Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Patience and Opinions

I plan on returning to the posts on young adult practitioners, but I experienced something during my first day back teaching I would like to share. As many regular readers know, I am an English as a Second Language teacher for a small, adult education organization. Lately, my students have been primarily fairly conservative Baptist converts and Evangelicals from Burma, Thailand, and Ethiopia. It's been an interesting process getting to know them and, inevitably, conversations around religion and politics tend to arise.

This afternoon, the students wrote about what they did during the break we just had. As we went around, people spoke about vacations to Duluth (about 3 hours north of us), taking family members to the clinic, and visiting friends. Finally, we got to the fiery little woman from Ethiopia, the same one that asked me why I wasn't married yet a few months ago. She started talking about a visit to Miami, Florida that her and her church group did, and as she read, I began to sense what was coming. She spoke of "men with men" and "women with women" and then her arms started waving a lot as she said that they wouldn't listen to her about the Bible. Another student piped in with the word "gay" and off the class went into a litany about why God didn't like people being gay.

I've been through this before in my classes. If it isn't something about the gay community, it's something about how men are stronger and smarter than women. What's interesting is that I often find that initially when one student voices a strong opinion about a topic like this, others tend to either stay silent or agree. But when I push a little bit, ask different kinds of questions or just make a statement in a different direction, the varying opinions that people actually have then come out.

I have to say today's conversation started out in a way that really ripped at my guts. I felt the "need" to intervene, to use this as a teachable moment about gay rights and the hatred and oppression the gay community has experienced for so long.
But something inside me told me to wait, to not press my opinion on top of my students. (This is an issue with teachers in ESL classes because our learners tend to come from countries where teachers are given much more respect. So, what we say is given a lot of weight, which can be a problem when we get too forceful about an issue.)

So, I waited and listened, and stayed with the pain I felt inside as some of the students continued to express why they didn't like gay people. Then one student, a woman from Mexico who hadn't said anything up until that point, started telling a story about her nephew. She said she had had an argument with her brother because he was always screaming at her nephew and trying to kick him out of the house. Why? He is gay. She kept telling this story and the other students went silent and listened. As she spoke of her nephew's suicide attempts, and how she had taken him into her home for awhile, the others were with her every word. Then she said the words that seemed to break the early conversation - "I just want to love my family. I don't care what sex they like. I just love them."

As she finished, I knew had I jumped in earlier with my opinion, this story probably wouldn't have arrived. And as I watched the other students faces, I knew that we would have all been worse off if we had missed that story.

It's likely that this single story won't change the opinions of the other students in the class. However, maybe it will soften those opinions a little, break down a little of that abstract dislike and nastiness that comes from clinging hard to a few lines of text in a spiritual book, and having those lines reinforced by their church leaders again and again.

I can see myself in all those roles during that class - clinging somewhat hard to my views in the beginning, listening to my students during the middle, and opening to a simple expression of love towards the end. All of this occurred in less than 40 minutes, which shows you just how quickly, and on a variety of levels, your practice can be put to the test.


Joao Arruda said...

Great post :) Thanks for sharing.

Richard Harrold said...

Beautiful story. That woman told about a real person, while the others were merely responding to caricatures. You saw life intersect with the deluded mind. Perhaps for a moment, life and the deluded mind ran parallel courses. But you are right, in time, the delusion returns.

We can hope not as strong, however.

Steve Leong said...

So many people base their opinion on their judgements. How easy it is to condemn and crucify those who are born differently from ourselves...BUT if the shoe was on the other foot...what then. People will go on being righteous about who they discriminate against. Many will use the Bible as their crutch to pre-judge others. What they will never escape though, is the universal law, "WHAT ONE SOWS, SO SHALL THEY REAP". I pray constantly only, that in their ignorance, they realize WHY they are sowing what they have!
Steve Leong