Teaching is a trip

I like to think my time with my students is taking them somewhere interesting.

Damian Dovarganes

I'm leaving my house with a rolling suitcase and a passport. I look as though I'm off on a Roman holiday, but the suitcase actually holds a surplus of books and the passport is for identification in a human resources office. I've just signed up to teach a writing class for freshman at the local university, and I have no idea what I'm getting myself into.

My first days teaching are nerve-wracking, but my students are an amiable bunch as we introduce ourselves. During our fourth meeting, I find myself trying to explain to them the difference between empathy and sympathy. I hope they hear me and that I don't sound like the droning teacher in Charlie Brown comic strips.

"Pull out a sheet of paper, and write about an uncomfortable situation where you were in the minority," I instruct. This is a writing exercise, but it is also my lesson plan for inciting understanding.

"Maybe you were in the minority because of your morals, your race, your ability or inability to speak a language or understand the cultural norms of a place," I continue.

They pause for a moment.

"Maybe," I add, "you were a hunter in a room full of vegetarians or vice versa." I shiver at the thought with comedic emphasis. At this, they laugh. I notice that a camouflage-clad student, who has revealed in earlier writings that he has a gun manufacturer's name tattooed on his back, laughs a little harder than the rest. He'll write about how he was once the only supporter of a war in a room full of student peace activists.

Soon, the laughter dies down, and my students hunch over their desks, except Javier. He smiles in his charming way, and leans his chair back so that he can make eye contact.

"Could you explain again?" he asks shyly.

"Write about a specific incident when you felt uncomfortable because you felt you were different, an outsider."

He pops the buttons of his down jacket and lets it fall behind him before conceding. From earlier writings, I have learned that he is a Puerto Rican in the United States because he was recruited to play basketball.

Suddenly unsure, Javier leans back a second time and, in all sincerity, asks, "What if you feel like that all the time?" The entire class comes to attention and laughs. Maybe they can't see the seriousness in his eyes.

When all pencils are down, my students share their stories with one another. One explains how it feels to be the only African-American in her dorm. Another shares her embarrassment over being a Roman Catholic in a Baptist state. A few desks away, a peer tells of her humiliation when she was bused to a wealthy high school district without the means to blend in. Javier reads from an essay written in his second language, giving heartbreaking examples of how people make fun of his English-in-progress.

In this room where schedules and core-curriculum credits randomly bring people together, my students listen to one another intently. As they share memories of exclusion and helpless frustration, I see that they have taken the assignment's lesson to heart.

I've noticed that when these teenagers find something intriguing, they'll sometimes say it's "a trip." Merriam-Webster explains that the word "trip" means, among other things, "to dance, skip, or caper with light quick steps" and "to make a journey." For my students, the word indicates that something's cool enough to catch their attention.

I hope these students think my class is a trip, by Webster's definition as well as their own, because I like to think that our time together is taking them somewhere interesting. A Roman holiday would've been nice, but teaching is shaping up to be one of my most worthwhile journeys yet.

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