MR. BANCOCK flattened the theme on his desk and ran his thumb down the fold. ‘ My Ideal Girl,’ he announced, and cleared his throat.
Then he proceeded to read with dignity accompanied nevertheless by a certain gusto, as if he were determined not to betray by his voice any opinion that here was not literature of the highest order. ‘“, . . I do not say that she should understand Einstein,”‘ he read. He jumped up, and the paper went skidding across the desk.
‘There’s no earthly reason why you should n’t understand Einstein’s theory,’ he said, going to the blackboard and grabbing a nub of chalk. ‘There’s nothing on earth more cramping to you than to feel there’s a realm of knowledge you can’t enter.’ Books closed here and there in the room. Mr. Bancock was off.
He marked a long streak across the board, drew a tiny circle at each end of it, and labeled them ‘Earth’ and ‘Planet.’ He had sat up three nights ago until two o‘clock multiplying parentheses and figuring out what he called a theory, which had carried him leaping and plunging through space, so that even after his light had been out for hours he had not been able to sleep. The next day found him saintly as after some debauch, but ready at the smallest opening to let fly the whole night’s figures at someone. But no opening had come. Now a student had had the folly to write that her ideal girl need not understand Einstein.
‘How many miles does light travel in a second?’ Mr. Bancock asked, and looked from face to face. There were realms of knowledge into which these young women had never seen, let alone gone, and it was Mr. Bancock’s curse that he must notice how they kept in good flesh. He answered his own question: ‘One hundred eighty-six thousand three hundred miles, about.’ He went on, ‘Where do you think, then, the light that left the earth at the time of Jesus is now?’ He found himself growing excited again as he had Wednesday night in his bedroom, and he lowered his voice.
‘Well, farther away, of course, than that number you just said — I don’t remember what it was,’ someone ventured. ‘I suppose,’ said Miss Rappaport from the front row, ‘that you multiply that number by the seconds in the years between then and now‘. ‘Inevitably,’ said Mr. Bancock. He hurried to the board and strung out a row of parentheses under his swooping line that spanned the ether. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘one hundred eighty-six thousand three hundred, times sixty for minutes, times sixty for hours, times twenty-four for days, times three hundred sixty-five for years, times one thousand nine hundred thirty-seven for the era, and you have the place fixed at which the light that left the earth at the birth of Jesus — if you could see that far, and if anyone were there to see it — could at this minute be witnessed.’
Mr. Bancock wondered for a moment if using the birth of Jesus was not a cheap trick somehow of lower quality than using the rule of Hadrian. ‘The birth of Jesus’ rolled out so easily, with an effect so dramatic, that Mr. Bancock distrusted but used it.
He had already lost more than half his class to shorthand. The rest watched him with eyes long used to such performances. But he did not notice now. He walked up and down, shaking an end of chalk about in the cup of his hand, and seeing himself sitting out on a planet in utter space watching the Nativity through the light-years. He went on, ‘If we came catapulting from that distant planet toward the earth at the rate of light, traveling against the light stream, it would take us one thousand nine hundred and thirty-seven years to get here; and it would, of course, be the year 3874. We should have seen more than three thousand years in somewhat over half that time. We should have dipped as far into the past as we dipped into the future.’ He stopped for a minute and looked about him, but not at his students. ‘Everything would have seemed to go on at twice normal speed,’he said, ‘because you would have been meeting the light from it head on.’
A late November fly that had been battering itself against the pane at the back swooped the length of the room and struck Mr. Bancock’s forehead.
’Travel fast enough,’ he jerked out, ‘from your planet to the earth, and you could see the whole Christian era in one year. You would have to go about a thousand nine hundred and thirty-seven times as fast as light, and the only trouble is that the mind is so slow that even now it misses most of what happens; then it probably would n’t be able to take in anything.’ He stopped for a minute to think, then went on, ‘What you’d think would drive you insane would probably only put you to sleep.’
Two young women, while they were not exactly asleep, were sitting in that suspended state in which the soul is said to go walking. Mr. Bancock looked at them as if a little troubled, and hesitated. ‘If traveling against the light stream makes time speed,’ he continued quickly, ‘then of course traveling with it will slow it down, since a ray of light will thus have difficulty in getting away from you. You could even make one second—’ He groped for a word, then said, ‘Eternal. By flying at its side, yon understand, out into space at the rate of light.
‘ Don’t suppose,’ he said suddenly, walking up and down, still shaking the chalk in his hand, ‘that light from the earth goes like an arrow to one point alone in the universe. It must, of course, radiate in every direction at once, so that the light from Jesus’ birth, to go back to that, must be surrounding the earth in a great sphere with its radius equal to the product of those parentheses.’ He pointed at the board behind him.
‘Sound,’ he said, ‘must fly out and encircle the earth in the same way, only much more slowly, so that when something happens the sight of it rushes away ahead of the sound of it, and the aspects of the happening become scattered, so that it would require the omnipresence of a spirit to see it whole again.’ Here he laughed a little nervously. ‘To use the Nativity again,’ he said, ‘the attending cattle can be still seen only thousands of light-years in space, but they are still mooing fairly near the earth.’
The silence was complete. Mr. Bancock looked at his watch and saw that it lacked a minute of being time for the bell. He put it back. ‘All that, however,’ he said, ‘is not scientifically sound.’ Miss Rappaport said with an easy grace, ‘But Mr. Bancock, how would you interpret it?’ He looked at her in a fright and said, ‘Not at all.’ Then he looked about the class and back to Miss Rappaport again and said, ‘Not at all.‘ The silence fell in again. The fly continued to circle the room. Someone asked, ‘Was there anything you wanted us to do for next time?’
Then Mr. Bancock snatched up his book. ‘Versification,’ he said. ‘Especially rhyme. What does rhyme consist of? The last accented vowels are identical, everything that comes after them is identical, everything before them is different.’ The bell rang. But he had noticed the gentleness implied in the girl’s use of the past tense.
Ten years ago in this same room he had set out to interest some girls in the Pejorative Un, and, guided by their deeper wisdom, had come to see the negligible earning power of the prefix. Now while he was piling up his books to go he tried to feel a little sorry about the triumph of clay over the spirit. Then he muttered ‘Paranoid’ to himself, piled the books in the crook of his arm, and went out into the corridor rhyming, ‘Rhomboid, ethnoid, adenoid, Ernest Boyd, celluloid.’ The bell for the next class rang.