Pool with Bill (And President Franklin)

On March 28, 2013, I played pool with Bill. Oh, and the President of Trent University, Dr. Steven Franklin. But first, I need to talk about suits and battle-axes. Last spring, I went to a “President’s Open Forum” at the Trend in Trail College. In the days leading up to it, I reflected on what I knew about Dr. Franklin, based on observations made of him at Trent events, a few superficial encounters, and what I’d read on the internet. Here are three notable points that I made: He was always in a suit, always looked composed, and never made a poop joke. Not one.

As a student who has truly appreciated Trent’s liberal-arts-ness, I resented the gradual suffocation of several departments, especially Classics, my major at the time. Due to this downsizing, my favourite professor, Jonathan Strang, was denied tenure by Trent, so he moved to another university that would. I understand that tenure is expensive, and that it can’t be given out like ice cream, but it is a tragedy when a talented professor is lost due to budget constraints. Meanwhile, more technical (ie. commercial) programs have been introduced, including Nursing, Forensics, and Journalism. I don’t want to pick a fight with you guys (especially nurses, we desperately need more of you wonderful people) but I simply don’t think it’s a good idea for Trent to allocate funds toward new programs if it means losing existing bright young professors.

This forum would allow me to finally meet Dr. Franklin on equal ground, to dance the mambo of Chomsky and Plato. I prepared (what I thought were) a few hard-hitting questions to stop him in his tracks. This plan had worked countless times in seminar, and this would be more or less the same, right? Wrong. He was expecting the ambush. In his suit, he tore apart my points with a rhetorical battle-axe, wielding it as gracefully as a rapier. All in a polite, composed manner, of course. He never even used a poop joke. I thanked him, kept up a strong face ‘til the end, and left the cafe shell-shocked, wondering what had just happened. I later realized that I had never stood a chance. Dr. Franklin was a battle-hardened veteran of words; I was a weak-kneed novice. He had likely faced in the field of academia far greater opponents than I: countless Graduate students, administrators, professors (maybe even some Philosophy profs). I resolved then and there to return one day. With more experience, more preparation (and maybe a poop joke?) I would defeat him.

Looking back, I realize how ridiculous it was to think of discussion in terms of battle, despite the entertaining mental image of Dr. Franklin clad in mail, brandishing a blood-soaked axe.
That’s why, despite it being the absolute WORST possible time to do anything unnecessary (you know, not writing essays, studying, or figuring out my unknown, strangely fragrant and horrifyingly near post-university life) I decided to attend the “Pool with the President” event at Pappas Billiards, to meet the President on the field of green felt. It fit snugly between essay-writing and foetal-position sobbing. I wanted to meet him, find out a few snippets of his life, likes, dislikes. Because, you know, he is a human being. Like us all, he struggles, he cries, and he poops (despite the noticeable lack of related jokes).

When I found myself, in Pappas, alone with President Steven Franklin, I knew this was a golden opportunity. In a way, I was disappointed that not one of my eight thousand or so peers showed up (there’s always next time!) In another way, this was probably the only way I could have met him in such an informal environment. If anyone could convince him to come out to Pingo night, they would be my hero.

He introduced himself as Steven. I decided not to push my luck with Steve. After his first shot, I realized that, just like our last encounter, Dr. Franklin wielded his weapon of choice with the ease of familiarity. No problem, as long as I’m not the ball this time. Winning didn’t concern me. Dr. Franklin reminisced about playing pool as a young man, despite his father’s apprehensions about him going to the pool hall at night. Instead, his father bought a table for him to play at home, which led to many long nights playing the game.

Living in Buckingham, Quebec, my father had the same love of pool in his twenties. He spent many of his nights at the local pool hall with his friends, much to the chagrin of my grandmother. I imagine that Dr. Franklin quickly noticed that I did not share my father’s dedication to the game. Simply put, I suck at pool.

The conversation moved to our families, where we had lived. The similarities were almost eerie. We both had lived in West Toronto for a while. Dr. Franklin had lived near High Park, my favourite place in all of Toronto (for me, one of its few truly saving graces). Also, Dr. Franklin lived in Calgary for around 20 years, and I had lived in a town just across the border in British Columbia. I said how my favourite part about that town was that there was a great ski hill only 15 minutes away.

We carried on chit-chatting until Dr. Melanie Buddle, Senior Tutor of Gzowski College, entered the pool hall to join the fray. As Dr. Franklin and I finished our game, she admitted that, although she had a pool table in her house for a couple years at the University of Guelph, she was terrible at pool. Good. That made two of us at least. We played a few games, chatting about Trent, university life, Dr. Buddle’s children and their ingenious schemes to accrue as much chocolate as possible for Easter. “Just don’t buy them that unsweetened chocolate, like my mom did for me one year,” I cautioned. I can still remember the taste of it: Chewy, bland disappointment.

An hour in, a wizened man entered the pool hall, walked to our table and shook hands with the President. Bill plays pool at Pappas every day. He has won 16 championships so far and countless arbitrary prizes from the owner for first place in their weekly tournament. Bill later commented that he has five zippo lighters. The prizes themselves did not seem to matter to him; their symbolism was far more important. Dr. Buddle and Dr. Franklin played on one table, Bill and I played on the other. Despite this hype-up, I was still blown away by his effortless talent for the game of pool. When he played to win, I barely had time to blink (I sunk one striped ball) before he had left a table filled with my remaining six balls. Every other game, he played at my level, helping me figure out how to suck less. Every time I sunk a fairly difficult shot, or got close, he would say “Good shot!” I learned how to stand, a couple different types of hand positions — all that nitty-gritty stuff. Despite this self-deprecating account of my pool abilities, I did get far better in those five games.

During a game between Bill and I, Dr. Franklin looked to me and suggested that, being with Arthur, I should write a story about Bill. Queue laughter. That’s a very good idea, Dr Franklin. Too good to go to waste.

The event over, Dr. Franklin having shaken my hand and turned away briskly, I left Pappas feeling pretty good. Why? I chose to not play the game. I didn’t approach Dr. Franklin as the administrator, the commercialist, nor even the academic. Instead, I tried talking to him as a person. Our experiences which connect us will always overwhelm our differences. I have little doubt that if I had tried to defeat him on the field of rhetoric, he would have once again politely crushed me. Instead, I tried understanding him. Having spent two hours with Dr. Steven Franklin, I barely even scratched the surface. We are all immeasurably complex. But I’m glad to have made my little scratch.

I choose to give Dr. Stephen Franklin the benefit of the doubt. I recognize that he is partially responsible for leading Trent into the short-sighted direction of commercialism. But Dr. Franklin is one person, a figurehead, while the Board of Governors makes the big decisions. Who are they? I’m not sure. They don’t have open forum or pool events.

In short, annoy our President with questions and concerns in an intelligent, polite, composed manner (no suit required). At least he lets you annoy him. The Board does no such thing, except for the nice little picture and blurb about Ms. B. Anne Wright, the Chair. Just remember folks: they are all humans. Like Dr. Franklin, they struggle, cry, and poop too.

But Bill is the main character in this story, right? When I think back to his confident demeanor and patient teaching, I ask myself the questions, “What if Bill was the President of Trent University? Would he transfer those valuable skills to an executive position? Would he stand against commercialism and greed? I’m not sure if he has a PhD, or any university degree for that matter. Personally, I don’t think it matters that much. And hey, if nothing else, we’d all be a hell of a lot better at pool.

And if I was President?
So, the left butt cheek says to the right butt cheek, “If we stick together, we can stop this shit.”