A few years ago I got an email from a student that made the hair on my neck stand on edge.
Sometimes lessons lead to odd conversations, so while I hadn’t quite planned it, students were asking about the ethics of torture. It had been in the news that week. I wasn’t too surprised, didn’t think much of it, until I opened my email that afternoon and read through a veteran student’s harrowing experience in Iraq.
He said the small group discussion from that morning had made him nauseous, made him shut up, made him feel like he wasn’t allowed to speak. His fellow students were insistent that torture, in all cases, was reprehensible, yet he, a war veteran sitting among them, had participated in some of the very behaviors they condemned as immoral. He emailed me later, saying that none of his classmates could possibly know what it was like to watch a close friend die in front of their eyes from an IED. None of them could actually know what they might do if the bomb builder was then in their hands… in a secluded room of a base. But there he was, sitting in the classroom, in our ivory tower, listening to us all debate abstractions that were for him realities, that were his own memories, and he felt he couldn’t speak. In so doing, he would have subjected himself to the moral judgements of his peers.
In another class, a student told me about the effects of her PTSD. It was her first day of college so, being diligent, she sat in the front. As the rows filled in behind her, she panicked. Too many people were at her back. Once I called roll she immediately left and from that day forward always sat in the far corner, “near the exits.” Another student told me he didn’t know why, but when we were talking about thesis statements, he started having flashbacks from the war. That was why he had left early.
And these hidden fears are not exclusively experienced by our veterans. Not too long ago, an athlete student confided in me that she almost never admitted to her teachers that she was an athlete as this information might elicit their prejudice – maybe she’s a cheater? There was that article about athletes cheating in an ethics course at Dartmouth not too long ago.
I bring up these stories because they remind us that we frequently don’t know the range of life experiences that are brought through the door by those fifty people in the classroom. And while I don’t think this should prevent us from including challenging materials in our curricula, I am curious to learn ways that we might give our students opportunities to process their fears. Perhaps our coursework can allow for reflection, catharsis, and recovery, and ultimately allow our students to effect change through their own voice.