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Looking Beyond

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The guest lecturer wasn't on the syllabus. According to the schedule, today's lecture was supposed to be on Charles Horton Cooley's The Looking Glass Self. Sasha didn't always finish her readings, but the interplay of perception highlighted in the paper intrigued her, and maybe made her a little more self-conscious than usual as she slipped into her hard backed lecture hall seat.

Sasha was in the middle of studiously opening her note book and arranging her pens (to project the image of a good student, a person who was really going places) when the guest lecturer appeared. He didn't use the entrance the regular professor did; instead he came in the same door as the students, so Sasha didn't notice him when he walked past her. She didn't notice him at all until he got up on the stage and started adjusting the microphone. He was shorter than the regular professor.

He wore a brown jacket, a flat-brimmed hat, a paisley scarf, and a sweater which looked like something Sasha's colour blind grandfather would knit. He had an umbrella in one hand and was juggling it back and forth while he struggled to lower the mic. After a few moments he gave the stand a good, solid whack with the umbrella handle. The stand loosened and lowered itself down to an appropriate level. The man smiled.

By this point, everyone in the lecture hall was staring at him.

"Hello," said the guest lecturer. He had a Scottish accent. "I regret to inform you that Professor Roth is absent today, hopefully we'll be able to get by without her. Today's lecture will be on assumptions – there is nothing more dangerous in this world than an assumption. If you are incorrect when you make one it can very easily be fatal."

He trilled his "r"s as he spoke. He didn't shout like Professor Roth. He spoke quietly and, despite all of his fiddling, he hadn't bothered to turn on the mic. Still, Sasha, who'd come in a bit late and been forced to take a seat in the forth to last row, could hear him talking like he was sitting right beside her. He scanned the lecture hall as he spoke with keen, blue eyes. Sasha felt those eyes lock onto her and she squirmed in her seat.

"Assumptions are not always obvious," the guest lecturer continued. "They do not have to be large. Take for instance the activity of crossing the street. You stand on the edge of the pavement, you look both ways, but what do you assume –?"

"You assume the direction of traffic. You assume that the drivers will respect the traffic signals. You assumed that you understand the traffic signals. You assume that no one will intentionally attempt to run you over. You assume that you will be noticed. You assume that the pavement is not part of the street and that you don't have to worry about being run down until you actually begin to cross. These assumptions can get you killed."

Those dark blue eyes bored into Sasha. She was entranced. Her pen hung suspended above her notebook – she hadn't written a single word, hadn't drawn a single doodle.

"We make assumptions based on experience. I hope that some of you will reflect on those experiences the next time you stand on the curb and look both ways."

His eyes drifted off Sasha then and went roving around the room looking at everyone. She'd felt special and singled out for a moment there, but the feeling quickly faded and she felt embarrassed for even making that assumption. As the talk continued, she waited for the guest lecturer to make the inevitable, "ass out of you and me," joke, but it never came. Instead he segued easily into the scheduled topic, discussing the different layers of individually realized realities and perceptions displayed in Cooley's paper.

He was a lively lecturer. He asked and answered questions. He pulled volunteers up to the lectern beside him to give their opinions. He even pulled out a handful of knotted scarves and started juggling at one point. Despite his energetic style, and despite her former interest in the reading material, Sasha felt her interest waning.

By the end of the lecture, her notebook page was covered in half-hearted doodles of little birds; tiny chicks trying to fly, only to trip over their wings and fall right off the paper into nothing.

*

Two days later, Sasha stood at a corner getting ready to cross the street. She wasn't thinking about assumptions. She was thinking about what she was going to have for dinner and whether or not her English Lit. professor would accept that her laptop had glitched and fried her annotated bib. She didn't need to mention that the glitch had consisted of a spilled coke on the keyboard…

Sasha shifted from side to side waiting for the light to turn. Her book bag was heavy. She didn't understand why she even needed to buy heavy (and expensive) books when you could convert anything to a digital file – anything, except, apparently, her Sociology readings. Urg.

There was a roar. It sounded like a lion.

Sasha turned, expecting (assuming) some kind of student prank. Instead she saw a half-man, half-lion thing chasing a young woman in a black bomber jacket. The woman was yelling at the lion-man:

"Oi! Toerag! Come over here. Just a bit further. Come on." The woman waved a silver can. "Just wait until you see what I've got you for Christmas!"

The woman ran past Sasha. She did look before crossing the street, but she looked the wrong way: right instead of left. Sasha noticed it; saw the woman in the bomber jacket run right in front of a truck; saw that the truck wouldn't have time to stop; saw that a tiny assumption made while dealing with a much bigger distraction was about to get the woman killed.

Sasha didn't come to a decision. She saw, but she didn't think. She ran into the road and shoved the woman out of the way.

They both fell hard to the asphalt. Sasha skinned her elbows and hit her head. Her book bag twisted to the side and wrenched her shoulder. The woman dropped her silver can. The truck's brakes screeched. The huge wheels ground to a halt only inches from Sasha's face. She stared at the treads, breathing hard, trying to figure out how she'd got from standing at the crosswalk to nearly having her head run over in less than thirty seconds.

Then there was an explosion. Hot air blasted against Sasha's face. She looked at the side of the road. The shrubs around the crosswalk were on fire. The lion-man was on fire and running away. The truck driver was getting out of his cab. He had a cell phone pressed to his ear. People, mostly students, were gathering on the other side of the road.

A hand reached down. Sasha took it without thinking. It was the woman in the black bomber jacket.

"Thanks," she said. "You okay?"

"I… I think so," said Sasha. Her arms were bleeding and she'd bit her lip when she fell, but she wasn't dead. The woman looked her over.

"You should go to A&E and get yourself stitched up," she said.

Sasha had no idea what an A&E was, but she agreed that she'd do that. She felt a bit dizzy. The woman was yelling at the truck driver now, telling him that he should keep off his mobile and watch where he was going. The truck driver looked suitable chastised. The police were coming now. Sasha could hear their sirens. The woman could hear them too. She looked at Sasha again.

"What's your name?" she asked.

Sasha told her.

"Thanks again Sasha. I owe you one. Got to run. See you around maybe. Get yourself to a hospital, yeah?"

The woman ran off, taking the same direction the flaming lion-man had. The police arrived. They took statements. Sasha got a ride to emergency and seven stitches on her left arm.

She didn't see the woman in the black bomber jacket again.