It started as a typical first class session of the new semester. Twenty-five faces were staring at me with the fear of college students who would prefer to be anywhere in the world other than a Communication class. As I looked back at them with all the empathy I could express, I asked that everyone wearing hats please remove them. They looked at me with that confusion of a generation unfamiliar with such etiquette.
The hats were removed except for one young man. When I asked him directly, he answered “no.” I was shocked but did not show it. Not 10 minutes into the session and in front of new students whom I was meeting for the first time, I was being challenged. How I handled this moment could determine semester survival—my semester survival.
The students were intently watching me and waiting. It was my move. I decided not to deal publicly with this challenge to my authority so I asked to see the young man after class. His name was Mark and he looked like the most unlikely of all the students to express insubordination. He was slight in build, clean cut with a pleasant face. He was not someone who stood out among the others. Yet he had said “no” to a directive from his new Professor in front of new classmates on the first day of the new semester. There would be no choice. I had to convince him to do what the others were asked. He would have to back down.
“Mark,” I said softly, “you must follow the rules of this class. Removing your hat demonstrates respect. Is there a reason you feel you must wear your hat? I am willing to listen.”
Mark lifted his eyes and looked into mine. “No,” he answered. His look was empty. His tone was flat.
“Then you must remove it,” I answered in my most professorial voice. He did as I asked.
At that moment I saw my challenge with this young man. He complied in removing his hat but I had not reached him. I had forced him but I had not persuaded him.
Slowly throughout the semester, I felt a bond growing between Mark and me.
Sometimes he would even smile at my jokes and ask thoughtful questions in class. When I saw him in the hall, he would tip his hat. I would not let him see me smile at that obvious gesture.
The final week of the semester Mark asked me to stay after class. He had something to tell me which he had kept secret.
I had come to know him as a gifted poet and hard working writer and speaker, harder than most perhaps because Mark suffered from MS which had affected his coordination and vocal cords. Some days the class and I understood him better than others.
“Do you remember the first day of class when I refused to remove my hat?” he asked. “Oh yes I do,” I answered. “Well, now I would like to tell you why I did that.”
“About a year ago I went to an open mic forum to read my poetry. They laughed at me.” “They what?” I asked not wanting to believe what I was hearing.
His speech was laboured and painfully slow. “I was humiliated.”
Once again like that first day of class we were alone in my classroom. We looked at one another through our tears.
“The first day of this class when I refused to remove my hat I was trying to get you to throw me out of your class. The course was required but I did not want to ever stand before an audience again and perform my writing. But you would not give up on me. You would not let me leave. Fate brought me to your classroom.”
“You chose to stay, Mark,” I answered softly. We stood there for a moment looking at one another.
For his final persuasive speech, Mark wrote and spoke on Stem Cell Research Funding. He passionately argued for our government to acknowledge that it is his quality of life they are ignoring and for his classmates to vote for legislators who would make the stem cell reality happen. Would it be soon enough for him we all agonizingly wondered.
After offering an articulate and informed argument, with great difficulty Mark walked to his visual aid which was an empty white poster board. He asked his audience to give him one thing—only one thing. He picked up a marker and with a shaking hand one letter painstakingly at a time he wrote, “Hope.”
A year after he had completed my course, Mark came to my office to say hello. He proudly told me that students from our class would stop him in the hall and tell him that they would never forget his last speech. The MS was progressive and he was suffering. Yet he looked happy and at peace with himself.
Three years later I received an email from him. He wanted me to know he was writing again and that for the first time since he had been traumatized by the experience he again performed his poetry in an open mic at a club. He said he could have never done it without my course. He said I was his gift of fate. In his last line he told me that as a performer he always wore his cherished hat.
Elynne Chaplik-Aleskow, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Wright College in Chicago and Founding General Manager of WYCC-TV PBS, is an author, public speaker and award winning educator. Her story “The Revolving Door” will be published in Chicken Soup for the Chocolate Lover’s Soul in November 2007. Elynne has published her non-fiction stories and essays in magazines, newspapers and e-zines.