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.

44 Comments

  1. Hi prying1 —
    Thank you for your comment. The whole experience was sorry and shocking on so many levels.
    I can still taste the pain of the women over the semester. They kept asking me why he didn’t like them and why he wouldn’t come back and sit with them. I had to just ask them to try to be him and see the world through his eyes and his values to try to attempt to discover why someone would feel that way.
    Sometimes, I told them, things are unknowable and they hurt and you keep that pain close to you so you won’t have to experience it again later.
    The end of the story still makes me shudder but somehow I don’t think it would have made any of the women feel any better.

  2. That is indeed a surprising story you have there. As a graduate of a women’s college, I never had to endure that sort of scenario. Some might think the experience is one could shelter women from the “real world.” I, on the other hand, think it’s just what some women need. It’s definitely what I needed.
    We also had our share of diversity and differences as well, just not on that large of a scale.
    I think the way you handled the situation is commendable.

  3. Miss Carla!
    Your women’s college experience is interesting! Was there a brother school nearby for socializing? Is your school now co-ed? If yes, how do you feel about that change?
    My Columbia mentor told me, when I related the story to him, that male student “shot you between the eyes” and that he was looking for a fight and to kill you and undermine you on the first day of class. He said it was all premeditated but that I handled it appropriately.
    It was certainly a surprise to be tossed a bundle of burning dynamite and then try to quietly extinguish it in 80 minutes with 11 people watching. 🙂

  4. What a story. What a great story.
    Confronted face to face by conflict of culture, gender, challenge to competency– what went through your mind in coming up with the blank page method? If you are an INTJ, I suppose the answer will be purely intuitive and in a flash.
    I can’t help but admire your method. It focused the group on learning, it was nonconfrontative, nonjudgmental, task oriented and creative.
    Even without the impact of the final twist at the end of the story, it is a powerful story.

  5. No, there wasn’t really a brother school that I knew of for my school, Columbia College. The U of SC was in the same town, so if we actually wanted to get out and meet guys we were downtown.
    And actually, unlike some women’s colleges who still allow men in day classes or are now totally coed, we are still all female, all the time. 🙂
    Unless you count the fact that guys can be in the dorms 24 hours a day now. That I don’t think is such a great idea, and I’m actually glad it wasn’t the policy when I was there.

  6. Jeff! — Yes, as an INTJ I find that when I’m put on the spot I revert to my childhood actor training where you’re “on” even if you don’t feel like it because the audience is paying to see and enjoy you. I remember at that time struggling to find a metaphor that would make sense to everyone that once we are in this room we are in the game together and the enemies are beyond us and not each other. The idea of a blank page seemed to work because, as a writer, the thing you face that brings many the most fear is a blank page staring back at you. I’ve always fought that initial fear with the determined concept of putting something on that page even if it didn’t make immediate sense just to fill a void with something that would give it form to be changed later. Students usually immediately get the “you are a blank page” concept far before they get the “Intellectual Heart” argument. 🙂 My Columbia mentor would’ve handled the situation differently. He would have said, “I’m not biting on your nasty argument and you’re trying to hurt the feelings of these women on purpose so either knock it off right now and get along or get out.” 🙂 My mentor would lock the doors after class started so those who were tardy could not get in. 🙂 I LOVED IT!
    Carla — Fascinating. I guess I’m old enough to find the idea of co-ed dorms and bathrooms unnecessary. Men and women are human beings but we do have different needs and to pretend those differences don’t exist is a little silly. 🙂

  7. I remember people would expresses diametrically opposed viewpoints in school. Often, the two polar sides of an issue were combative.
    At times, some people would become so upset that someone held a view different from his or hers that they looked as if they could leap up and hit someone. Part of it was the passion of youth and inexperience. People weren’t used to people holding different viewpoints and expressing them.
    I found that many of these people, if given a chance to socialize with a few drinks, often became good friends.
    Toward the end of the year, people who would verbally spar over pro-life vs. pro-abortion viewpoints in classes or the hallways (just to use one issue as an example), would be able to socialize and be civil to each other outside of the classroom.
    People just needed some time to get to know each other. At another level, each side decided the way to win the other over was to become friendly with each other, rather than fight all of the time.
    Some strange group combinations developed because of the efforts to socialize and get to know each other. I don’t think anyone’s mind was changed in the short term, but people did start to become calmer when discussing hot button issues. Some friendships between unlikely people also developed.
    Whatever the result, it did show that people can get along. It also shows that the only way to attempt to convince someone that your view is right is to be friendly, rather than combative. There is some truth to the saying that sugar attracts better than vinegar.
    Too bad our political system doesn’t work this way. Instead of tearing each other down, too bad we didn’t spend a few hours trying to find out how we are the same.
    Chris
    http://d-chaos.blogspot.com

  8. Chris —
    You make an eloquent case that has excellent lessons for the world.
    It is hard for many to be quiet and listen to others but that’s the only way we can wend our way into understanding other people.
    Getting along isn’t hard. It’s the decision not to get along that leaves many young dead and dying on battlefields across our centuries.

  9. David,
    What a great story and it illustrates,in my mind, one of the problems we face in the form of fundamentalism.
    But I agree with what you said about holding to diametrically opposed ideas and seeing value in each arguement. I tend to do that to the chargrin of many of my readers.
    Sometimes it makes my arguements muddy, but also makes them much more palatable for those in the middle.
    Kev

  10. Kev — Yes, it is a difficult line between what we know and what we know we want to share with others because so many are closed to considering anything new. Our job is to just share what we know and hope there are other minds out there trained to consider all options and not just those handed down.
    Kunstemaecker — Nice to see you here and thanks for the comment. I agree we all have our own truths though they may not be factual. The key is modifying our individual truths into a larger societal morality so we can all get along a bit better beyond cultural and national boundaries. The individual relativity of which you speak is only dangerous when it is withheld from the rest of society for inspection and analysis against other shared truths.

  11. And you say you didn’t know how to teach.
    This is beautiful and challenging and very, very poignant. A new semester begins for me as well, and this posts reminds me of what is at the heart of what I want to do as well as I teach my students.

  12. Hi John B.!
    Thanks for the kind note! That episode happened about seven years ago so I have many more classes under my belt now. I probably would handled it the same way today, though. I just wouldn’t be as trembling as I was then stepping through the lessons. 🙂
    Good luck on your new semester! We all gotta stick together!

  13. David!
    What an amazing story. I must commend you on how you handled that situation, and also the deep insights you have. Whilst the behaviour of the muslim man would never be accepted in my uni or any other uni in Melbourne, Australia (a city which I pride on being extremely multicultural to the point where racism, sexism, and ethnocentrism is publicly unacceptable), I must say that you handled the situation admirably well, despite the shocking ending.
    Your phrase ‘passionate mind/intellectual heart’ really does embody what a university education is about, and I wish teachers and lecturers over here would expound that valuable lesson to all the students they come across. The problem as I see it is that people today too often go about their lives not questioning the beliefs and doctrines they follow.
    Life shouldn’t be about a search for answers, because an answer is nothing but the result of a question. Therefore life should be about a search for questions: the more questions you know, the more answers you will get. The minute you stop asking questions is the minute you stop getting answers.
    Just a thought for everyone to ponder.

  14. Hi Tim!
    I love your point about life is the quest for questions. You are precisely right.
    Too many people say, “I have all the answers I need” when they should be saying, “I have a few things I need to find out.”
    Well done! 🙂

  15. What an article! Thank you. I wish I had you as a teacher in college.
    Oh and I probably would have run out of the room when the guy said that. I would have run out and said “no more teaching for me!”

  16. I was just thinking today about WHY I blog and mostly it’s for my love of writing. I don’t get to write for my career but now I get to write every single day whenever there is something to write about.
    Some of my family (as in boyfriend’s family) is afraid of me blogging because of how my boyfriend’s ex stalks me. I stopped blogging for a long time out of fear but it made me miserable not being able to really express myself.
    Like cooking, playing music, painting…this is my hobby 🙂