It started as a typical first class session of the new semester. Twenty-five faces were starring at me with the fear of college students who would prefer to be anywhere in the world other than a public speaking 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 taken back but did not show it. Not ten 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 Will 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.
Fast forward. It is the final week of the semester. Will asks me to stay after class. He has something to tell me which he has kept secret all this time.
I have come to know him as a gifted poet and hard working student. Harder than most perhaps because Will is suffering from MS which has affected his vocal chords. Some days the class and I understand him better than others.
“Do you remember the first day of class when I refused to remove my hat?” he asks. “Oh yes I do,” I answer. “Well, I would like to tell you why I did that” he says shyly.
“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 labored and painfully slow. “I was humiliated.”
We were alone in my classroom looking at one another through our tears.
“The first day of Speech 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. But you would not give up on me. You would not let me leave.”
“You chose to stay, Will,” I answered softly.
For his final persuasive speech, Will 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 Will 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”.
That day he stood out in a way no one else could. It was he who gave us hope.
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