It was a beautiful spring day, so our class, which met at 2:30 p.m., was supposed to be held outside, in a plaza outside the academic building.
There was just one problem.
It was now 2:40, and our professor, who also ran the English department, hadn’t shown up.
Which was unusual, because he was always on time.
Not only that, but there was a rule – though I don’t think I ever saw it written down – that said that if a professor didn’t show up on time, the students were free to leave after the 10-minute-late point unless the professor, like ours, had a doctorate. Then we had to wait an additional five minutes.
I think our professor made it with about two minutes to spare.
“Sorry to be late,” he said, “but George Hampden accidentally set his wastebasket on fire and I was helping him put it out.”
And we all laughed because we knew this was the kind of thing that could happen to Dr. Hampden (whose name I have changed here), back in the days when it was not unusual for professors to smoke in their offices.
And this wasn’t the first time that we or any other students laughed at something that happened to Dr. Hampden – or even laughed at the mention of his name.
The story on campus was that Dr. Hampden didn’t have to teach, that he was a Boston Brahmin, a man of independent means. He was also a bachelor and lived across the street from the college in one of many apartment buildings in a complex that was beginning to go to seed.
I suppose you could say that Dr. Hampden was beloved by his students, but not in the same way that Mr. Chips was. The accounting students loved him and always picked his classes for their required English courses because he was an easy A.
And he often cut his own classes.
Each semester, after the first couple of weeks, the “cut board” outside the registrar’s office would bear a sign reading “Dr. Hampden will not meet with his classes today.” Within the next few weeks this sign would reappear more frequently.
Finally, and perhaps at a point in the semester when he felt he wanted to avoid the wrath of the academic dean (whose office was just down the hall from the registrar’s office), Dr. Hampden would sneak across the street to the college, find his classroom, pick up a piece of chalk and write, well, you guessed it.
When I was a junior I took two classes from him. I don’t remember any of his lectures, but I do remember that he would always start the semester with a prayer and that when he made the sign of the cross he’d say “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost,” which seemed quaint and old-fashioned at a time when Catholics almost universally had begun to refer to that third entity as the Holy Spirit.
The first course was about the age of Samuel Johnson. At one point, all the students had to do a presentation on some aspect of Johnson’s life and era. Dr. Hampden assigned the topics, and though I now couldn’t remember my topic if my life depended on it, I do recall that the student who was assigned the topic of Food and Drink brought in some wine. She doubtless received an A++.
Around this time I was told that I had been chosen for the Departmental Honors program. This meant that I was to do a special project for one of my English classes in each semester of my junior year, along with a yearlong project for my senior year.
The only English class I was taking that semester was Dr. Hampden’s, so I approached him one day in his office and told him I had been tapped for Departmental Honors.
“Congratulations, dear boy!”
I then awkwardly asked him what special project he wanted me to work on.
“Oh, just keep doing what you’re doing, dear boy!”
For a long time I felt mildly guilty about not doing a special project that semester, but Dr. Hampden had taken the matter out of my hands.
And though it’s almost 40 years later, I can still see him in that office that day: a short, chunky man sitting at his desk, hunched over it, a cigarette in one hand, a desk lamp casting a dim light – it might as well have been a shadow – on his weathered face.
He was obviously – I realize now – hung over, and with supreme good manners, he was trying to get me out of his office.
During the next semester, while I was doing my honors project for another professor’s class, I took Dr. Hampden’s other elective course, Restoration Drama, which he himself referred to as “Dirty Plays,” and with good reason. The other students and I spent most of the classes reading scenes from the racy plays at our desks. He seemed to enjoy that.
I never really got to know Dr. Hampden, and after graduation I didn’t see him for years until one day, when I was taking the bus downtown to my job at the newspaper and saw him crossing a busy intersection with a pleasantly oblivious – perhaps dangerously oblivious – look on his face.
On several occasions I saw him in the food court at the downtown mall. I’m not sure I ever saw him eat anything; I do remember seeing him with that same mildly happy, buzzed look on his face.
He had retired by this time, and he apparently had nowhere else to go. I never knew whether he had any family back in Boston or what he did with his time when he wasn’t getting a buzz on.
I never approached him. Chances are that he wouldn’t have remembered me anyway, though he probably would have had the good breeding to at least pretend he knew who I was.
And as I myself got older I would think about that day in his office when he obviously didn’t feel that well, and I would wonder what his life was like, if it was like anything much at all, despite all the money he was supposed to have had.
Was he filled with regrets? Was there someone special in his life whom he’d let “get away”? Or who had broken off with him? Was he always self-conscious about his height?
Did he drink to forget? Or did he just drink?
Whatever his past, or present, in the food court he seemed happy enough.
Maybe he originally started drinking to forget, and maybe now, years later, he was blissfully beyond the point of forgetting.
One day Dr. Hampden’s obliviousness apparently proved fatal – he was struck while walking in the road.
One of his colleagues – my old professor who helped him put out that wastebasket fire – said it was a blessing. He didn’t go into detail.
I suppose I could try to say something facile and clichéd about Dr. Hampden – how, even later in life, he taught me something. Except that I’m not sure he taught me anything much aside from an appreciation for Samuel Johnson and his times, and those “dirty plays” – and perhaps, now that I think of it, a further appreciation for the mysteries behind every human heart.