Janelle Ward is a born and raised Minnesotan who escaped to the Netherlands in 2001. Since then she acquired a PhD in Amsterdam, a job in Rotterdam, and four bicycles. To read her other fiction publications please see janelleward.com.
Photo credit: Ana Blanxer
Contemporary Politics 101
The classroom was buzzing, chock-full of first years, when Professor Meredith Portland entered. The freshman didn’t quite know why they were pursuing higher education, yet they craved the university lifestyle experience, the maturity that would surely seep in despite the constant texting and joking and eyeing each other for hook up potential. Professor Portland ignored them, strode to the front of the room and stopped behind the lectern. She placed a large black shoulder bag on the table next to the lectern, shrugged off her overcoat, and unwound her scarf. She sighed, glanced briefly at the students in front of her and then set about unpacking her bag.
The students decreased their volume. She was not what they were expecting, this woman at the front of the room, so cold and disinterested. Most students were still rosy from their mothers’ warm, tearful embraces last week at the freshman and parents’ luncheon. They weren’t sure how to place her. They discussed her in lowered tones.
Their conversations faltered as she lifted a plastic container and a large clear glass saucepan from her bag, placing them on the table in front of her. Rather than preparing a digital slide presentation, she took out a portable burner and plugged it into the power cord usually reserved for laptops. When she removed a large pitcher of water, some students swiped their smart phones to check whether they were in the right classroom. This was Contemporary Politics 101, right?
Professor Portland placed the saucepan on the burner and poured in two inches of water, room temperature. She fiddled with the knob on the burner but did not turn it on. Then she grasped the plastic container and gently removed its cover. She reached in with both hands and pulled out a small green frog.
Several female undergrads in the front row squawked. Subsequently the lecture hall was at once still. Professor Portland did not smile. She held the frog up, skillfully cradling it in both hands. She stepped out from behind the lectern and the students shrank backward, row by row, as if struck by a cold breeze.
“Good morning, everyone. I’d like you to meet Jeb.” She stopped her approach. She stretched her arms first to the right, then to the left, so the 150 odd young adults could get a good look.
“Jeb is an American green tree frog. Generally, these frogs are easily frightened, but Jeb doesn’t seem to mind frequent handling.”
Professor Portland paused and gazed, in turn, at several students sitting in the middle rows. She held eye contact until each student looked down, twisting their hands or shuffling their feet, and then she moved onto the next. She returned to the lectern, her steps slow, and paused for another moment, her elbows resting on the wooden surface, Jeb blinking in her hands.
“Jeb is here today to assist in a demonstration.”
She stopped speaking. She approached the table next to the lectern and lowered Jeb into the saucepan. She did so slowly. Jeb never made a move to leap in wild directions, but students in the front row still looked for the closest escape route.
Professor Portland turned on the burner and a lone voice cried out.
Professor Portland took a few more contraptions out of the bag. One was a large thermometer. She placed this in the water. She looked at her audience again.
“The experiment is already under way. I don’t have time to give you a long, sordid history of the phenomenon. So I will stick to the boiling frog experiment’s heyday, from approximately 1872 to 1888.”
The room buzzed, a tense, agitated noise, when Professor Portland uttered the words “boiling frog.” Perhaps the cleverer people in the group had figured out Jeb’s destiny when he first appeared, but now awareness had spread to every unenlightened corner.
“Go ahead, google ‘boiling frog.’ I know you all have your phones on you. You can follow along on Wikipedia.”
The buzz intensified. Several students got up and left, their coats, scarfs and bags bumping into others as they fled the hall. But it was not a mass exodus. Most sat, gasping with their neighbors.
Professor Portland shouted, “Quiet!” Jeb hopped to his left, and the classroom fell silent.
Professor Portland continued. “In 1872, Heinzmann conducted an experiment. He demonstrated that if water is heated at a slow enough rate, a normal frog will not attempt to escape the pan. Fratscher replicated this study three years later. In the meantime, several other researchers refuted this claim and published evidence to the contrary. Later, Goltz also conducted this experiment, raising the water temperature from 17.5 °C to 56 °C. This increase in temperature took place over a ten-minute period, thus a temperature increase of 3.8 °C per minute. In another experiment, Goltz raised the temperature at a rate of 0.002°C per second. After two and a half hours, the frog was found dead. It had never moved.”
As she spoke the Professor’s eyes stayed on the thermometer. She glanced at her watch and adjusted the heat accordingly. She did not look at Jeb. The students looked at Jeb, frozen. Some had opened the corresponding Wikipedia page but no one was fact checking. A male in the back of the room breathed “No fucking waaaaaaay” and his neighbor elbowed him to silence.
“A little more than 15 years later, Sedgwick explained the apparent contradiction between the results of these earlier experiments: Obviously, the varying results were due to the use of different rates of water heating. He said, and I quote: ‘The truth appears to be that if the heating is sufficiently gradual, no reflex movements will be produced even in the normal frog; if it be more rapid, yet take place at such a rate as to be fairly called ‘gradual:’ it will not secure the repose of the normal frog under any circumstances.”
The water was coming alive. A dark haired girl in the third row was thinking about the time she dipped her finger in a pot of nearly boiling eggs. A muscular, curly haired guy in the fifth row was rubbing a large burn on his left arm.
“We’re almost there, you see? Oh yes, here we go.”
Professor Portland turned off the burner with a twist of her left hand and checked her watch for the last time.
“Students, it appears we have replicated Goltz’s initial work from the late 19th century.”
The audience was mute. Any hope was gone for Jeb’s realization of the danger. They stared at Jeb. Jeb did not stare back. Professor Portland drew a last item from her shoulder bag. It was a large pair of tongs. She plucked Jeb from the clear glass saucepan and placed him back in the plastic container. She eased the lid back on top, slowly, as if to soothe Jeb.
She unplugged the burner and made sure it was cool to the touch before setting it in the bottom of the bag. She placed the saucepan inside the bag, and the tongs, then the thermometer. Last to go was the plastic container containing Jeb.
Professor Portland picked up her coat and shrugged her arms inside. She wound her scarf around her neck, picked up her shoulder bag and exited the classroom.