Tuesday, November 15, 2011

November 15, 2011: Kids Say the Darnedest Things 2

[The best way I can think of to respond to the Penn State situation is to focus for this week’s blog posts on a few of the many very impressive voices and ideas my students have shared over the years, to exemplify some of the best about what both college and young people have to offer. This is the second in that series.]
Since yesterday’s post focused on a very recent and entirely individual impressive student voice, I thought I’d shift today to a very distant and entirely communal, yet just as impressive and inspiring, set of such voices. I taught my first class, a section of Writing I (called, I believe, Composition 101) at Temple University, in the fall of 2001; I was using a standard syllabus shared by all of us first-time instructors, and after an initial week of introductions, we were scheduled to discuss the first substantive reading of our first unit (a section focused on class, money, success, and related themes), Russell Conwell’s early 20th century, hugely popular motivational speech “Acres of Diamonds” (both the text and the audio available at that link; Conwell was Temple’s founder) on the first day of the second week.
That day was Tuesday, September 11th, 2001; Temple rightly cancelled classes as soon as the details of the morning’s terrorist attacks started to become available, so students could check in with their parents, go home, and otherwise make family and home the priorities that they needed to be on that terrifying and chaotic day. But academic semesters and classes, like everything else of great importance, must go on even in the toughest circumstances, and so on Thursday the 13th we were back in class. Conwell was still on our plate, but I have to admit having no idea whether we should talk about it and carry on with our scheduled work; whether we should discuss our reactions to and thoughts on the attacks (every detail of which was still unclear at that time, including who had ordered them or whether there were soon to be more); or whether there was some other option I wasn’t seeing or didn’t (entirely inexperienced teacher that I was) know. To my credit (I think), I shared my uncertainty with the class right at the outset, and asked them what they wanted to do.
Remember that these were first-semester (first-month, even) first-year students, many of them the first member of their family to attend college, dealing with all of those new experiences at the same time that they were dealing with a once-in-a-lifetime national crisis (and, I’m sure, with some seriously freaked-out parents and families back home). A few understandably reciprocated my uncertainty; a few more just as understandably voted that we cancel another class. But the significant majority voted that we do both of my options—that we share our perspectives on the attacks and situation for a few minutes, and then get back to talking about Conwell and the less timely but equally important issues (the American Dream, opportunity, choice vs. luck, and more) to which his speech connects. I still remember the whole hour fifteen just as clearly as I do the morning of September 11th, and much more happily—both discussions were honest and nuanced, multi-vocal and conversational, passionate but friendly, and just plain exemplary on so many levels. I don’t want to be melodramatic and say that if the day had gone differently my whole teaching career might have, but there’s no question that the semester’s tone could have been set much more negatively or unsuccessfully; and it’s to my mind far from a coincidence that instead the class remains one of my all-time favorites, with dozens of other moments that still stand out at this decade’s distance.
More tomorrow,
PS. Any surprisingly inspiring conversations or moments you’d highlight?

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