AWAI Writing Challenge Winning Entry:
Too Afraid to Fall Asleep in Class

How in the world could I have chosen Economics as the first class of the day? People would continually ask me if I didn’t know that Economics was extremely dry and boring, and “old man Ellison” would gladly fail students who he caught sleeping in his class. And I guess he did. At least that was the rumor mill around campus.

Somehow, though, I just didn’t get the feeling that was something he would do. He barked at lot, and that kept some of us awake, but I truly believed that his proverbial bark was worse than his bite.

Somehow … perhaps because I was afraid to fall asleep … I started to enjoy reading and talking about supply and demand, economic-man decisions, macro & micro economics, price levels, and other things I’ve long since forgotten. But I had problems understanding all of the theories, and so to avoid failure, I had to actually talk to Professor Ellison.

I remember the first time I went to his office. I secretly was hoping that he wasn’t in, or that he had someone with him. Perhaps he would be rushing off to a class and wouldn’t have time for me. I could only hope!

But no such luck. He was in his office, and alone. I knocked on his door and he looked up from the book he was reading. He actually smiled when he saw me, which made me believe that he was preparing to make easy-work of this feeble little freshman at his door. But he invited me in, and actually said he was glad that I stopped by. “Hmmmm … this guy is clever. Trying to get me to drop my guard, no doubt”, I thought to myself.

When he asked what I needed, I rambled on about some obscure little detail in some strange economic theory in one of the chapters we were assigned. After what I thought was a clearly worded question, he looked at me and said simply, “What part don’t you understand?” So I re-stated the question in a shorter form. “Ah, I see. And what part of that is confusing you?” Another darn question, and I’m supposed to be the one asking things here! So I thought about it for a while. Like the sun coming up on a partly cloudy day, bits of the central idea started falling in place as I focused on the specific parts of my question. Instead of responding with an “I don’t get it” type of question, I now asked a more detailed “Are they trying to say that …” sort of question. Surely I’ll get him to actually tell me the answer this time.

But instead, Professor Ellison calmly looked at me and replied: “Maybe they are. But if not, what else might they be trying to say?” Damn! So I had to think harder about the issue. He sat there, very still, while I tossed several things around in my mind. Eventually, I did come up with another idea, and when I asked about that, he quietly said, “Interesting. That might be what it’s about, or it might be your first idea. Or maybe there’s more still. Why don’t you think more on it, and we’ll discuss it in class tomorrow.” With that, he picked up some papers and informed me that he had a class to attend, and we’d see each other the next day.

I was slightly … to say the least … upset at a waste of time. I hadn’t realized how long, but we had been together for nearly an hour talking about my question. Well, make that “thinking” about my question, and most of the thinking was being done by me! But I discovered that I thought about that stupid question a lot that night, and I actually did find more options that were possible.

The next day, when I entered the classroom, Professor Ellison smiled again, nodded a silent “hello” in my direction, and started talking about the theory we had discussed the prior afternoon. He brought out the ideas that I had raised, and then unexpectedly … to me … he looked at me and said “Do you have any additional thoughts on this issue?” I’m sure that most of the class was as surprised as me, because I wasn’t known as any great thinker on economic issues at the time, and I didn’t have a reputation as one who would normally be called on for such a question. However, I DID have more thoughts on the subject, and we used most of the class time in a very detailed discussion … and I learned what the theory was all about. I learned to question myself, and I learned that there was always more to know if you kept looking.

The specific theory isn’t important. And truth be told, I’m not sure that the theory still is true today as things have changed a lot since then. But Professor Ellison taught me by asking me: asking me to think, to question, and to not stop thinking even when I thought I knew the answer.

Did I become an economist? No. But I learned that the subject didn’t matter. No matter what I was doing, if I would think, if I would question, and if I would keep thinking and asking even when I thought I knew the answer, I would find better answers.

I’m sure glad I was too afraid to sleep in first period of my first freshman semester. And I am thankful that Professor Ellison was around while I was awake.

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Published: September 2, 2009

3 Responses to “AWAI Writing Challenge Winning Entry: Too Afraid to Fall Asleep in Class”

  1. Ahhh... the power of the Socratic method. It's also happens to be the way the greatest persuaders persuade.

    Hmmm...Why do you think that is?

    Sean McCool

  2. Sean, I agree with you! I was thinking of Socrates also while reading the story.
    My favorite quote of his "Wisdom begins with wonder" It is why writers write and teachers teach. The wonderment of it all.

    Nice job Al. Congratulations!


  3. Very nice. I wanted to get all the way to the end. My only quibble is I have a problem with the overuse of the word "that" in so much writing these days.

    "And truth be told, I’m not sure that the theory still is true today.." I think it would be smoother without it.

    Nice job.


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