When I was in high school, Loren Cornwell was the hippest, coolest teacher to have ever walked the face of the planet. It didn’t matter that he was short, bald, nearsighted, or portly. He wore denim like a king wears a crown, and he possessed the wisdom of a wizard. He sported a fully peppered beard, as well, adding to the unassailable image of a man in control of all things.
He was King Arthur and Merlin rolled into one, with the power to wither his enemies, but the clever magic of thought that made the former power mostly unnecessary. Few would challenge him because he had a commanding wit capable of emasculating the most disagreeable of the rebellious teenaged boys who sat in his classroom. He could lay waste to hubris, lay low braggadocio. But he seldom needed to.
He was the type of man born with a magnetic charisma. When he looked at you, no matter your stupidity, he had a way of conveying with a slight smile that he saw who you were hiding beneath the affectations brought on by raging testosterone and the need to appear more of a man than you really were. And something in that smile told you he cared about you, the person, and he’d already forgiven whatever silliness you brought forth, once he pointed it out and made you look at it for what it was – something you didn’t need to be a valuable human being.
Do I exaggerate? No. Not in the least. He drove a yellow MGB roadster convertible, the height of cool, yet his driving one couldn’t add a bit to the mystique that was already Loren Cornwell. In fact, he made the car look cool, not the other way around. Such was his stature that when a picture of him was found in the yearbook archives showing him twenty years younger, fat, clean-shaven, with Brylcreemed hair, and wearing thick-framed black glasses and a business suit with a skinny black tie, the wildly circulated photograph of “Loren Cornwell, Nerd,” could not so much as dent the reputation of the man we knew.
He taught psychology, which was the one subject I excelled in. This was for one simple reason: I wanted, needed Mr. Cornwell to think highly of me. So I actually studied and came to class knowing the material inside and out.
Mr. Cornwell was the kind of teacher any kid with a problem could go to. He wouldn’t discount what you were going through. He was pure compassion. He empathized. He advised. But he never judged. He was a hero to me.
He brought his guitar to class every Friday and called it “Uncle Corny Day.” He would play the guitar, joke, and make fun of all of us in his class at one time or another. One of the key features of Uncle Corny Day was his taking handwritten questions, on any topic, passed to the front of the room. He’d take the questions, folded within anonymous sheets of notebook paper, and answer every single one. You could ask about any subject you’d be afraid to ask about aloud – sex, masturbation, acne, glandular conditions, dating, crushes, insecurities, or even problems at home. Or you could ask the silliest nonsense, or questions about music and art. Uncle Corny could answer anything. And, truth be told, he had to have known each of our handwriting by the end of the first quarter, so he knew who was asking what. Yet he kept the sanctity of his knowledge like a priest in the confessional.
His answers helped many of us. His humor made us laugh and see the world and ourselves a bit more clearly.
And he knew every single one of us.
Loren Cornwell was a great man. Nothing I write here can do him justice. It is a fundamental limitation of words.
I heard many years ago that he’d passed away. The news was devastating.
But that has nothing to do with the writer’s curse, though I wish he were around to give his opinion on it. I do not doubt it would be insightful and revealing.
Here’s what Uncle Corny does bring to the discussion.
One day in class, opining as he was wont to opine, he stated that statistically ten percent of people masturbate – and the other ninety percent lie about it. Then he segued into positing the Infinite Monkey Theorem. This was the first time I’d ever heard it, a neat little thought experiment.
The theorem goes, Uncle Corny told us, that if you put an infinite number of chimpanzees in a room (a presumably large room) with an infinite number of typewriters (this was an age before personal computers) and gave them and infinite amount of time, somewhere along the way, one of them would type out the entire catalogue of every Beatles song ever written by John and Paul.
Other variations of the Infinite Monkey Theorem I’ve heard have the simian typists banging out the complete works of William Shakespeare. But Uncle Corny was too hip to try to drag us into Elizabethan theater – the Beatles kept it real and relatable. Also, I assume Uncle Corny knew the difference between apes, such as chimpanzees, and monkeys, but we grew up in the time of Jane Goodall, so he knew all of us knew what a chimpanzee was, though we presumed they were monkeys, as the popular culture of the time had led us to believe. So just as he substituted the Beatles for Shakespeare, he substituted the relatable chimp for any number of possible monkey species, thereby saving us a long discourse in taxonomy and the need to settle upon a particular species of monkey before getting to the nugget of the proposition.
Of course, when you hear such a thing as the Infinite Monkey Theorem, you have to think about it. The theorem, of course, falls apart if you don’t also have an infinite supply of typewriter ribbons and typing paper and some immortal being running to and fro keeping the typewriters in good mechanical condition. Also, if you count the amount of excrement an infinite number of chimpanzees would produce, the room, no matter how large, would soon be full – top to bottom – with monkey stools, thereby encasing and killing all the chimps. Plus, as I understand it, chimpanzees are a warring and murderous lot of creatures in the wild, staging raids and fighting battles to the death against other groups of chimpanzees. They’re even known to kill and cannibalize infant chimps. All of this, of course, would create insurmountable distractions to the business of typing. Logistically, finding food for an infinite number of chimps with infinite lifespans, not to mention water, would likewise create a likely impediment to completing the experiment.
In light of all of this, the probability of getting this experiment in probability off the ground in the first place can be safely placed at zero.
But, if you allow some modifications, such as poopless chimps and maintenance free typewriters, you can still imagine the possibility that a chimp could pound out “Hey Jude” at the very least.
So now we’re getting back to the curse, to which I will return in my next post.