Over the years I had done any number of things that should have seen me kicked out of school permanently. I had built small, ash-producing incendiary devices twice in high school and once in grammar school and all three times under the guise of a “project,” to irritate and inconvenience the teacher of the class in question. I had only attended high school 2.7 days per week on average for my four years (according to my school’s vice principal), and had taken every opportunity to torture every teacher or authority figure along the way whom I deemed to be weak or vulnerable. I was a nightmare.
So perhaps my fear of dear Evgenia wasn’t so much anything she had done to me – she hadn’t, she was just tough – and was more to do with the fact that I sensed in her this need to put me straight on behalf of every teacher I had ever encountered since age five. And that she did, but in a way unlike any other I had ever experienced. She did not shout, she did not even scold. Instead, she expressed that she was disappointed in me because I was my own worst enemy and the sole barrier to realizing my own potential. She did so in less than ten minutes, with aid of the above diagram.
She explained it to me like this.
Number 1 is a person with a flat top and a sharp bottom; they are in the worst possible situation in that they have nothing going on upstairs, and also have a sharp bottom that disables them from being able to sit down, sit still and work hard.
Number 2 with their flat top and bottom is similarly limited in the intellectual area, but has the discipline and ability to sit down, do the work and focus methodically on moving forward.
Number 3 is sharp on top and bottom, but in spite of – or perhaps because of – their mental acuity, they do not have the desire or ability to sit still and apply themselves or their given mental talent.
Number 4 is the ideal, with their sharp top and flat bottom. They have ample mental faculties and also the ability and discipline to sit still and apply those gifts.
That day, she pointed to number 3 and said to me, essentially, that this represented me, but to an extreme. I was so bright that not only did I not have the desire to sit still, but I actually didn’t have to, at least not in that stage of my life. I could skate through things others couldn’t; skip classes, misbehave, create the most elaborate excuses – pretty much anything I wanted – and still make the grades. Whereas this may sound like some version of praise, sitting there it was perfectly clear to me that she was trying to warn me against becoming a cautionary tale, because the only thing that equalled or perhaps surpassed my intellect was my mischief. God knows how close I came, on many occasions, to becoming the poster child for a multitude of different cautionary tales. Perhaps the only things that saved me were my brutal honesty and refusal to compromise my standards by doing anything whatsoever in a manner that I consider to be “less than,” and Dr. Khukharenko’s prescient and stern talk with me on my last day of college.
Three and a half years ago, my son started school at my alma mater. The day I dropped him off, I decided to go see the head of Russian department, who had been my written Russian professor for the entire four years I was there. She also happens to be Dr. Khukharenko’s daughter. But my professor – despite the fact that I have truly hardly changed – did not remember me. More upsetting was the fact that there were only six of us in our class our entire senior year; I saw this woman every day for a year, and at least three days a week for the three years prior to that. And she remembered every other of the five people in my class, as I brought them up one by one, in hope of jogging her memory.
Only when I began speaking Russian and said to her in our mutual language, “my Russian name was Margarita,” did I finally see the light of familiarity appear in her eyes. She looked and me and said, very boldly for a woman of her soft spoken nature, “Margarita – I would never have recognized you. You’ve finally grown up. My mother would be so proud.”