I’m in the middle of my 31st year of college teaching and I’ve had many experiences that lead me to pause and consider the POWER of the classroom when we give ourselves to “what is possible” and not resign ourselves to “what is inevitable.” Three days ago I had the good fortune to create (albeit unwittingly) and then witness (albeit unknowingly) healing in my classroom. And I want to share the experience because I think it matters.
To give some frame to the story, the first photo is taken from the top of 100 Thomas during my 750 student Soc 119 class. It’s a very special classroom because it looks like cathedral.
Last Tuesday afternoon I had the sudden inspiration to invite into class through a video link a young man from Iran who is also in the Iranian military. He has an intense and gripping and horrific story to tell and I wanted him to share it with my class. I know this young man as a thoughtful and friendly person who loves his country, his family, and his friends (from all over the world).
But just as I knew that he actually needed to share his story, I also had the intuitive sense that he needed to share it with other soldiers. And so I invited to the front three young men from my class who have been deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan and had themselves been witness to and carry the burdens of the horrors of war. I had them sit in front of the camera with the rest of the class behind them so that my Iranian friend could see their faces and speak directly to them.
I was impressed by their willingness but I could also intuit that they understood the “brotherhood” that they shared with another man on the other side of the world, a soldier in an army that most Americans distrust and fear at best. And they listened as this stranger told his first-hand account of a horrific slaughter of civilians (and children) in a distant land, in a voice that cracked with emotion and a heart that pulsed with pain. In a way that none of the rest of us could, they understood his words: “I feel so helpless” and “I cannot get the images of the children out of my head” and “I can’t sleep at night” and “I see nothing but pain and darkness ahead of me.”
As the rest of the class sat in silent witness to this interchange, each of the three American soldiers listened to this “brother” who they never knew they had. And then one by one they spoke their words of support:
“It will get better, brother.”
“People like us carry the wounds with us. This is the poison that we were chosen to take but slowly we learn how to live with it.”
“I know exactly what you feel.”
“You have to keep talking about this. It will get better each time you get it off your chest.”
“It will take some time but you will pull out of this and smile again.”
“We understand. It’s okay.”
They met him where he was and where he needed to be met.
And as he wiped away a tear that fell down his cheek, one former U.S. Marine took the microphone and said emphatically, “IT WILL GET BETTER. YOU WILL BE OKAY.”
And I knew that he would be.
If someone had asked me before class what I wanted to have happen, this is not at all what would have come to mind. I would not have used the word “healing” or ‘brotherhood,” and I would not have imagined that three men staring into the tiny hole of a video camera would touch the heart of another man a half a world away. And I would not have imagined one of them writing to me two days later saying that the experience “changed his world.” But it happened.
And it happened, I suppose, because my students help me to continually re-envision the classroom as a place where “everything is possible” and not where “something is inevitable.” These men reached through a video camera and gave each other a gift because they were given the opportunity to do so.
And they gave the rest of us a gift because they reminded everyone else in that room that veterans, whether from the United States or other countries, even our so-called enemies, often carry within themselves the “heart of darkness” — and with it the deep painful knowledge that they are living in a world that is no longer what it once was for them.
But perhaps the greatest gift given out that day was to all of the students who will sit in that classroom in future semesters. Because these four young men opened up in front of a room full of over 700 strangers, the “cathedral” will forever be a different space for me. In it I will remain committed to fully open to myself and share with students the healing power of empathy and insight. And I will always reach for the possible.
And so it is me that says the final “Thanks.”