In our fall 2019 class in Oral Communication at Emory University, my students and I began our time together by looking at narrative’s function in oral discourse. Our first work together was an examination of this genre of oratory—reading a script to an unseen audience. No gestures, no eye contact. Only the voice. We spent time learning how to write and edit a draft, to practice speaking, to make technology work for us as writers/speakers, and to mark the script for effective reading. Along the way, we have learned by doing about narrative and its quiet power. Below you’ll find our work. They are written and performed for a public audience; therefore, some students asked to withhold their names. We are honoring those decisions. As in the spirit of This I Believe, commenting is turned off. The essays below continue this rather meditative practice begun so long ago. Best wishes, from all of us. May your life’s journey have quiet moments of reflection and story.
I believe in my students. I’ve been a college teacher for an awfully long time—over 20 years. And in that time, I have learned never to walk into my class with a great deal of fear. I trust these students of mine.
But there have been times when I worry. Just for a while. Sometimes I might have a mixture of students that does cause me some concern.
Recently I had a college writing class—the typical class that most first-year college students have to take when they enter the university system. Often these classes are taught with topical themes combined with intensive writing practice within that theme. Often we faculty use personal writing as a door into the academic writing we want our students to practice. Writing and sharing personal writing always opens the door to potentially tough conversations, but mostly I find that it is community building rhetoric.
This particular semester, I had an unusual mix of students. About a third of the class were from Asian countries, another third were from primarily Muslim countries, and the last third were students from the United States. I wasn’t sure how this was going to work. I had chosen an unusual theme for me, a risky theme—that of “forgiveness.” I had included in my syllabus texts that would challenge their notions about forgiveness as both a personal rhetorical action and a cultural one as well. These texts were bits and pieces from the Bible, the Qur’an, prayers from the Jewish tradition, fables from various traditions, and we did a deep dive into the Amish schoolhouse shooting. I scattered my net wide in an effort to represent the human experience with forgiveness—both struggles and embrasures.
Forgiveness seemed to me a good topic for writing and thinking in the current polarized political climate. However, I was slightly concerned about two of my students. One was an extremely conservative Muslim from an Arabic country and the other a conservative Evangelical Christian from the American Midwest. On the first day of class, they found seats next to each other. Like magnets the two opposites seemed almost attracted to the other.
As the class periods progressed, I began to realize how deeply seated their political and religious attitudes were, and we were going to be engaging some of the values they held in the readings of the class. The writing assignments and group work, I feared, might cause them distress or create responses that might damage the forward movement of the class.
When I looked at their writing near the class beginning, I confess that I feared that neither of them might be able to be open to the texts and ideas I had selected. Would they be able to graciously listen first and respond critically after first remaining open? I wanted them to make arguments and not just assertions. Would they be able to meld facts, data, and evidence into their reasoning with a reader in mind? I steeled myself for a challenging semester.
But we progressed on through the semester in spite of my misgivings. Over the course of the semester, those two lovely men surprised me at every juncture. In fact, they taught me so much.
They taught me that when you are in close proximity to someone with drastically different beliefs, it changes you. They also taught me that sometimes what you think is a radically different belief, is actually quite similar to other beliefs, with a slight twist. These two young, smart, caring men honed and sharpened each other in group work. They grew to love each other. They found common ground. And in finding common ground, they both began to grow, becoming different people.
They didn’t give up their beliefs. Contrary to the statements of fear-mongers in our culture, persuading students to leave their beliefs is not the purpose of education. Rather, through their friendship, they learned how to argue better, how to think more clearly, how to express themselves while grounded in ethics and community-spiritedness. They reminded me that leaning in to the “other” with hospitality causes all of us to modify, adapt, and change all the time—it’s a natural part of growth and fuels the development of real personhood within a community.
When that class ended, they were the best of friends. I watched them in their subsequent years of college off and on. I’d see them laughing and debating as they walked across campus. They even chose to become roommates. They continued their friendship and continued growing and learning.
That gives me hope for our communities and the world. And that that is why I believe in my students, year after year. They shore up my own faith in my fellow human beings in spite of hate and distrust I see and hear around me. I am so grateful for them, and I continue to be grateful that I have the opportunity to participate in that wondrous re-making year after year.