by Teresa Donati
We sing, ‘Let there be peace on earth/And let it begin with me.’ As a child I would wonder how it could ‘begin with me,’ coming to know that the song explained itself: to love each other, to be in harmony with others. And as an adult, I came to see how the Holy Spirit can work through us in the most unexpected ways, to let peace begin in small places, and maybe spread to the whole world.
It can begin in the most unexpected ways. I see that so clearly in retrospect, as I was teaching and dealing with my students’ tender hearts.
College students are often routinely dismissed as self-centered, over-parented, unanchored, too often poorly prepared for college work. Yet, having taught, worked with, and counseled them for many years, a very different picture emerges of their yearnings, and struggles, and that this is an opportunity for peace.
Letting peace begin with me, began with respect and compassion for the seeming passivity or defiance or uncertainty that students mask from themselves and each other. Professors are so preoccupied with their own preparations, research, school politics, scrambling for tenure and promotion, that they forget their students’ very young hearts, beneath their ‘cool’ and ‘mature’ exteriors.
Yet peace can begin in a classroom, with the habit of respect.
I blundered onto this, and thank the great teachers among the many I had. Some of my teachers were indeed dreadful and a couple of them borderline pathological. Some of them were going through the teaching motions of careerism. But the best of them taught with high humor and great dedication, listening with openness to all questions, treating open disagreements with humorous or sober collegiality. These professors had enhanced my life immeasurably, their ways resonating in my own teaching.
I begin to understand how peace begins in small settings, by looking back at why and how some of my teaching experiences were able to help students change their lives, as mine had been changed earlier.
One story begins with a class in the four required Core humanities courses taught by professors from a variety of disciplines. I was teaching the final course of the sequence, on world issues, which included the interplay of science and the humanities in understanding the world around us.
It was the fourth week of the course, and we were discussing how science and the western scientific paradigm affected our thought and social organization.
I was talking about the notion that the universe is a mathematical equation. As a tiny of example of that, I was describing the Fibonacci numbers, a sequence of numbers where each successive number is the sum of the two previous numbers. Thus, the numbers run: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21…
Fibonacci noted this sequence in the year 1202 CE, though in India, it had been found or devised 600 years earlier. The number sequence was not devised for any applicable purpose when Fibonacci wrote it; it was pure mathematics. (Later, it would become a mathematical marvel that was connected to what is known as ‘the Golden Ratio.’)
Now, 700 years later, the number sequence took on a startling application for naturalists and biologists. It turns out that many seashells have swirls which curve left and right. Swirls are found also in acorns, in pineapples, in the arrangement of seeds in a sunflower, in the way leaves are ordered on a stem, and in any other number of instances.
The naturalists found that the number of right-turning swirls, and of left-turning swirls, on any of these objects, are two successive numbers in the Fibonacci sequence. Five right swirls could have 3 left swirls or 8 left swirls. The numbers could be much larger, and still the Fibonacci sequence would hold.
As I was finishing my description of this to-me-marvelous mathematical connection between what started out as pure math, and the patterns of nature, one student sitting in the back row, who had done poorly on the first exam, could no longer control her restlessness. She burst out, “Who CARES?” The class froze. As a required class, where I permitted some excess enrollment over the normal 25, there were 35 students, every seat occupied.
In this setting, the exasperated question resulted in a dead silence, and sense of dread. The student who had spoken was also immobilized by her own outburst, leaning forward, expecting the worst, perhaps a sarcastic reply, or a reprimand.
The last thing they all expected was what happened.
I burst out laughing.
“Why do you remind me of Peppermint Patty,” I asked the young woman, referring to the character in the Peanuts comic strip. She is that wonderful little girl with D minus grades, always astonished that she was expected to read books, and do homework.
Relieved that I was not furious, the class seemed to release its collectively held breath, and the young who had asked the question, woman looked at me in perplexity. “Actually,” I said to her, “you’ve asked one of the most important questions about education. Who cares? Why should we care? Presumably, learning gives us resources to turn to when we encounter difficulties in life, or when we’re faced with new situations, or have to solve new problems.”
The class was still collectively tongue-tied, the young woman amazed at my matter-of-fact, respectful response, as seen in her widened eyes. “Learning can help us frame the world,” I added. “It can give us other perspectives, new ways of thinking.”
This young woman, despite her low grade, had doggedly attended every class, sitting silently until her outburst of exasperated defiance. She received an answer that she – and the class – had never expected.
Note that I see this in retrospect. The class filed out, many students shaking their heads. It was a first for many of them. That semester, her classmates whispered ‘Peppermint Patty’ when passing her on campus, their private joke made her smile. But it was a transformative moment.
The serious, respectful answer to her angry question, had evidently affected her deeply. Her grades improved in all her courses. Her appearance changed, from thrown-together wrinkled shirt and jeans, to clean, neat clothes. She now walked without slouching, looking confident. I was probably the first teacher who accepted her ‘whatever’ attitude with equanimity and humor. Yet it seems to have changed her life. Respectful listening, a respectful reply, and a new future for her.
She graduated high in her class.
I love the joy and ever-glowing memory of that day. All unknowing to both of us, peace had begun.
Teresa Donati is Professor of Sociology (Emeritus) at Fairleigh Dickinson University, now engaged in full-time writing, including church issues, and Christian fiction.