College challenges young adults to make their own moral decisions, often for the first time without the influence of their parents. Two young men’s experiences stand out for me as I reflect on times each had to decide what to do and what beliefs to follow.
One very talented young man from a conservative Christian tradition began art school with great promise. He was one with natural ability and a diligent work habit. However, after a few weeks, he disappeared from my class. Curious, I asked the Dean where the student had gone. It turned out that his religion forbade him to look at naked women. This made sense in the world at large, and I understood the reasoning. However, in an art college, Life Drawing necessitates drawing from life. In order to know the dimensions of human form, student draw from nude models.
There is nothing prurient about these classes. Models are draped when they walk to the platform to pose and are dressed during breaks. The poses are not pornographic, but illustrate such unexciting things as sitting and standing. Models are treated with respect and appreciation for their willingness to hold still for uncomfortable stretches of time while students try to draw them. Probably the worst aspect of modeling is seeing very poor renderings of their form by new students!
Sadly, the parents did not make a distinction between art school models and naked women in general. The student tried, without success, to find a way to stay in school and satisfy both his parents and his own artistic needs. He chose to respect his parents and withdrew from the college. I never heard about him after that. I hope that he found a way to use his artistic talent in other ways.
Tomorrow another student wrestles with a moral dilemma.
As one of the few Christians on the faculty, students sometimes wanted to talk privately to me about their religious dilemmas. I did not discuss my beliefs in class, so students only knew about them when they asked me directly. But some did learn of my faith, and I was a natural ear for them.
One very difficult time stands out for me when I think back on those talks, always private and confidential. Two of my students loved each other, and the girl had become pregnant. Both came from religious homes, but both were now adults and living on their own. They wanted to share with me their decision for her to have an abortion. They already knew I would disagree with their plan. So I just listened to their pain and welcomed them to return at any time to talk further.
They went through with the abortion, and the girl had dreadful complications afterwords. They were both badly shaken, and returned to talk with and cry with me. I am grateful that they trusted me to be there for them in this life altering time. They both suffered deeply after that and eventually broke off their relationship.
I hope that I was able to be with them in pain and not in condemnation, despite my own beliefs. They trusted me and I returned the trust. With thirty years of teaching, I know that there were others who went the same route, so they can’t be identified by this post.
Still I think of them often, knowing that the decision to abort is neither simple nor pain free.
As a woman teacher in a very small college with predominantly men teachers, I found myself frequently the ears for student problems and quandaries. The first time that happened, I was about 35 and a woman came in and said she needed to talk to an “older woman.” After I got over my shock at suddenly being seen as an “older” woman(I still thought older women were in their 50’s!) I sat back to listen to her.
She wanted help with a dilemma she found herself in. Assuming this was about choosing a major or dropping a class, I sat back ready to help. But no. This married young woman(probably about 25) had just spent the night with two of our male students doing I didn’t want to know what. Now what should she do? I may have seemed seasoned to her, but I had to restrain myself from shouting, “What in the world were you thinking?”
Now of course she hadn’t been thinking, which was why she had ended up in this situation. This was near the beginning of our awareness of AIDS, and I believed that one of the students was gay. I refrained from mentioning that as it turned out she had already panicked about the possibility.
I calmly suggested that she not repeat the behavior and that she decide if she wanted to stay married before she ventured out in any more extramarital adventures. I tried to do this with a straight face and a warm heart. She did stay married for the time she was in college, though I don’t know what happened to her later. Amazingly enough, the two male students were equally horrified by their escapade, and each came separately to discuss the situation with me. I never let any of them know that they had all talked to me. But I certainly hoped that they were sufficiently chastened. At least they never talked to me about that night or any subsequent nights again.
There has been much discussion recently about creating safe spaces in colleges along with trigger warnings about readings. The discussion has seemed to imply that college students need protection from reality. In my teaching experience, something more important is being touched upon, but not in a useful way.
One of the first times I taught the poetry of World War 1 in my English class, a student walked out. When he returned after class, he shared that he was a veteran of the Viet Nam War and that the poetry discussion had distressed him enough that he needed to take a walk. I felt that I needed to address such possibilities in the classes I taught from then on.
As a college teacher, I felt the need to teach a wide variety of often distressing works. I also felt a responsibility to my students. I believed that the college classroom should be a safe environment to explore controversial ideas. To ensure that, I began each semester explaining two ground rules for class. First, no student could attack another personally, nor make negative generalized statements about any religion, ethnicity or sexuality. I told them that while I was generally an observer in discussions, I would step in if that occurred. Second, I stressed that if any discussion so upset someone that they needed to leave the room, they could do so without explanation.
I never forewarned any student about any reading. There were no “trigger warnings” in my syllabus. I had no way of knowing what might affect any student, and I felt it was the student’s responsibility to handle their own responses to any readings. To my relief, students nearly always respected each other in class. And only on very rare occasions did anyone leave the room. I felt that I had, in fact, created a “safe space.”
The ability to send words and images all over the world brings with it important decisions. As my daughter once told me, “Don’t put anything out there that you don’t mind the whole world seeing.” And I would add, “For now and forever.”
My on-line presence is limited to this blog. I choose not to participate in the other choices available to me including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Everyone has to make their own decision about this, but I believe many people began using these forums without anticipating the problems they might cause.
I have also made specific decisions about what I post. Some of these I have mentioned in previous posts. I do not write about living people unless they already have a public presence or they have given me specific permission to do so. I don’t write negatively about people who have died. They don’t have the ability to refute my accusations. I allude at times to difficulties in my past, but I try to avoid vitriol.
When I write about interactions with living people, I omit their names or obvious identifying details. Sometimes friends know that a given post is about them, but they aren’t publicly identified. I also choose to not post pictures of living people other than myself. While I would love to share extremely cute family pictures, I return to my daughter’s caution and choose not to share them with the whole world.
I also moderate my comments section. I love to interact with readers, but I am uninterested in posting attacks. I think moderating comments reduces the interest of internet trolls.
It’s a new world for us all. I choose caution and consideration for other people’s privacy. I respect that bloggers have a wide range of decisions about these things. I just hope that every blogger thinks through the implications of what they share.
In 1991, as the AIDS epidemic was just beginning to be widely recognized, a young woman named Jennifer Jako enrolled in my freshman literature class. Into the semester, she told the class that she had been diagnosed with AIDS. She actually had been diagnosed as HIV positive, but none of us were savvy enough to know the difference. At the time she shared this with us, there was no cure and the disease was seen as a death sentence.
(I feel free to write publicly about this because Jen has lived the last 16 years as a very public AIDS activist. She has even been on the cover of Newsweek Magazine when she was pregnant, discussing the safety of giving birth despite her illness.)
Jen was the first student of mine who shared her diagnosis. She also was a heterosexual young woman whose sexual experience was limited to one boy with whom she had had unprotected sex with one time only. Needless to say, this information staggered us all. To that point, most of us thought of this as a disease affecting only very sexually active gay men.
She shared freely, believing that some good needed to come from her experience. I am certain that she caused many students to consider the potential consequences of their behavior. If it could happen to her, it could happen to anyone.
Thankfully, advances in treatment have allowed her to continue to live and to thrive. She continues her activism, reminding us that the disease still exists. Reminding us to be safe. Thanks Jen.
I had never looked to see if my friend from that paddling day had an online presence. To my amazement, there was a lot to see about her, starting with this video.video. I was overwhelmed to see what she had done with her life after her severe injuries. Because she has a public presence, I decided it was appropriate to bring this update to yesterday’s post. I used the title “A Finer Day” because her story is one of such redemption after an assault.
In the photo above, Kerry is in the bicycle being pushed by a man who lost both arms in an electric accident while working. They competed together in the Miami, Florida half marathon. Intriguingly, Kerry has found a way to sail on a regular basis off Miami in a specially adapted boat. Her love of water clearly persists.
Lives can go in very different directions after a devastating injury. Kerry has chosen to see her mission as teaching people how to help other people achieve their dreams. She speaks and writes of the deep value of vulnerability and the gift of asking for help. I am glad that I had a chance to catch up with her, so that her story in my mind no longer ends with the disability, but rather with the overcoming.