Thursday, December 20, 2007

I Hear Monkeys...

The story about my niece yesterday reminded me of another "monkey" story that I had been meaning to post here. But first, you need some background information.

Rhodes College, where I teach, is in Midtown Memphis, which just so happens also to be the location of the world-famous Memphis Zoo. The college sits on one side of a four-lane road called North Parkway and the zoo is on the other side. It's a really beautiful part of town. Of course, the zoo has a fence all the way around it, but if you're driving down North Parkway and look in the direction of the zoo, you can see the inner parts of the zoo through the fence and the hedges. Incidentally, I've often thought that the fence that surrounds the zoo doesn't seem to be very formidable, considering the very dangerous animals that it is meant to keep inside. But, then again, our campus has a fence around it too, and maybe the zoo animals think the same thing about their neighbors across the street.

So, the point of all this detail is that there is about 200 yards (a guesstimate) between the southernmost buildings on our campus and the northemost edge of the zoo. Last semester, I just so happened to be teaching one of my courses in one of those southernmost buildings. And, since it is hot for most of the fall semesters here, we often had the windows open. You can see where this is going, I'm sure...

The first time I noticed that I could hear monkeys was during my lecture on Homer's Iliad. I had been hearing them for weeks already, but my brain hadn't processed the sound yet. I mean, "monkeys" is not something that immediately comes to mind when you're trying to place a strange sound. My class began at 1:00 pm, so I guessed that the reason the monkeys were so noisy around that time was because they were probably being fed. Anyway, I think I was the only one who noticed them--or at least the only one who noticed them as what they were--since most of my students were not native Memphians and, even if they heard it, probably also couldn't place the sound. For most of the semester, this was my little private amusement.

Of course, after a while, I stopped noticing it. Then, near the end of the semester, we were studying Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. I was lecturing on the pleasure of contemplation, and we were in the middle of a really fantastic discussion in my seminar. It was one of those weird Memphis days when it is still 70 degrees in December, and we had the windows open. The monkeys were going crazy that day for some reason, but I had long since tuned them out at this point in the semester. Then, right in the middle of an especially well-formulated and insightful Aristotelian point I was making, one of my students interrupted me and said:

"Do you hear monkeys?"

Ugh. "Yes, I hear monkeys," I replied. But I might as well have said, "class is over now." It's not easy to recover from that kind of a curveball.

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