To pay for my graduate studies at the University of Idaho from 1968-1970, I taught two sections of freshman English Composition each semester. I have very few specific memories of those classes, but I’ve kept a tattered and slightly yellowed piece of composition book paper from one of my students. I have no recollection of what the assignment was, but apparently there were at least four questions. Perhaps it was a course evaluation; perhaps it was a personal reflection on a piece of literature we were studying. I have no idea. This student, a young man who I vaguely remember as being more engaged in class discussions than some others (I think his name was Brad or another name beginning with B), chose to focus on the fourth question, explaining himself this way in the opening paragraph: “This seems to be the most important part of the questions, so I feel I will devote all of the time permitted to it.”
And then he goes on:
The most valuable part of this course is the teacher. You seem to have a unique understanding of respecting another person’s opinion. Although I am only a student, I represent one of the masses you teach. Thus, these masses, to you, must be of great importance. This is why I feel that I, a student, can give you some advice. Never lose your sense of open-mindedness. It has kept me enhanced through the whole semester.
During the last semester, I have come up with some very strange ideas. I related these to you through my writings. Never once have you criticized my ideas, no matter how alien they were to you. You have tried to understand, to realize that as a college freshman many ideas have entered my grasp. If they are right or if they are wrong makes no difference. Only time will tell. You seem to realize that these ideas are the person, himself. If you try and destroy these ideas, you can possibly destroy the person. I feel you have tried to cultivate a program of thinking for oneself throughout the course. This is good.
By respecting my somewhat far-out ideas, you have gained my respect. Thank you.
Wow! The fact that I still have this note says something about how much his comments meant to me. They were high praise and affirmation for someone who was really way too young to be teaching college freshmen and often lacked self-confidence. I had graduated from college at age 20, so I was at most 21 or 22 when I taught this young man. I had very little clue what I was doing.
The year I graduated from college – 1968 – was a tumultuous year in my life and in American life. Two things from my last year (semester) in college stand out in my memory: 1) my crisis of faith as I started questioning much of what I had believed all my life, and 2) the non-renewal of the contract of a favorite young professor who was seen as out of step with the direction of the college. Meanwhile, the Vietnam War was escalating and protests against it were increasing, President Lyndon Johnson decided not to seek re-election, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, and the Democratic National Convention in Chicago that summer was the scene of angry protests and police crackdowns. Recently, when I watched the Ken Burns’ documentary on the Vietnam War, I realized all over again what a chaotic year 1968 was. (I should also note, on the less chaotic side of things: 1968 also marked the beginning of my romance with Dale, when I sent a Christmas card from my Idaho outpost to Choma, Zambia, where he was in voluntary service!)
Both my crisis of faith and the turmoil of the larger culture around me made me less confident in black-and-white answers and more inclined to skepticism, which in turn likely contributed to what this student called my “sense of open-mindedness.” I wish I could remember what “alien” ideas he expressed in class or his written assignments; it’s possible he thought they were more alien than I did. But it’s equally possible I did not want to discourage him because I understood at a gut level how important it was to be allowed to express “alien” ideas without fear of ridicule, rejection, or judgment. A wise older professor friend had offered me the same kind of non-judgmentalism in college, and perhaps I wanted to pay it forward.
Reading that student’s comments now, it’s gratifying to see that he saw in me some of the themes that have been important to me in the decades since he was in my class: willingness to consider new and different ideas, respect for the opinions of others, and recognition of the inherent dignity and worth of individuals even if I disagree with their ideas or behaviors. Of course, over the years, I’ve come to believe some things very strongly, and sometimes that could be perceived as close-mindedness or disrespect for those who don’t believe the same things. But at my core, I still value of the kind of open-mindedness the student appreciated, and I think it has served me well in many complex situations throughout my life. I wish I knew what happened to him and could tell him how much his note meant to this very young and inexperienced teacher.