Ivy-Covered
 

There was something out of place out there, in the lecture hall. Fergus Clegg, professor of economics, looked up from his notes and paused in mid-lecture, the echoes of his voice dying away among the upper seats.

Yes. Very strange. There, among the students slumped back in their chairs, sleeping open-mouthed, among those sprawled forward on their desks, drooling on their notebooks and with pens dangling from slack hands, among those who had collapsed into the aisles and those upright forms whose only signs of sleep were closed eyes and deep breaths, was an anomaly.

One student was sitting up, eyes open, apparently wide awake.

“In tomorrow’s lecture, then,” Clegg continued, bringing himself back into focus, “we will continue our analysis of the impacts which the macro-economic climate has on both short-term and long-range fiscal policy, and will further scrutinize the contention that the GDP is at best, shall we say, a flawed indicator of per-annum growth.” He took off his glasses to polish them on the handkerchief he kept in his vest pocket then began gathering up his notes to put them back into his briefcase.

The student rose from his seat. “Professor?” He hop-stepped over sleeping bodies and advanced towards Professor Clegg.

The professor hurriedly finished packing up his papers. “Ah, yes?”

The student approached the professor-student barrier, the invisible line that denoted the proper deferential distance.
And crossed it. “I was hoping for a chance to talk to you, about an important matter.”
 
Professor Clegg took a step back. “Certainly, yes. Of course. My office hours…” but what were his office hours? He couldn’t remember. Couldn’t remember the last time a student had come to see him. And there seemed something wrong about this one. Although dressed in the requisite university sweatshirt and baggy jeans, he seemed out of place, as if wearing the clothes as camouflage. He was a bit too old, a little too clean-shaven.

“I wonder if you have a moment to talk, now, professor?”

“Yes, of course. Would you like to come to my office?”

As Professor Clegg exited the classroom, the sleeping forms began to stir. Students rubbed their eyes and stretched, and eventually found the energy to rise.

“I beg your pardon, young man, but I don’t seem to recall your name.” Professor Clegg settled into his chair. He got up again immediately, and began shifting books from the seat of the other chair in the room, opposite his desk. He’d forgotten it was there.

“As a matter of fact, Professor, I’m not a student here.” The young man helped Clegg move the last of the books, then pulled the chair up to the desk. Clegg resumed his own seat.

“I see.”

“My name is Wright, Professor Clegg. Jason Wright. As you see, I am not what I appear to be.” The young man passed a business card to the professor. His hand was shaking, vibrating.

Clegg peered down at the card. “Oh, my,” he said. He turned the card over and looked at the back. “I don’t think I am familiar with this department. Are you part of Homeland Security?”

“In a manner of speaking,” Wright said. “I’m afraid I’m not really at liberty to tell you much more sen sat. More than that.” He worked his tongue around his mouth and swallowed hard.

“My, my,” Clegg said, scratching his balding scalp. “Well, I can’t imagine what could bring you to talk to me, Mr. Wright.”
 
“Let me get right to the point, Professor. I don’t have much time.” Wright passed a sleeve over his sweating forehead. “Professor Clegg, your government needs your unique services.”

“Services? I suppose, as some kind of economic analyst?”

“No, Professor. There are thousands who can analyze economic trends. We’re more interested in your unique ability. There, you’re one of a kind.”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

Wright held out his hand for the card, and Clegg returned it. “Surely you have noticed, Professor, that mere minutes into your lectures the entire population of your class falls asleep?”

“Ah, yes. Students today–I blame the video games. They stay up all night playing, I am told.”
 
“One or two people dropping off, that would be normal. OK, in an economics class, maybe six or seven. But the entire class? Every time? Professor, can you tell me, when is the last time you spoke at a departmental function here at the university?”

“Oh. I can’t really say. I’m fortunate in that I have been excused from those duties, so I can concentrate on my classes, and my own researches.”

“From what I have gathered, when you used to speak at these functions, everyone else there would doze off.”

“They may have. Educators are chronically sleep-deprived, so it’s not surprising.” Clegg sat up straighter. “Mr. Wright, it seems you’ve been investigating me quite thoroughly.”

Wright wiped his forehead again, and Clegg noticed the young man was taking quick, shallow breaths. “Yes, Professor. We have. When the initial reports came in, we were skeptical. But we had to make sure. And now we have.”

“Made sure of what, Mr. Wright? I am absolutely confounded by your interest in me.”

“Professor, as I said, you have a unique ability, an inborn talent. One that your government would like to put to use in the defense of the nation.” Wright fidgeted in his chair.

“An inborn talent? Mr. Wright, I’m afraid you’re—“

“You’re boring, Professor.”

Clegg raised his eyebrows. “Well!” He essayed a slight chuckle. “Admittedly, I’m not the life of many parties, but—“

“I don’t mean just boring,” Wright continued. “Not boring in any normal sense of the word. You are stupendously boring, incredibly boring, spectacularly boring. Obviously, any good college professor could lecture on and on about the intricacies of the paint removers used in post-colonial suburban neighborhoods in the Lesser Antilles, and send the students into a daze. But you, Professor! You could give a short talk–with accompanying video footage–about the secret life of a bisexual nymphomaniac cheerleader, and the students would still nod off. Now that, Professor, is real power!”

“Hmmm.” Clegg crossed his arms over his chest. “I suppose you are trying to compliment me in some way,” he said, “but I do think you may be exaggerating. And, in fact, I have taken steps to liven up my lectures a bit, in any case. I have now started to incorporate PowerPoint presentations in my talks, and I am mulling over the notion of modulating my voice in some way. Two weeks ago, by way of illustration—”

Wright had begun to sag in his chair. He rubbed vigorously at his face and finally slapped the table. “Professor! Please! I’ve taken a near-lethal dose of amphetamines, just to keep me awake through our conversation, but your talk is affecting even me! For the love of God, shut up!”

“Sorry.”

Wright rubbed his face once more. “I didn’t mean to shout. Please excuse me. But Professor, surely you recognize your power. We doubt that you can even do much to mitigate its effects. And we don’t want you to! Professor, come with me. We can refine your abilities, develop them further. In our underground labs we have a woman who can enrage listeners with a hello. Another guy brings about uncontrollable weeping in everyone who hears him speak. They are used in certain highly-secret missions that safeguard our very way of life.

“Professor, we want you on our team. Your country needs you.”

Clegg bit his lower lip in concentration.

“What do you say, Professor? Are you with us? Are you ready to serve your country?”

Clegg gazed into his steepled fingers, then looked up at Wright. “I’m flattered that you have asked me to join a team with such exceptional members,” he said. He cleared his throat. “However, I feel that I best serve my country exactly where I presently am. At the university.”

“Professor, your country—“

“I understand that our nation needs its spies and saboteurs and whatnot,” Clegg said. “But it needs more than that to stay strong. It needs an educated populace. And all that you say about my powers does nothing but further persuade me that this is my place. This is where I must be.”

“Your students sleep through every lecture! How much education—“

“Your point is well taken. But education, Mr. Wright, is not something that can, or should, be bestowed upon slack-jawed dilettantes who go through the motions because they want to make money somewhere down the line. No. A real education is something that must be fought for, pursued through thickets and thorns, wrestled gasping to the ground. Professors like me, you must understand, perform a vital service. We are the walls, so to speak, that protect the ivory tower. Students fling themselves against us, and batter themselves bloody in doing so. Most leave--dejected, failed, unequal to the task. But those few, those precious few who survive, who scale the walls, who through sheer determination and willpower seize an education – ah, Mr. Wright! Those few have earned their success, and are now ready to take up places in the pantheon of leaders and thinkers. I had a student eleven – no, twelve – years ago. He stayed awake nearly every class. He’s up for the Nobel Prize this year.

“Yes, Mr. Wright, it is for this reason that I will stay here. And just let me say, Mr. Wright, that your coming here today has given me a renewed sense of purpose, a new certainty, that–Mr. Wright? Young man?”
 
But Mr. Wright had slumped in his chair, and his breaths came even, deep, and slow.

“Hmmm.” Professor Clegg, Guardian of the Flame, smiled with quiet satisfaction and began planning his next lesson.