The Wicker Chair

The Wicker Chair

From Chicken Soup for the College Soul

The Wicker Chair

During my senior year in college, I took a marketing class taught by a cantankerous old man. On the first day of class, he made some predictions. First, he said we would always remember his name. Visualize a jack-o’-lantern in the seat of a wicker chair—and you will always remember Jack Wickert. Second, he said most people would fare very badly in this class because he had no patience with students who don’t do the assignments and follow instructions. Last, there would be no more than three As out of the forty students in the class.

He made us sweat all semester. No doubt, we learned something about creative avenues for marketing products. He taunted and jeered at us and called us airheads. This was a night class. Everyone worked full-time. By 7:00 P.M., we were tired—imagine how we felt at 10:00 P.M. after being beaten up for three hours!

Mr. Wickert scheduled the final exam for the second-to-last week of the semester. We would review the results on the last night of class. On the night of the final exam, Jack Wickert told the class there was only one question. Then he stunned us all by announcing, “This is an open exam. You may look through your books, your notes or anything that will help. In fact, as far as I’m concerned, you may leave the room, go to the library, telephone your friends. You may do any research you like. There are a few things you may not do. You may not talk to or disturb anyone else in the class. You may not share your findings. And finally, don’t bother me. When you finish, put your results on my desk and leave.”

Then, Wickert proceeded to write the problem on the board: Develop a marketing plan for an electronic rattrap costing $150. (In 1977 dollars, that was the equivalent of one month’s rent.)

About half the class immediately got up and left. I looked over at one of my friends. He arched his eyebrow, shrugged and shook his head. What a horrible thing to have to market. Who’s going to spend a whole week’s salary on one rattrap? If you really had rats, you were likely to be living in a slum and certainly couldn’t afford this princely cost. If you could afford it, you lived where there were no infestations. And our grade depended on solving this problem.

I just sat there, staring at the blackboard. I knew there was a catch. What was the gimmick? Knowing Wickert, there was a trick to this. And the answer was easy. He just knew we’d be too dense to catch it. So, I sat there staring and thinking. Finally, I got it! The answer was clear. You couldn’t sell it. Write the report, briefly explaining that this was not marketable, cut your losses, move on to something practical. So, I wrote it out on one page. I started packing up my things and looked up to catch Mr. Wickert looking at me with a smug, evil leer.

I stopped. I sat back down. If I handed it to him, it would be irrevocable. And his look told me that he thought he had won. He had outsmarted me. I sat there looking at him. He wouldn’t look at me again. Now, he was just sitting there smiling broadly, pretending to read. So, I was forced to reflect on the rats. The trap was so expensive—and big (we had the dimensions). Where would you even put this thing if you could afford to buy one? I contemplated the problem some more. And more. And more.

Slowly, I started to think about large warehouses, factories . . . places you store things, like food, like perishables, like paper (picture rats gnawing), like boxes, grains . . . industrial facilities. Yes! Keep going. What else? Stores, supermarkets, restaurants. They could afford this. I was starting to get excited. Yes, they’ve got room to place this unwieldy device somewhere. Several places, in fact.

But it could cut into the revenues of exterminators. Yes! Exterminators, what a great market. They could buy them and sell them to their customers. Heck, they could rent them and collect huge profits. And off I went. That night, I developed a twenty-page marketing plan. It was logical, reasonable and feasible.

I was quite satisfied with my marketing plan. Just before 10:00 P.M., I dropped it on his desk. He was still looking smug, but what the heck. I had tried.

Next Wednesday, he showed up in class with the results. He announced, “You met my lowest expectations. Most of you missed the whole point, and your grades reflect it. However, I am annoyed. I was forced to grant one more A than I had predicted.” And he glared pointedly at me. “There were four this semester.”

He handed out the graded finals. The groans and grumbling were audible. However, I had gotten an A. Why did I sense he wasn’t going to let me enjoy it?

Wickert interrupted all the complaints. “I warned you at the beginning of class that you would not do the assignments or read the book. You took the lazy way out—and it cost you. If you had followed my instructions, this final would have been a slam dunk. Now that it’s over, I can tell you. I took the case straight out of the textbook. Verbatim. I did not even bother to change the name on the case. I knew you wouldn’t notice.”

You could hear the sound of pages rustling as we frantically searched the textbook and the index, looking for the case. Then, there was dead silence as we read it. Oddly enough, the case’s marketing plan turned out to be very similar to my own. They thought up a few things that I hadn’t and vice versa.

“I was confident in you dunderheads. Only three people figured out what I had done during the final and took the information out of the book.” (He had been watching us and knew who’d used the book. I hadn’t even cracked mine. He was right.) “But one person did it the hard way and actually reasoned it out on her own. It would have saved her a lot of time if she had just done what I had asked.”

Yes, it would have saved me time—and embarrassment. But, I did figure it out myself, although I hadn’t followed his directions. I had thought it through and come up with the correct answer. Could Wickert have been trying to goad us young students into thinking?

Even to this day I wonder if Wickert was secretly proud of me, as well.

Eva Rosenberg

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