Not all of the brilliant teachers who inspired me to become a professor taught English. I shall never forget the inspiration I received from a college teaching assistant of anatomy. And it all began with a photograph in “The Daily Student,” our university newspaper.
The photo showed our student government president angrily raising his middle finger to a nationally known political figure who had come to campus to speak at an outdoor rally on the ongoing Vietnam War. It was quite the scandal to have captured our impulsive student body president rudely “giving the finger” to this renowned campus visitor whose political views he obviously detested.
The following day in anatomy class, we were studying the bone structure of fingers and toes — or “phalanges,” to use the proper anatomical term. Our ebullient young teaching assistant, a reincarnated Mr. Chips, decided to incorporate the campus scandal into his lecture. He began by remarking that he’d have little to say about our toes since we all had become intimately familiar with them before we were even out of babyhood. He had us all chuckling when he said that thanks to our parents’ gentle pinchings, we already knew the astonishing fact that our outermost toe (pedis extimis) was capable of crying “Wee! Wee! Wee Wee!” all the way home. Funny man!
And when he then turned his attention to the fingers, he said that he’d save his comments concerning the nefarious middle one for last. After explaining the detailed anatomical differences between these digits, which would later appear on our midterm exam, he launched into the fascinating symbolic function of each.
He believed that anatomically the thumb was indeed a finger and reminded us that it was the Roman emperors who first gave it the symbolic meaning of Life (thumbs up) or Death (thumbs down), which was still with us two thousand years later in movie reviews. He pointed out (pun intended) that the name of the index finger was derived from the Latin “indico,” meaning, of course, to “point out.”
The ring finger, he said, is so named because ancient physicians believed that a nerve ran directly from the left fourth finger to the center of the heart, thus the perfect perch for a wedding ring. Moreover, the Dutch word for “little finger” is “pink”; our English language simply added the “y.” He then demanded that we turn to a student in an adjoining desk and solemnly do a “pinky swear.” I swear, I loved this guy!
And now for the “phalange de résistance”: the middle finger captured in the campus newspaper photo. He told us to think about the filthy two-word command that it symbolized. He then made the rather obvious point to dirty-minded college students that the raised finger represented the male organ necessary for carrying out the crude command.
But what I’ll never forget is when he had us all make the rude gesture and then asked us to turn our hand around so that our knuckles were facing us. “Now, class,” he announced with a Cheshire-Cat grin, “please note how the round knuckles of your index and ring finger hang below your raised middle one in the same location and proportionate size as those other two anatomical parts (Latin “testis”) hang on the male torso.
Talk about great teaching. To this day I can’t glance at my knuckles without a slight blush — and a grin! I only wish I could remember my anatomy instructor’s name. Teaching assistants have very low status at universities. Their names are never listed in the schedule directory planner; instead, it simply reads “Staff” next to their class meeting times, as opposed to professors, who have their last names listed beside their particular courses.
I was thirteen during the summer when my sister received her university’s fall schedule directory in the mail in order to pre-register for her fall classes. I was bored that day so I carefully perused the whole thick booklet, dreaming of my own far distant college days. Her catalogue listed every course that the university offered, along with the day, hour, and professor’s name for each class. My sublime teenaged ignorance of all things concerning higher education was on full display at the dinner table that night. “Hey, Sis, You’ve GOT to take a class from this Professor Staff,” I gushed. “He’s teaching archery, physics, trombone, Ancient Greek, and advanced forestry! This guy’s a GENIUS!”