Courses of Learning and Ingenious Studies

Student John Bellairs: Enjoying English, Mystified by Math

Frank O'Malley
Additional reading:
Inspired Teacher: Frank O'Malley
ND Ethic Center: Frank O'Malley
John Bellairs left high school and Marshall and came to Notre Dame...to study pre-law. This story...indeed this website...surely would have had a different ending had that interest continued. However, Al Myers says John quickly decided upon English, enrolling in the College of Arts and Letters, but not deciding on a major straight away. What swayed his decision? Perhaps we have the influence of Notre Dame's great professor of English, Frank O'Malley to thank. O’Malley’s classes were legendary in their ability to inspire enthusiasm in his students.

Three of John’s friends – Charles Bowen, Phillips Gibson, and Alfred Myers – reflect on Bellairs, O’Malley, and some their other undergraduate classes:

Gibson: My earliest memory of John Bellairs is his location in the classroom during our freshman year. He was in the first row near the right end. Since I sat second from the right in the third row, he was directly, or almost directly, in front of me. Frank O'Malley's freshman course in Rhetoric and Composition met four times a week. One morning, in response to a question from the teacher, Mr. Bellairs was the focus of attention, and I have a concrete image of him at that moment. Unfortunately my memory of the subject of his response is a blank. With a high degree of probability I know he said something amusing, or at least pleasantly skeptical.

Seating was alphabetical. Near Bellairs was Charlie Bowen -- later the alternate humor writer for Scholastic. In the middle of the second row was Andrew Connelly -- of the future College Quiz Bowl team. Also in that class, near the back, was Tom Hoberg. A good joke-teller, he gave credit to others for amusing things they did or said. Over the next few years Hoberg became a prime source of Bellairs lore.

Often Professor O'Malley read aloud from our work, usually the best work, without naming the writer. If a bad passage was encountered the teacher punished himself with a flat blow to the forehead. These creative writing efforts were returned with brief comments written in red ink. Even today I visualize some of them, such as in bright red: Too much! Words of praise were also terse and red.

The most dreaded comment to appear would be pathetic fallacy. One morning we learned the awful nature of this beast. The poem discussed was the familiar "Trees" by Joyce Kilmer. Professor O'Malley signaled out the line about the tree who will wear "a nest of robins in her hair." He said, "that sounds very uncomfortable, to say the least." After that we tried hard to avoid pathetic fallacy - some of us to this day. Besides reading from good student work he read us examples of outstanding professional work. Vividly I recall Bradbury's There Will Come Soft Rains. The story features a house, not a spooky old turret-and chandelier type, but a very modern electrical house. An atomic flash has charred one wall black except for images in unburnt paint. Even the ball tossed from one child to the other as left its frozen shadow. The house with its robotic devices and recorded voices continues to "behave" as it would if people were still there.

One morning Professor O'Malley brought a guest reader to class - a former student. Edwin O'Connor read from his new book, The Last Hurrah. We were delighted by the world of city politics evoked with sarcastic wit. John Bellairs must have been tickled. Some of the political types are almost as eccentric as the wizards in The Face in the Frost. O'Connor, after reading his Last Hurrah chapter, asked the class, "Does you teacher still strike himself on the forehead like this?"

Professor O'Malley read us other things he deeply cared about, often stories set in Ireland - such as The Dead by James Joyce. At the end he went to the board and wrote out the last sentence (O'Malley wrote very little on the board. It was nothing at all like a math class):

His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and dead.
These words are not something I have by memory. I dug out the book here and copied; however I clearly recall that (by senior year) John Bellairs did have this famous ending by memory - the whole final paragraph. John would recite it for you at the drop of a snowflake.
Bowen: Frank O'Malley's composition course was indeed the formative experience of our freshman year. Those of us who met there shared a certain bond that lasted through our four undergraduate years. In fact, Tom Hoberg and I became roommates the following year - though during that year we eventually got on each other's nerves and did not room together afterwards, although we continued to be friends. (The last time I saw Tom was in a graduate-student hangout at the University of Chicago, where he had arrived to take up the study of English after spending three years as a Navy officer in reciprocity for his NROTC scholarship. I remember him surmising that the sword he had bought to go with his dress uniform was a prime contender for the most ridiculous purchase he had ever made.)

I don't have much to add to Phil's memories of Frank O'Malley's composition class. I remember him writing the last sentence of "The Dead" on the board (I didn't know where it came from at the time), but I don't remember him reading us the story, which I think would have taken more than a 50-minute class period to read aloud. He did read lots of things to us, and it was a surprisingly effective form of instruction given a class that was preselected for general aptitude and writing ability. The one Joyce reading I recall in that class was the Christmas dinner scene from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. This was at our last class before the Christmas break, and instead of reading it himself, Professor O'Malley asked Gerry Goodwin, a member of the class who was a little older than the rest of us, having served as a Marine in Korea, to read it to us.

Myers: I do remember that early in his first semester, John was despondent over a paper of his that Professor O'Malley had savagely torn apart. "This has never happened to me before!" he wailed. Of course, John quickly restored himself to O'Malley's good graces, but O'Malley had the knack of getting his charges to cut the crap in short order. Like many liberal arts types, John had little aptitude for the sciences or math. One course that really made him sweat bullets in his freshman year was Number Theory, a required math course. I remember his joy and relief at squeaking through his second semester with a grade of 75. (N.D. at the time had a zero to 100 grading system, with 70 being passing.)
Gibson: Each morning, after O'Malley's class, the same set of students (with a few substitutions) were collected in a class which surely inflamed the mind of anyone intrigued by eccentric character. This was our math class (mostly number theory) with Professor Ky Fan, the perfect type of frantic mathematical wizard. Being in Dr. Fan's class meant you had excelled in math in high school and/or on aptitude tests. So I know Bellairs did have ability in math. However I must agree with Al Myers: "One course that really made him sweat bullets in his freshmen year was Number Theory."

With surprising speed and clattering chalk Dr. Fan wrote rigorous proofs on the board, proofs for which we were responsible. At the end of a line he would wheel about and ask us a question. For an instance, if he proved a statement for even numbers, he asked, "What happens for odd numbers?"

When he called on me one time I offered an excuse. "I just copied what's on the board and I haven't had time to think." The teacher said, "Mr. Gibson, I think you have a good brain but you are lazy. You have to think fast and write fast." The sting of this encouragement Dr. Fan aimed at me must also have been felt by others.

One morning Dr. Fan, who was a topologist, demonstrated the way to remove your vest without taking off your suit jacket. Since he was rather chubby and was wearing his regular three-piece suit the trick was impressive. Come to think of it, with his brushcut hair the teacher was a bit like an eighty-percent size model of John Bellairs. In a way they were also alike in an almost maniac delight for their different esoteric topics.

It is likely Bellairs was aware of the charming subset of science fiction with topology themes. There is one classic story in which an agitated professor manages to contort arms and legs and grab his nose and one ear and form a shape with zero numbers of sides; he disappears from normal space until he releases an ear. In another story the subways of Boston grow so complex a train vanishes yet still runs through the system activating signal lights and rushing noisily by, just out of sight.

My curiosity has been piqued and I am poking through a library copy The Face in the Frost looking for vestiges of topological obession. There is a kingdom divided in seven lesser kingdoms; at the center is a "small, roughly circular plot of ground that touched all their borders." This reminds me of the map-coloring problems with which we struggled in Dr. Fan's class. Then there is the rubber-sheet geometry aspect of topology: a shape changes into another shape in a bizarre fashion. This leads me to an outstanding scene from The Face in the Frost. The walls were caving, bulging, stretching wildly-one door fell before him and tried to wrap itself around his legs." Thus we see that even the arduous course with Dr. Fan may have been a source of fertilizer for the fecund imagination of John Bellairs. Of course the main focus of his own gleeful enthusiasm was literature and history, something zooming in on individual words. At one point in time his favorite strange word was "fusty." At another time his favorite was "slurry."

Myers: Bellairs was by no means a dummy in math, but it wasn't his forte. One story that he told on himself to illustrate that fact occurred during his Boston years. He was at a movie and was approached by a little colored boy who wanted change for a quarter to buy gum or something from a vending machine. John fished through his pockets but came up with only four nickels. He thereupon took the boy's quarter, gave him the four nickels and said, "That's O.K. kid, keep the change!"
Bowen: Another way in which the authorities attempted to turn us into decent, hard-working, prayerful, chaste students was one of the most arcane rules we had to follow. It was that when we registered for classes, students (all freshman) had to enroll in at least one class that met on Saturday morning. This was a regulation designed to ensure that you got up early every day, and didn't sleep in on Saturday morning (or go haring off to the fleshpots of Chicago on Friday night and avoid the edifying influences of the campus for the entire weekend). I believe that it was also required that these classes meet at 8:30 or whatever the earliest class time was but I have since lost a copy of the Student Handbook.

As with the night lights, this Saturday morning policy had to be stretched a bit in the interest of reality. If you were on the Dean's List (which meant an average of 90 or above), you were free of these restrictive requirements. The idea was that you had proved yourself to be a responsible student and were likely to choose your classes for their intellectual interest rather than because they were given at times that allowed you to live a life of sybaritic luxury. And indeed, this is how I did choose my classes, as did John and everyone else I knew. However, I also know that none of us ever chose a class that required us to get up terribly early or give up a Saturday morning. (Nor was this necessary, as the good faculty members never appeared to be interested in teaching at those unpopular times either.) Needless to say, nobody who managed to make the Dean's List ever signed up for Saturday classes, and the University was probably beginning to see this as a lost cause (and no doubt as one of the signs of the decay of Civilization as well).

Bowen: I, too, remember Dr. Fan's math classes, with something of shudder even now. My sense of how the class was chosen is different from Phil's; I think freshmen were grouped into sections on the basis of writing ability, because they had special sections (of which O'Malley's was one) for good writers, and that meant that (since the freshman year was pretty well programmed and there was little choice among courses) the same group of people would often wind up in the same sections in history, math, social science, or logic.

It was a recent innovation, from which much was hoped, to dragoon the most distinguished professors in the mathematics department into teaching sections of freshman mathematics to liberal arts students. Generally speaking, however, the experience seemed to frustrate all concerned. I was told of mathematicians who would, with infinite patience, go over and over the simplest points, concepts that math majors would have grasped immediately, in the hope that at least a few of us Arts and Letters types would get a clue. I imagine them weeping into their pillows at night, shattered by the utter lack of results. But if only I could have had a teacher like that! Number theory is, I think, an inherently interesting subject, and I could have grasped a good deal more of it than I managed to do at the time if I been in one of those sections where the professor was willing to go over a subject until at least somebody got it.

This was not Dr. Fan's way, however. Phil was not the only one who heard himself enjoined to think fast and write fast; the entire class was subjected to this constant refrain. "You cannot raise your IQ," he would tell us, "but you can train yourself to think fast, write fast, and work fast!" and he would not slow down for an instant. Actually, he had a strong accent, and what came out sounded more like "Cannot raise IQ, but can train self to sink fass write fass wuk fass!" I needed no training for the first; in that class I sank as fass as any stone has ever sunk.

He wrote with incredible speed, talking just as fast while he wrote, filling the blackboards that covered three sides of the classroom and then starting again, erasing what he had previously written. So you did not have the option of trying to follow with your mind and go back and copy the proofs later; you had to write as fast as he did or you'd wind up having nothing to work with afterwards when you tried to figure out what the class had been about. Writing, or trying to write, as fast as you needed to made coherent thought impossible. Phil's response "I just copied what's on the board and I haven't had time to think" expressed the existential dilemma I experienced throughout that whole year. I simply couldn't do both, and both were essential for understanding.

From the viewpoint of age and experience, I can see that there was a cultural problem at work. Dr. Fan's instructional style was entirely Chinese in being sternly authoritarian and making no allowance for weakness on the student's part. You can see this style in the Chinese opera school in the movie "Farewell My Concubine" - although, of course, there were no floggings in our math class. The professor seemed to be perpetually angry, and I often tell people that in my mental picture of Dr. Fan, he is always suspended at least six inches above the floor, held aloft by sheer rage. I remember the disbelief with which I heard from someone who had a relative on the faculty that Dr. Fan loved children and always played with people's kids when he came to dinner. I do, however, remember one occasion when he smiled in class. As Phil mentioned, Dr. Fan was wont to spin around suddenly and fire a question at some hapless student, whose response was generally an abject confession of ignorance. One member of the class, however, was a member of the debating team and a world-class smooth-talker, although he knew no more math than the rest of us, and may even have been, absent any evidence to the contrary that I know of, dumb as dirt. When he was called on, however, he never said anything as simple as "I don't know, sir." He was far more likely to chuckle in a friendly manner and say something like "Well, now, I guess you've got me there, Professor." He could even go on for two or three more sentences saying essentially the same thing.

Dr. Fan generally responded in his usual savage manner, but one time it was just one time too many. He came to a sudden stop and broke out in a grin. "What matter wiz you, Barrett?" he asked. "Go sroo here" - pointing to his mouth - "not go sroo here" - touching his head. The class dissolved in helpless laughter, the only time I ever heard such a thing in that class.

Bowen and Gibson continue their shared remembrances in the delightful and irrelevant Scenes at Notre Dame.