When I first started teaching at a small liberal arts college on the East Coast I knew I was unprepared for student interaction. I didn’t know how to create a syllabus. I didn’t know how to grade students. I had no clue how to speak to them. I was a last-minute emergency appointment for a freshman English composition course and when I talked to my boss about going into the classroom feeling so totally unprepared, he said, “Just teach them what you know,” and with those words of encouragement he kicked me out of his office and down the hall into my classroom.
I stepped into my classroom and I saw the faces of 10 Black women who looked just as frightened as I felt. We smiled at each other and I took my seat at the head of a horseshoe shaped table where everyone sat. I am using the term “Black” because not all the women were “African American.” Some were Jamaican. Some were Puerto Rican. Some were from the Dominican Republic.
The women varied in age from 22 to 65. As I unpacked my bag, a 30 year old Black man with round glasses and a limp sauntered into the room. He took a seat next to me and appeared to be rather aggressively staring down each of the other students one-by-one. One advantage to teaching at a horseshoe-shaped table is everyone can see each other without straining their necks. One bad thing about teaching at a horseshoe-shaped table, I learned that day, is students can stare down each other. Before I could open my mouth to introduce myself to the class, the lone male student raised his hand and said with a slight South African accent, “Sir?” I smiled and nodded he could continue.
By giving him temporary command of the horseshoe-shaped table I unwittingly allowed him an opportunity I would immediately regret. “Sir,” he repeated, “I am a Muslim. I believe women should walk three steps behind me. I believe women are not equal to me. I am offended and assaulted that these other students, these women, are sitting around this table on an equal footing with me. I am uncomfortable. I do not wish to continue this class with this inequity. What are you going to do about it?”
We were off to a bad start. The male student stared me down. I nodded my head as I tried to comprehend if he actually said out loud what I just heard him say out loud. I glanced around the room and all the women students were staring me down as well. Their hands were fists.
They were holding their tongues.
For a moment. I knew if I didn’t say the right thing the entire class was going to explode in hatred and yelling and I knew I would never teach again. I stood up from the horseshoe-shaped table and drew up a piece of chalk into my hand and wrote on the board “Make Yourself a Blank Page” and I urged them all to look beyond gender and religion and color and to allow other students to “write on you” with their experiences as if you were a blank page without pre-judging their intentions or experiences.
Then I wrote this on the board: Passionate Mind / Intellectual Heart I asked them to analyze that phrase. They said the terms should be switched around to read “Passionate Heart / Intellectual Mind.” I told them they were right. In the world beyond our classroom that is ordinarily how you see those terms connected. However, I said, I mixed them up on purpose.
Why did I do that? Several students raised their hand to answer. “You want to confuse us.” “You’re testing us.” “You want us to think different.” I wrote all their answers on the board and we discussed the merits and weaknesses in each thought. Then I told them that, other than logically expressing their thoughts and feelings in writing, the core of a university education is all about having a “Passionate Mind and Intellectual Heart.”
They stared at me.
I said that phrase means you are able to unemotionally hold two different and opposite thoughts in your mind at the same time and then… and here’s the hard part… find value in each of them even if you don’t agree with either of them.
They stared at me.
A university education, I warned them, is not about deciding between right and wrong; it is about finding compromise and understanding in that hazy, grey, undefined part of the world and then getting comfortable enough with being open-minded to live your life into your death. I asked them to give me some examples of two opposite views that appear to never be able to be reconciled.
“Abortion and Pro Life” “Israel and Palestine” “Muslim men and American women” The women laughed at the last one. The male student grimaced. We discussed their answers and how two sides can find different truths in the same issue. We went on to investigate the idea of the great, tragic, play Antigone and how a philosopher named Hegel believed that play was the perfect tragedy because — both sides were right — and the inability for the right on each side to find value in the other side, and then choosing dying over living, is what makes for a true tragedy.
I asked my students how we, as students of the university, can find ways to understand more than one truth. “Listen to each other.” “Let our minds speak and not our anger.” “Life and death don’t have to always agree.”
We then began a discussion about Frederick Douglass, a Black slave, who taught himself how to read and write. He knew the only way out of slavery was to first educate his mind. The class was soon over and I told them I admired them for having such an open and thoughtful first class session and that the rest of the semester was going to be wonderful. I asked the male student if our discussion helped answer his question and he said, “Not really, sir. They still belong beneath me.”
As the women in the classroom stood and prepared to verbally attack him, I thanked him for being honest and I told him I hoped he would at least try to consider the idea of a Passionate Mind and Intellectual Heart during class time. He nodded and left. We never saw him again. The women in the class were wounded. They talked about him often to try to understand his truth and reconcile it in their minds. They tried hard to comprehend why, just because they were women, they were less valuable.
They nicknamed him “Three Steps” for his belief that women should walk three steps behind him. Several months after our class concluded one of the students told me they’d heard our male student got sick and was hospitalized soon after our first class. She went on to tell me the student had fallen ill because of HIV complications. I later confirmed what she told me was true. We both stood there silent in the gently falling rain with the sun threatening to break morning along the horizon.
We both knew that first day of class we had witnessed a living tragedy: A Black man who was a Muslim and who was infected with HIV and who was unwilling or unable to reconcile the opposite, but equal, truths in his mind. We both hoped those truths didn’t kill him.