“Professor Yu?” chirped a female voice.
Hector Yu looked up from the lecture hall computer console toward the sound of the voice which had thus addressed him.
On the other side of the podium, flanked by two other young women with similarly expectant faces, a young woman stood, looking at him intently. Hector could see it in their eyes, read it on their lips, smell it on their breath. Don’t do it, he thought. Walk away from me right now and don’t do it.
“Hi professor,” said the leader, when she saw that she had Hector’s attention. “We’re on the girls’ soccer team, and” – Hector braced himself – “we need an extension.”
“As I explained at the beginning of class and in the syllabus,” replied Hector, willing himself to remain calm, “it’s your responsibility to be in class for the midterm, unless you experience a medical emergency.”
“Absolutely,” said sidekick number one. “Totally makes sense. But we can’t be here. We have a tournament out of town, and we’re leaving the day before.”
Hector opened his mouth to point out that a soccer tournament was not a medical emergency, but decided to save his breath.
“I’m not saying you’ll get to write the midterm another time,” he warned the girls, “but if you write down your names and email addresses for me, I’ll think about it.”
“Thanks professor,” said the leader, as she jotted down the required information. As she and her peers left the front of the lecture hall Hector heard sidekick number two say, “Well, I’m glad that’s settled.”
Hector sighed, disheartened. She was right, of course: it was settled. In spite of his clearly stated policy, in spite of his insistence that thinking about it was no guarantee, and in spite of his deep repugnance for the action, Hector knew that tonight, or tomorrow, or the next day, he would email the three girls and reschedule their exam. That was always how it ended, and it seriously depressed him.
Hector Yu – ambidextrous mechanical engineer, talented amateur artist, chair of the departmental curriculum committee and fifth-generation Chinese-Canadian, was sick to death of making exceptions.
It was always something, with the students. As a general rule he liked them, and he enjoyed passing on the skills and principles which would make them the next generation of engineers doing useful things for society. Hector was the kind of person who liked to feel he was making a contribution, and teaching (at least on good days) made him feel that way.
The problem was all the exceptions. No sooner would Hector inform the class that all students must submit their assignments at the start of lecture than a hand would shoot up and someone would demand an alternative. Hector hated being put on the spot like that, because he knew it was a test: would he stick to his policy, or bend a little? And if he bent for one, how many others could take advantage of the loophole he created?
Within the past two weeks, Hector had fielded pleas for assignment extensions, “rolling” grading, deferred quizzes, make-up quizzes, and access to his lecture notes from three weeks earlier. They came from students who were presently sick, previously sick, expected to be sick in future, or knew someone who was sick. They were accompanied by tales of varsity athletic travel commitments, classes missed due to paid employment, family weddings in India, malfunctioning computers, runaway siblings, apartment break-ins, and tropical vacations.
Cumulatively, it all made Hector want to scream: “What does this have to do with mechanical engineering, and when did it become my problem?!” As a student himself, school had come first – full stop. If there was a deadline, he met it. If there was a quiz or exam, he wrote it on the assigned day. He was in class every time it met, and he took his own notes. Sometimes that meant that he missed family events, or studied all night, or went to the library alone instead of to the bar with friends. But now, as a professor, Hector realized that his approach was no longer the norm. It seriously irked him.
Back when he was first hired, at least once a week he used to launch into tirades on the subject in the faculty lounge. He would start placidly enough, but as he warmed to his subject, his voice would rise and his body tense up, until his eyes were bulging, the veins in his neck were visibly throbbing, and he was flailing his arms like a demagogue dictator in an old black and white newsreel from the 1930s. After a soft-spoken female colleague gently took him aside one afternoon and told him that he was not only scaring her but also damaging his tenure prospects, Hector ceased these weekly performances. Now, he channelled his frustration into his dreams.
In these dreams, Hector was the Jackie Chan of engineering professors, kicking and spinning and striking all impertinent undergraduates who dared to ask for a special exception to the rules. Hector particularly enjoyed the dreams where he made witty comments while fending off students with well-aimed jump kicks. In dreamland, this combination of intelligence, wit, and physical prowess – not to mention his take-no-prisoners approach to rule enforcement – always won him the heart of the dark-eyed executive assistant for the mechanical engineering department, Amina Sanwar. Hector had adored Amina from afar for years, and lived in constant fear that one day she would transfer into the Dean’s office and out of his daily life.
But Hector was no Jackie Chan, Amina had never burst into his classroom to declare her undying love for him, and he was almost positive that both the faculty of engineering and the wider university frowned upon jump-kicking and karate-chopping one’s students. He had never found an explicit mention of it in any of the university regulations, but it seemed a pretty safe bet. And anyhow, Hector – contrary to the expectations of his childhood friends – had never learned martial arts. At one point he had considered taking up karate as an adult but decided that, once armed with the requisite skills, the temptation to use them would be too great.
The incident which later became known as “Professor Yu’s Seizure” began innocently enough on a Monday morning. As Hector was brushing his teeth after breakfast, he noticed that his cheeks looked a little flushed. Since he felt absolutely normal in every other way he chalked it up to a bit too much sun during the previous afternoon’s marathon dog-walking. He should start wearing sunblock, he decided.
It quickly became apparent, upon Hector’s arrival at the university, that this was not going to be a good day. As he poured himself a cup of coffee in the common room a colleague informed him that the hiring committee – of which Hector was a member – would have to re-evaluate the entire pool of applicants for the department’s one-year position, because all three of the three short-listed candidates had already been hired somewhere else.
Great, thought Hector, just what I need: more meetings.
Instead, what came out of his mouth was: “Jackie Chan doesn’t do meetings.”
Professor Dixon laughed good-naturedly. “That’s the spirit, Hec. A little levity will help ease the drudgery. See you at four-thirty.”
Hector did not fully understand this exchange, but he smiled politely and chalked it up to his colleague’s penchant for obscure references to 1950s science fiction films.
Since he had reviewed his lecture notes and slides the previous afternoon, Hector took advantage of the hour between his conversation with Professor Dixon and his eleven-thirty class to stretch out on the floor of his office and nap. He was now battling mild nausea and a raging headache. He would have cancelled class had it not been so close to the midterm. They had to cover this material. So later, when his cellphone alarm began serenading him with the chorus of the 1980s pop hit “Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting,” Hector dutifully rose from the floor, swallowed a couple of pain pills he found at the bottom of a desk drawer, and made his way to the lecture hall.
The first 45 minutes went reasonably well. He stuck to his notes and the occasional nods of comprehension from a handful of students suggested they were following the concepts successfully. Hector was not entirely sure they saw the connection to Celine Dion, but no matter. That bit was not on the midterm.
Nor did the students seem to mind when he took off his sports jacket and tie at the 20-minute mark. Or his shoes at the 30-minute mark. His spirited impression of the department chair got an appreciative ripple of laughter, and they took it in stride when he announced, in case they hadn’t heard, that there were a lot of dead Johns: John Lennon, John F. Kennedy, and Pope John Paul II, to name just a few.
Where things went noticeably off track was around the 50-minute mark. As they took their 10-minute break in the middle of the two-hour class, Hector opened the audio-visual cabinet below the podium to tinker with the volume on the travelling microphone. As he did so, his gaze fell upon the telephone sitting on the upper shelf of the cabinet. Until that day, Hector had always believed that the initials “T.L.P.” on the handset referred to “Technology Liaison Personnel” – that this phone was provided as a means of reaching technical support in case of problems with the equipment. But today Hector recognized the true meaning of the initials for the first time. There, within reach, was a True Love Phone.
It was the work of a moment to dial the number for the Mechanical Engineering Department and ask for Amina Sanwar.
“Amina,” said Hector gravely, when she answered, “I have something very important to tell you.”
“Okay Hector,” said the cheerful assistant, “shoot.”
“Amina,” repeated Hector, “I have loved you from afar for years. I have loved you with the burning passion that only a mechanical engineer can feel. I have loved you more than Professor Reed loves “Dr. Who,” and I think you know how much she loves that Time Lord. I have loved you truly, madly, deeply, and silently – but I can no longer be silent. I need you to know that I would face a hostile army of ten thousand zombie-werewolf-aliens single-handedly, if it would bring you a moment’s happiness.”
Hector paused for a second or two, unsure of how to top the zombie-werewolf-alien example.
“Okay, bye,” he finished, hanging up.
His declaration of love complete, Hector stood up from behind the cabinet where he had been squatting all this time. As his head cleared the top of the podium he was greeted by a sea of faces all featuring some combination of raised eyebrows, open mouths, or incredulous smirks.
“What?” asked Hector, his voice booming over the speaker system thanks to the still-live travelling microphone pinned to his shirt collar. “Haven’t you ever heard an engineer declare his undying passion to the woman of his dreams? Engineers are lovers, not haters.”
The students’ expressions of surprise gave way to whispered conversations with their neighbours. Then, above the ensuing din, a deep male voice rang out from the second row.
“Sir, could you postpone the midterm by a week or so? A lot of us have a project for another class due that day.”
It was as if Hector was a bull and the student a Spanish matador waving a red flag in his face. Hector-the-bull was enraged. It was clearly time to take a stand. The room was spinning around him, his head felt like it was about to explode, and he was so hot he thought he might pass out.
Peeling off his socks in a frantic, flailing manner, Hector let out a bloodcurdling scream of concentrated rage. From a running start, he bellowed “Jackie Chan postpones no midterms,” executed an awkward cartwheel, and flung his arms and legs about in a vague approximation of martial arts.
“Jackie Chan loathes you all!” he shouted, before collapsing in a heap on the floor beside the recycling bin at the front of the room.
There was an awful silence as 200 students processed what had just taken place, but a studious girl in the fourth row acted quickly.
“Hello, 9-1-1?” she said urgently, cellphone to her ear, “my professor just had a seizure.” A pause. “No, he just told us Jackie Chan loves us, then collapsed on the floor.”
It turned out Hector had both sun stroke and food poisoning, complicated by a nasty reaction to the expired pain pills he had taken earlier in the morning. The hospital kept him overnight for observation and pumped him full of fluids.
Most of the day’s events were hazy when Hector recovered consciousness in the hospital later that afternoon. He was pretty sure he had hallucinated a few things, but he couldn’t tell which ones. He suspected it would be better if none of it had actually taken place.
To Hector’s pleasure, Amina visited him in hospital on behalf of the department. As she pulled a chair over to the side of his bed and sat down, Hector recalled that he may have confessed his love for her that day. By phone. In front of his class. With some kind of zombie reference. He could have cried over the horror of it.
Instead, he swallowed his pride.
“I think I may have done some bizarre things today,” he said. “I hope none of them involved, er, anyone from the department?”
Amina smiled reassuringly. “No, no – nothing at all. The students said you seemed to get overheated in class, and didn’t explain things quite as clearly as usual, but nothing else. You just had a sort of seizure during the break, and fell down unconscious. They phoned for the paramedics.”
Hector sighed with relief. His career was not over. He had not made a complete fool of himself.
Amina chatted with him for half an hour, staying until visiting hours ended. As she stood to leave she unconsciously smiled to herself.
“What?” asked Hector, who was beginning to feel a little drowsy. “What are you smiling about?”
“Nothing at all,” said Amina, recovering quickly, “but I was wondering if you’d like to have lunch with me sometime – once you’re out of hospital, I mean.”
“Just the two of us?”
“Just the two of us.”
“Like … a date?” Hector’s voice began to slur.
“Like a date.”
“Jackie Chan would love to …” Hector mumbled, his mind still a little muddled. His eyes closed against his will.
Amina smiled again, openly this time, and from the doorway blew Hector a kiss he couldn’t see.
Dr. Glassford has taught in the department of history at the University of Prince Edward Island on a contract and sessional basis since 2012. This story won first prize in the 2013 Prince Edward Island Literary Awards.