Paul knew precisely how many footsteps it took to walk between every building on campus. You could say something like "Administration Building to Jasper Hall?" and he'd answer "1,512," or "Library to the Field House?" and Paul would say "Which doors?" He was almost totally blind
so most people assumed that he counted the steps to aid in his navigation around campus. The fact of the matter was that he was exercising his mind as well as his legs.
The miracle of the human brain was the subject of continuous study and experimentation for Paul because he lacked the distraction of visual stimuli. The counting ritual began as a method to determine his precise location but he eventually discovered that he could keep count without paying complete attention. The concept of the divided mind fascinated him and he'd challenge himself by attempting to recite poetry or sing a song without losing his count.
When he lost his place in the poem or the numbered footsteps he'd stop dead in his tracks. You'd sometimes see him standing as still as a statue for minutes at a time, lips moving silently, fingers tapping out an indecipherable code on his trouser leg. Freshmen thought he was just another nutty old Prof but upperclassmen knew better. He might be motionless but his mind was moving at a ferocious clip.
If you were walking across the quad and saw him frozen in place it was best not to interrupt him.
Paul was stricken with a degenerative eye disease in his late teens and by the time he went off to college at Johns Hopkins
he had lost ninety percent of his vision. A tutor was hired to read his college textbooks aloud when a Braille
version wasn't available and he somehow managed to finish his undergraduate program with honors
. Paul was admitted to the graduate school in the study of philosophy
and so took the radical cost saving measure of marrying his tutor. He received his hard won PhD
, also with honors, in little more than the standard length of time.
Anyone who has ever been handed a syllabus can appreciate what an impressive feat Paul accomplished. The inability to read would have washed most people out in the second semester, not to mention the additional difficulties he endured with everything from doing laundry to locomotion around the campus. I had perfectly functioning eyeballs and still had trouble making it to class, much less summoning the will to read half of the crap they required of me.
Paul was hired as a philosophy professor at the prairie University and had been elevated to Chairman of the Philosophy Department by the time I made the scene. The freshman classes that he taught were always full because it was widely known that he gave open book tests and quizzes. The presumption was that since he couldn't see his hand in front of his face he was ill equipped to scan the room for cheaters with crib notes.
My first class with him was the Introduction to Logic and Scientific Method and he forever laid waste to the theory that open book tests are easy.
Paul was a creature of habit
so pranksters had a field day with his vulnerability. Each day he'd walk into class and follow an identical routine, seventeen steps to the coat rack in the corner, hang up the coat. Turn ninety degrees to the left and take fifteen steps back to the table at the front of the room and set down his class materials. As often as not some scalawag would rearrange the furniture slightly and the slapstick
comedy would ensue.
The philosophy professor took the monkey business in stride and never once fell to anger or frustration. He'd hang his corduroy jacket on the hook that wasn't there and it would fall in a heap. He'd turn ninety degrees to the left and walk fifteen steps to the table that was now sixteen steps away, drop his books and papers in a messy pile on the floor and begin his lecture as though nothing had happened. The scamps eventually abandoned the mischief when it failed to get any sort of rise out of him.
I knew Paul better than most of the other students because we had a mutual friend on the faculty and sometimes saw each other socially. I had been to his house for dinner a number of times and gained better insight into his complex nature through my acquaintance with his wife. She explained to me that Paul was never really where he appeared to be, that he dwelt entirely within the world of ideas. With the loss of his sight he constructed an elaborate landscape in his mind, a sort of three-dimensional topography of knowledge gained and concepts explored. As the world within him grew more detailed and intricate, his memories of what the other world looked like faded.
The counting of steps and the rote memorization of an entire semester's syllabus were merely devices he used to subtract himself from the situation so he could dwell on deeper matters.
The world of people and things was not only subordinate to the world of ideas, it was in his estimation inconsequential. Paul thumped us with the formal fallacies of logic
and the subtle power of the syllogism
as though they were the most important things in this life. His fondness for the scientific method and deductive reasoning was evangelical
and his fervor for the subject matter was contagious to all but the most stubborn dullards. He said that meticulous attention to pure logic was the foundation of philosophy but that we are diverted by the crude lies that parade past our senses.
Every now and then you run into someone who is doing exactly what they were put on this Earth to do and for a minute or an hour the universe makes perfect sense. A Van Morrison or a Vincent van Gogh will give you the tingling reassurance that most of our potential lay dormant, yet to be discovered much less utilized. For that moment or hour, the weight of the world falls away.
The final exam in Paul's class was a challenge, to say the least. If a professor ever stands before one of your classes and announces that all of the tests will be open book, you can assume they will be the most grueling that you'll ever endure. My advice is to scoff at the ignoramus who tells you that it will be a joyride to an easy grade and to redouble your efforts to pay attention in class.
The Blue Books for the final were a blank slate, save the challenging problem written in his own crooked, labored penmanship on the opening page.
"Visual input, like language, is both a vehicle for and an obstacle to sound thinking. Prove, through deductive and inductive reasoning, that it is better to be blind than sighted."