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.


5 thoughts on “Fear

  1. On the way home from the market on Sunday, I was listening to a radio program that ended with something like, “Hearing opinions like our own brings us comfort; hearing opinions different from ours brings us growth.” In reading this latest blog entry, I am struck by how common this situation is, where students are afraid to reveal themselves to their classmates for fear of being stereotyped, ridiculed, or judged. I have heard from very articulate ESL students that they don’t say a word in content classes because they don’t want to be branded “ESL.” Is the classroom open enough for someone like the veteran to talk about his experience with torture, a hot topic no doubt since the Senate report? Or is it the case that he never wanted to talk about torture but that hearing the opinions of people who he thinks don’t know what they are talking about bothers him tremendously? Am I, as an instructor, open enough to accept the opinions I don’t agree with? I don’t have a solution, and I don’t know what I would have done in this situation. However, these situations will continue to appear. Perhaps the key is to establish trust in the classroom, and maybe the student will reveal him/herself little by little. (There must have been trust for the student to write Ben about how he felt.)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Scott Lankford says:

    Ben I truly hope you’ll follow up with more posts about teaching/learning from our veterans. I attended a FH staff development workshop on this topic a few years ago and found it deeply useful — especially since we all now have so many vets on campus in the post-Iraq-War era. .

    I also befriended a student involved in the local (amazing) Freedom Paws Project. They are the students with service dogs who help the vets manage their PTSD symptoms. We even managed to co-sponsor a FH/Stanford fundraising dinner at Stanford on Veterans Day 2013 to help publicize the organization.

    Hate to be “that guy” who recommends a quick video but I truly found this portion of the “CNN Heroes” coverage transformational: it highlights the challenges of a young student with PTSD who might so easily be in any of our classes. Nothing I’ve seen on PTSD has ever brought it home to me like this one. http://www.cnn.com/2012/06/07/us/cnnheroes-cortani-veterans-dogs/index.html

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I worry about our veteran students as well, as many of them have experienced things that no one should, certainly not young people. As an American historian, I often pass historical judgment on war and it is a hard message to hear: people do die in vain, service people are wasted. If we truly Supported Our Troops, we would protect them better – be much more thoughtful about sending them into battle, and lavish care upon them on their return. The way we treat our veterans is a true indication of how little we really value their service.


  4. Kimberlee Messina says:

    Ben, thank you for this thoughtful reflection. I do think that we can get caught up in our lessons and goals, and may overlook subtle cues that unintentionally exclude some of our students. This is a great reminder for us all.


  5. Wow! It is so important to feel like the people around us understand where we’re coming from. What a hard thing for that veteran to experience! I am glad that he had the courage to talk to you about it. I’m glad that he felt a bond that let him do that. And now you’ve shared it with us so we can all be more aware of what students might be experiencing. Thank you.


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