An old pal of mine asked me to do him a favor a couple years ago and come talk to a freshman composition class at the university where he was a dean. It would really help him out; his department had this new thing about getting local experts to visit classes to “enrich the learning environment” or some such.
I said I only fit half the job description. “Oh, come on,” he said. “Community journalism and all that. It’ll be fun.”
I reported to the classroom at the appointed hour and introduced myself to the professor. She was an extremely fashionable woman at least 30 years younger than me and 30 times smarter. She informed me at once that while my presence may be an administrative mandate, she considered it a waste of 20 of her 90-minute class time.
“At 20 minutes you’re done, right?”
“Unless there are questions.”
I learned too late this was no ordinary freshman comp. class but an honors literature seminar for about two dozen topflight students from all walks of life, most of whom had earned full or nearly full ride scholarships.
By way of introducing me, the professor said there would be a delay before their usual discussion and sat down at her desk in front of the class.
I stated my name, my job and my mission to speak to them about the role of community newspapers in journalism. About three minutes in, a hand went up.
“Since print is dead, what is the point of killing trees to produce something nobody reads?”
“Why is your publication relevant when things change so fast?”
“How is your business model even sustainable?”
It was a much more interesting morning than I was prepared for, but after exactly 20 minutes the professor stood up to thank me and there was polite applause. I asked her if I might stay to observe, and she waved me toward the back of the room.
The class had just read “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe, a 1958 novel set in precolonial Nigeria that explores the effects of strict gender roles in a traditional, male-dominated society.
“Men in this story use the word ‘woman,’ or something worse, to insult other men. What does that say to the women around them? How does a decent person respond to that toxic masculinity?” asked the professor.
Every hand in the room shot up, except mine.
“Define ‘decent,’ ” someone said.
“You define it,” she answered. “In the novel’s world.”
“Define ‘woman,’ ” said someone else.
The students engaged each other and the professor leaned back against her desk to referee.
“You think that … ,” someone started.
“Uh-uh,” interrupted the professor, shooting them a glance.
The person stopped, then started again. “It sounds like you’re saying…,” and went on from there.
I could see this class wasn’t so much learning about books or even talking about books. It was about learning how to talk, whatever the issue or provocation.
One girl said, “As a transgender woman, I have to say I see the same misogyny from the book right here in this very room.”
A young jock seated in front of me turned to her and asked, “How can you say that?”
“Do you mean, how can I say that or how can someone like me say that?”
“What are you accusing me of?”
“Uh-uh,” the professor said.
“OK,” the jock sighed. “How am I supposed to react to you people?”
“I don’t represent anyone but myself,” the girl said. “I can only care what someone like you thinks about someone like me as a person, and I can’t really afford to even care about that.”
Another student piped up asking about the distinction between fear and prejudice in the novel, and I raised my hand. The discussion raged on while, still leaning motionless against her desk, the professor slowly slid her eyes over to mine and held them until I put my hand down.
When the bell went off, the professor assigned a 500-word essay on this discussion due the next day, then turned her back on the class to sit at her desk.
The jock in front of me launched out of his seat and made straight for the girl he’d argued with. I stood up and followed. The kid was 40 years younger and 100 pounds heavier than me. I thought maybe I could grab his ankles and hope for the best.
“You and I are never going to see eye-to-eye,” he said to her. “But I really respect what you had to say.” He extended his hand and she gracefully accepted and shook it.
Meanwhile another girl slid up and planted a sloppy kiss on her cheek and said, “Let’s do lunch.” Then she looked at the jock. “Come with?”
“Sure,” he said.
“I’m going,” said another kid. “Me too,” said another. By then the rest of the class had drifted over, and we all headed out to lunch together.
“Mr. Olinger,” the professor said. I reported to her desk at the front of the room. She stood up and leaned toward me in a surprisingly warm manner.
“It’s their time,” she said.
Ted Olinger is an award-winning journalist. He lives in Vaughn.
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