For years, Mr. Greenberg began each school year by postulating to a new class of eighth grade students that his disciplines, science and mathematics, work together in divine harmony. The hypothesis was finally validated in 1960, on the day he died of a heart attack while administering a pop quiz on the periodic table of elements.
He sat quietly at his desk while his students grappled with a multiple choice inquiry into the meanings of Cl, Au and P. A purple blotch of mimeograph ink on my paper had obscured one of the questions, so I carried it to Mr. Greenberg for clarification. I stood at his desk in a posture of obvious supplication, but he remained motionless, one elbow planted on his desk, chin resting on clenched fist, narrowed eyes seeming to stare sideways at the three-quarters life-size plastic skeleton that hung from an aluminum frame at the end of the blackboard. I knew something was wrong, but because I did not know that everything was wrong, I gently touched his shoulder.
Science and mathematics now shook hands and went to work.
My jostling of Mr. Greenberg, slight though it was, exerted a horizontal force on his chair. This impetus overcame the resistance of the combined weight of chair and Greenberg. The chair, on its three ball-bearing casters, slowly rolled westward from the desk, thereby increasing the length of side AB of an isosceles triangle whose points may be defined as:
A) Mr. Greenberg’s chin,
B) Mr. Greenberg’s right elbow, and
C) Mr.Greenberg’s right shoulder.
Had he still been alive, Mr. Greenberg would have pointed out in his widely-imitated tenor that changing the length of one side of a triangle requires commensurate adjustments elsewhere. As his chair rolled, the distance between A (Mr. Greenberg’s chin) and B (Mr. Greenberg’s elbow) became longer than the actual anatomical line AB (Mr. Greenberg’s forearm). Crossing the border from the realm of mathematics into that of science, his head, now unsupported by AB, immediately surrendered to the dictates of the earth’s gravitational pull. The Greenberg head fell to the desk with a thud that jolted my classmates from their concentration.
Twenty-three pairs of eyes watched as the chair responded to the change in weight distribution caused by the collapse of triangle ABC and began to roll away from the desk, jerkily dragging the Greenberg torso to the inevitable point at which the Greenberg head was without physical support. Now in freefall, the Greenberg head pulled the Greenberg torso off the chair. The entire Greenberg fell face down on the floor, and the empty chair, whose ball-bearing casters Mr. Greenberg had lubricated the previous day in a demonstration of friction control, shot against the wall, caromed away at a complementary angle and struck the plastic skeleton. Femurs, tibiae and mandibles were severed from their nylon ligaments and crashed to the floor with a xylophonic arpeggio.
Even today, when witnesses to The Fall of Greenberg gather in taverns and reunion halls, after discussions of grandchildren and prostate surgery have run their course, talk turns to Mr. Greenberg’s posthumous demonstration. Not all accounts agree. I, for instance, remember what many don’t: the widespread running, screaming and vomiting that was followed by ambulances, police and early dismissal. Yet, my memory is blessedly spared the recollection of the moment, ingrained in the corporate memory of most who were present at Mr. Greenberg’s last science class, when I, standing in front of the blackboard amid a pile of broken plastic metatarsals and dead science teachers, said “Oh shit, I killed him,” and wet my pants.