"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


precious freedom

Things are hectic. The semester is coming to an end. There's grading, students who are panicked that they are going to fail, luncheons, receptions, end-of-year parties, and, in an encouraging trend, parties for friends who successfully defended their dissertations. Tonight I ended one of my classes. I gave the last lecture, reviewed for next week's final exam, had them retake the citizenship test, and closed with my standard end-of-semester speech.

When an introduction to American government class ends, what really can you say? I start by acknowledging that most of my students aren't there because they want to be there, but because the university and/or the Legislature forces them to be there. I tell them that I understand, that American government isn't really my thing either, but that what I know about Africa makes me appreciate what we have in the United States all the more. I talk about the citizenship test they just took; how immigrants memorize 100 difficult questions in a language that isn't their first, all in hopes of attaining citizenship. I talk about people who walk across the desert, hoping against hope that they will get to be part of this dream called America.

I talk about the men and women who are their ages, who leave their homes to fight and die on our behalf, all so we can be free to choose not to vote. I talk about how few of us can be bothered to vote, how ridiculously low voter turnout is in our wealthy, developed country. I show them the famous picture of the 1994 South African elections, of the lines in which some people waited for two days to cast their ballots, and talk about how precious the chance to vote was to my Congolese friends last summer, how people walked for three or five days just to have the chance to mark their choice on a ballot.

And I talk about my belief that politics can't solve everything, that only God redeems us, but that God also ordains political order, and that we need to take that gift seriously. I talk about how grateful and blessed I am to live in a country where I know that calling 911 means the police will respond, that if I get sick, the hospital will be well-equipped. I talk about the fact that politics really does affect our day-to-day lives, what we can do, what we can say, what happens to our money.

I finished my speech and said thank-you, and the students filed out as they always do, happy that I let them go early. One student stayed after to thank me for the class, and to ask about the Congo. She left and I turned to erase the board, and there was another student, one of my quietest kids. She almost never says anything, and I've frequently wondered if she was understanding the course material, if I was speaking too fast for this non-native English speaker to get the information.

She was almost in tears when I said hello, and, because it's the end of the semester and these things happened, I wondered if she was about to ask about grades. She apologized for crying, and then said, "I wanted to thank-you. Because I just passed the citizenship test two weeks ago, and they changed the questions, so they were different from what we studied, but this class helped me." I congratulated her, she went on her way, and I sat down in her empty desk and wept.

So often you just don't know if it matters, if your work makes a difference, if they'll remember anything they learned from you at all. But this year, this class, I know. Thanks be to God for that amazing gift.



Anonymous Michael Westmoreland-White said...

That's inspiring. Thanks for that story, very much.

Monday, April 30, 2007 9:18:00 PM

Anonymous kirstin said...

i'm glad that student took the time to tell you. how cool. :)

Tuesday, May 01, 2007 3:07:00 PM


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