It’s a good day. I am happy! I had a happy summer. Whatever powers to be said I couldn’t teach summer classes for the first time in 32 years didn’t know what a present they had handed me. I didn’t know. I completed our horrendous renovation; I built a relaxing and meditative koi fishpond; I lost 22 pounds and am down to the weight when I got married 32 years ago this Thursday; I surpassed by pre-operation four mile walking distance and reached six miles in 55 minutes and 13 seconds; my blood pressure is 60/100; I got myself not only back in peak physical shape, but mental and spiritual shape as well; and I am happy the semester is about to begin.
But, I’m especially happy because I unexpected got hit with a spray of invigorating “spiritual bullets” that penetrated deep into my soul and energized my spirit: a telephone call from a student I’ll call Henrietta from whom I haven’t heard in a long time, a conversation with Katie, and above all a conversation with a student I’ll call Henry whom I haven’t seen or heard from in a year.
In fact, it was eerie. For whatever unknown reason I was thinking about Henry as I was crossing the rotunda and about to go up the stairs to my office, wondering what he was doing, where he was, what he was feeling. He had stopped coming to class and participating in his triad, and failed the course a year ago. That’s the least of it. He failed the other members of his triad; above all he failed himself. When he was in class, he may have been present physically, but he was not mentally or spiritually there. Everyone noticed in class that he couldn’t look at any one face to face, not even the members of his triad. Seldom smiled. Talked hesitantly and softly. His eyes always seemed shut by an invisible second eyelid.
He more interested–so he said–in his job that he needed to make payments on his new truck and insurance as well as tuition, in hunting, and in spending time with his girl friend. The truth is that all that was not true.
Strangely, as Henry approached me the details of our last conversation in the hall outside the classroom, just before he walked away from the class with just over two weeks left in the term, leaving the other two members of his triad to fend for themselves, flooded back with vivid detail. “I don’t like to work with other people; I don’t want to depend on them for anything,” he had mumbled in his defense of what he knew was his indefensible irresponsibility of not contributing in any way to the latest project and doing at best superficial work on the previous one and now stopping to come to class and taking an “F.”
“You’re a salesman, aren’t you? You telling me that you’re not dependent on others for your success, that no one taught you about the machines and how to sell, that no one gave you leads? Do you think your boss is not dependent on anyone to make a profit?
“You deal with people on the job, don’t you?”
“Then, what’s the difference in this classroom.”
“I don’t know? I just don’t want to depend on anyone else for my grade.”
“You depend on others at your job to do your job, don’t you?”
“How?” No answer. Only a hollow stare at the cold hallway floor.
We talked some more. “Okay,” I said. “I’ll make you a deal. I”ll give you your own course the way you want it. I will lecture to you; you will take notes. I will make reading assignments; you will hand in answers to MY questions. You will work alone. I will give you tests; you will study and take tests. I will give you grades. BUT, on one condition.”
“What’s that,” he asked.
“You say you don’t want to work with anyone else, and you say you don’t want to depend on anyone for your grade. So, you have to go out into Valdosta and find ten professionals or business people who are NOT dependent on other people for their success, who do not have to work with other people. Find me ten such people and I give you a personal course.
“There aren’t any people like that.”
“Well, then? When are you going to start working with people?”
“They won’t take me back.”
“Are you sure? Have you asked them?”
“No, I just know. Beside it’s too late. The project is due today,”
“I’ll give you all a few days extra to put things together. But, that’s not the issue. Do you really not know if they’ll take you back or don’t you want to know? But, suppose you’re wrong, what do you think you have to do for them to welcome you back into the triad and give you still another chance?”
“I guess….,” he stopped as if he came to wall. He continued to hesitate obviously hoping I would utter the answer for him. I remained silent. It was a long, pregnant pause. He knew the answer, but it was obvious that he was afraid to face the demon of what should be said.
“Apologize,” came reluctantly forced out from his mouth. He hung his head to stare at the tiled floor and his voice tailed off into a whisper as he approached the last sylabyl as if he didn’t want to hear that word.
“I can’t. That’s being weak. I’ve been taught that if you have to apologize, you’re not a man.”
“Is that the real weakness? Are you really being truthful?” I carefully asked feeling I was approaching dangerous territory and dare not press.
“I don’t know what words to use.”
“Do you think it’s the words or your sincerity–or the truth– that matters?”
“Well, they don’t respect me.”
“Did either one of them do anything that was disrepectful to you?”
“Was what you just did and have been doing all quarter, disrespectful to them and more importantly yourself?”
“Can you tell them for me that I am sorry? The last time they didn’t accept it.”
“Did you mean it?”
“Not really. Will you tell them?”
“Can’t do that. You have to face up to what you’ve done and why you did it, and what you have to do. But, I’ll tell you this. I know that if you sincerely apologize and are honest, they will..take..you..back. You know that, don’t you.”
“Yeah, but I’ll have to think about that.”
He didn’t return to the classroom with me. Instead, he turned away, walked down the hall, rounded the corner, and disappeared. I substituted for him as the other two members of the triad presented their Broadway project. Neither I nor the other members of his triad saw or heard from him.
At the end of the term, I called him to see how he was doing. He was surprised to hear from me.
“I thought you hated me.”
“Why would I hate you?”
“Because I didn’t do what you wanted.”
“Did you do what YOU wanted?”
“No, not really.”
“Well, then, you have someone more important who is already upset with you. What I think doesn’t really matter.”
I told him that I would like to have him back in class when he decided to take the course again but only on the condition “that you admit to at least yourself the REAL reason you walked out on yourself, your triad members, and everyone else in the class.”
“I don’t think so,” he said with what I thought had a tone of regret.
“Sorry to hear that. Well, stop by for a Tootsie Pop. You take care, and have a Merry Christmas and a happy new year.”
“And you too. Thanks for calling.” Then, he softly said something cryptical that I am afraid of decoding. “It means a lot.”
We hung up.
Now here Henry and I were, on the floor, sucking on Tootsie Pops, talking. He had a different look on his face. It was if that second eyelid had lifted.
“First I have to make a confession. I tried to pressure you to change my grade to a “WP” by going to the Vice President’s assistant and your department head?”
“I know? Did you think it would work?”
He smiled, “Not really, but I had to try. Mad at me?”
“No, I’ve got a thick skin. But, tell me, if I had changed your grade would it have helped you? Would you have learned anything?”
“In the short run, yes. But, not in the long run, and not the right things. I know that now. What you said to me on the telephone about being honest about the real reason I walked out really got me thinking.”
“I’m starting to see that getting an education is more than about grades and getting a job. It’s also about opening myself to myself and others.”
“If you’ve learned that in the past year, you’ve learned more than most people who graduate with a piece of paper and more than a lot of profs.”
Feeling on a role, that a hope and pray was being answered, I press on. “Learn anything else?”
He hesitated as if he knew that I knew what he was about to say. I did.
“I’ve gotten too good at dodging the bullet. You were right, I wasn’t being honest. I lied to you. I didn’t walk out on my triad because I couldn’t work with people or didn’t want to work with people or didn’t want to depend on others for my grade. It wasn’t even it being hard to apologize. That was bullshit. I wasn’t ever told that apologize was a sign of weakness.” He stopped to clear his throat. “This is not easy to say. I was raised in the south. No, that’s just an excuse. I left the class because I was prejudiced. I didn’t like having to associate and work with a black, especially a black woman. You knew that didn’t you.”
“Why didn’t you confront me?”
“My sense at the time was that it wouldn’t have done any good. You’d deny it. I just had to hope and pray that you would confront yourself one day. Looks like you have.”
“Is your offer still open?”
“I’ll see you in class tomorrow. I know it won’t be easy facing up to my racism, but you once wrote on the board that being hard if what makes doing worthwhile.”
We got up and shook hands.
As I walked up the stairs, I silently screamed out a bursting “yes!!” I turned to see Henry leave the building. “Who says prayers aren’t answered and hopes aren’t fulfilled,” I asked myself.
As I warmly reflect on what had just happened with Henry, as well as my conversations with Katie and Henrietta, I wonder if maybe the true evaluation of who we are, what we do in the classroom, and the purpose of what we do is how humane classes truly are, how much we teach and learn more than than we can imagine.
What I mean is that Henry put his finger on the meaning of an education. Of course, it is important that we teach and the student learn the subject material. But, for what purpose? To get a grade? Fulfill a requirement? Be handed a piece of paper? Just to make a living? I certainly believe that it’s also important that we teach and the student learn what we call certain analytical skills. But, once again, for what purpose? No, that’s too limited, too valueless. Getting an education has to be more than merely information and thinking skill. We live in a three dimensional world and too often we teach–and learn–only in the two dimensions of information and skill. I think there’s an all-important and too often ignored third dimension to getting an education: the “human dimension.” It’s that dimension of education which insists that we teachers–and professors, if you will–focus not on just the quest for the mythical golden fleece of “subject mastery,” and the equally mythical holy grail of “all the skills,” but on that elusive, mysterious single student. After all, if we can’t focus on that one student, on that signifcant, invaluable human being, haven’t we lost our moral, intellectual, and human bearing? The “human dimension” helps us, as Henry so wisely is beginning to learn and realize, to open our lives to ourselves and others. And, in so doing, helps us to expand our lives and those of others, to excite our lives, to refresh our lives, to give meaning and purpose to our lives, to respect our lives and those of others.
Yep, it’s a good day and I am happy–and classes haven’t even yet begun. I’m going to unwrap an orange Tootsie Pop and toast Henry.
Make it a good day.