Authors: W. Bruce Cameron
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For my mother, Monsie Cameron, who has been on my side every step of the way
TERRITORY OF THE NORTHERN CREEDS
At exactly 9:00
the uniformed guards at the back of the room pulled every door shut in muscular coordination, a metallic clang echoing throughout the college lecture hall. The security men were grinning: maintaining the peace on a liberal arts campus mostly consisted of tolerating unruly students while keeping them approximately in line, so this exercise, an annual ritual, gave them a fleeting sense of order triumphing over chaos.
The loud crash of the doors had startled the conversations into silence, and now the students arrayed in the stadium-style seats sat with their necks twisted toward the back of the room to see what was going on. Immediately a loud and urgent pounding of fists on metal proclaimed the desperate despair of those who hadn't made it inside in time for class. Then, after just a moment, the pummeling abruptly halted, as the guards on the other side of the double doors told the late arrivals they were tardy and therefore had to exit the building.
It was the first class of the first day of the first semester for these freshmen. Prompt attendance was strictly required.
Welcome to college.
Dr. James K. Morbyâ“Morby the Mortician,” as he wasn't supposed to know he was calledâbroke from the shadows at the back of the stage and strode briskly to the podium. He wore a crisp blue suit, a white shirt, and a tight necktie, an outfit he'd don for just this first week before slipping into his more habitual plaid shirt and baseball cap. There was a purpose to his clothing, for the careful way his sparse brown hair was combed back, for the clean shave he'd applied to his baby-faced cheeks, for the stern glare in his normally folksy hazel eyes. It was all costumed and choreographed to turn these kids from high school students into college students. Morby had just three classes over the next week to get it done.
“The reason,” he intoned into his microphone, “that you have been assigned seats is so that I may call on you by name.”
Morby waited, watching the students glance at each other before they uneasily rearranged themselvesâwho knew the seating chart was serious? Morby spotted a bank of empty chairs and then glanced at the screen in front of him. “Thus when I call on Mr. Broshâare you here, Mr. Brosh? Kevin Brosh? No, you are not here. But had you been here, I would have been looking directly at you.”
Morby paused and savored his mental image of Brosh's friends telling him that Morby had been
looking for him in class
. Mr. Brosh would not be absent again.
Morby let them mull that one over. He knew that the freshmen who had by plan or chance arrived early enough to clear security and make it to the lecture were feeling a bit smug about themselves at the moment, and he knew their smugness wouldn't last much longer.
Freshman orientation had taken most of the weekend. Then Sunday afternoon, yesterday, parents had tearfully departed and the students had seized their new independence and ridden it hard into the night. Most of the eyes regarding him now were blurry and unfocused, shimmering with fatigue and hangovers. They'd caroused, they'd pursued fornication, they'd approached ceramic bowls on humble hands and kneesâthey thought they had college figured out.
It was up to Morby to slap that notion out of their heads. This was the only 101-level class required for all incoming freshmen, and the only one that accelerated to full speed from the first momentâthe other professors mostly ran through their syllabi and passed out materials the initial few days, waiting for Morby the Mortician to work his magic.
“Your reading assignment is the first five chapters of your textbook on the Upper Paleolithic.” It was 120 pages, probably more than any of them had been required to read in any two-day period in high school. “We'll have a test on the material and today's lecture on Wednesday. Friday your papers are due at the start of class.”
They were bright kids or they wouldn't be here, but Morby's class, Early Humans, was the scholastic equivalent of being tossed into the deep end of the pool. Wednesday morning they would be dismayed at the depth and complexity of the exam; Wednesday afternoon they'd be panicked over their grades. A scientist at heart, Morby had been tracking Wednesday test performance in a database for a decade, and was proud of the defibrillating effect of his scoring: 75 percent would fail, 20 percent would barely get a D, and a handful of students would freakishly pass.
There had never been an A given on the first test in the history of the class. Morby doubted he, himself, would ace the thingâthose questions were
In a cold sweatâhow were they going to tell their parents they were
flunking out of college
?âmost of them would dig into their essay assignments with the fervor of the newly converted. Wednesday and Thursday nights the security guards would have far fewer intoxicated students on their hands.
“So: about your essay assignment. For many years, it has been thought that early man lived in peaceful, communal harmony within his family, tribe, and at large with other
. Of late, however, a new school of thought has argued that there's no reason to think that prehistoric man was any less brutal or warlike than we are today.” Morby surveyed his audience, most of whom had sunk into a swamp of complete lethargy. “Your papers will be twenty-five hundred words. Please address this issue, arguing for one point of view or the other. Warlike, or peaceable? I don't care which side you take, just make sure your logic is sound, your resources reliable, and that your words are your own.”
Despite this last admonition and the prominent warnings about plagiarism on the first page of the student manual, Morby knew that by Monday morning, when the essays, bloody with red ink, were handed back to their authors, nearly two in ten freshmen would find themselves facing academic probation. Raised in the cut-and-paste generation, they literally didn't understand what constituted intellectual property theft.
Being called out publically as a plagiarist was humiliating, but it gave enough shock and awe to the rest of the freshmen that the problem was far less prevalent on this campus than at other, gentler schools.
The probations would be erased from their records by the end of the semester, and the gradesâfew of them would get better than a D on the essayâwould also be mitigated by more papers and more tests that were designed to the academic purpose of learning and not the enculturating purpose of boot camp.
“All right. The last great glaciation, commencing approximately thirty thousand years ago.” The slide on the screen behind Morby flashed a map of the eastern hemisphere. “This was, beyond a doubt, the most dramatic time in the history of our species. You think we have climate change issues today? We're talking about temperature fluctuations in the
up to seven degrees Celsius year to year. You could bounce from a fairly normal period to years in which the ice never melted, not even in summer. Trees were bulldozed by the advancing glaciers, uprooting us from our arboreal environment and driving us out onto the steppes, where we served as hunters and hunted, predator and prey.”
A new slide went up behind him: a drawing of an enormous cave lion, almost the size of a bear, rendered by the artist to appear ready to pounce. The animal had a face something like an African lion, but was covered with a shaggy, light grey coat.
“Look at the size of this thing! When we examine bones from that era, we see that many of the most dreadful creatures were
compared to today. So when we went hunting, we not only had to compete with lions, bears, wolves, and other tooth-and-claw animals, we had to run from them. No wonder life expectancy was so shortâmost early humans didn't manage to make it to your age, and the average life expectancy was around thirty-threeâthough someone clever enough to make it to fifteen probably survived to be fifty or so.”
Grudgingly, they were giving Morby their full attention.
“We also had to compete with this fellow.” A slide went up of a Neanderthal standing next to a modern human. “Look at him. Not taller, but certainly bigger, hugely strong, and with a
. Yet here we are today, running the planet, when by all indications this guy's descendants should be in the literal driver's seat. Why us, then? To paraphrase Faulkner, how did we not only endure, but prevail?”
Morby put up his favorite slide of the lecture and glanced with a knowing smile over to where his TA, Tommy, normally sat. His smile waveredâTommy's seat was empty. Very odd, to miss this delicious day. The professor shrugged it off and turned back to the slide. It was a wonderful photograph of some recently discovered cave art dating back to the Aurignacian era. There was a jumble of shapes; more than one artist had plied his skills over the years, painting reindeer and elk and lions over one another in a crazy two-dimensional prehistoric stampede, but for Professor Morby there was really only one image: the young man in the middle, holding the end of what was unmistakably a leash, leading to what was unmistakably a red collar, around the neck of what was unmistakably an enormous canine. A domesticated wolf.