This I Believe

Sally - jacksonville, Florida
Entered on June 21, 2006

Yearning for Intelligent Design

The other day a student said to me, “If a hurricane came and wiped out this town, I wouldn’t come back. I’d know it was a sign I was meant move on.” Lightning strikes but seldom, yet many students regard a catastrophe, natural or personal, as evidence of an intelligent design sent to guide their lives. I would like to urge students to create and relentlessly pursue their own intelligent design for life; you never know when you might need it.

Community college students resemble a crowd gazing out the windows of a large bookstore coffee shop during a rainstorm, browsing through books about fabulous places they would like to visit. Armed with umbrellas or dressed only in t-shirts and sandals, they assess the chances the lightning or wind or torrential rain outside will be destructive enough to destroy all they have known, forcing some cataclysmic change on them, or whether the storm might be almost over so they can run to their cars and drive home.

Ranging from 16 to 45 years old, students in my classes may have acquired a lifetime of experiences or may not have left their parent’s home. They juggle jobs, (often more than one) and families more than other college students do. Combined with life crises, they often lead lives of such complex disarray that they resemble creatures emerging from a wind tunnel when entering a classroom. They are a wily group, hedging their bets on whether the test will be open book, whether they will have time to do the reading before class starts, finding the right job, meeting someone special, or maybe surviving a giant category six storm. They dream. They know that sometimes lightning strikes.

Many of these students think they are passing through community college on their way to a future elsewhere. But without an intelligent design, that is exactly where they stay–.in the community. Of course, many are quite happy and successful there; but others will yearn for more, wondering what could have been, all their lives. I encounter my current and former students everywhere I go, from grocery store bag boys and dairy department managers to assistants in doctor’s offices, to waiters in restaurants, and teachers.

It’s humbling to run into a local elementary school teacher who remembers you from god knows what year, who recalls your rule about not using You in essays and diligently applies it in her language arts classes. On the other hand, I can be in a steak house reading a menu and suddenly here is Stephen, our waiter for the evening, a student from 2003, fall semester, who no doubt remembers that terrible grade I gave him as I order a sirloin, medium.

I talk with former students, perhaps in the grocery store, who, after a number of years, are still just a course or a year or two away from graduating, but what with the death of a father, the birth of a child, and the persistent difficulty with doing word problems, have been ambushed on the way to their desired life by math devils, writing demons, and dark trolls that live under bridges. Their plans have been delayed by something incomprehensible to them and even to me, after their story is told.

Each semester I design the coursework my students will endure for sixteen, eight, or sometimes just four weeks of their lives. In retaliation, they leave their mark on me—a million relieved or proud smiles and a million scowls. But they also leave behind a few hundred insights about the nature of the universe or the meaning of Once More to the Lake. These events will occur during one class discussion, each startling insight revealed in no more than five minutes. Then it’s gone, like lightning flashing from a storm cloud.

This week, a student reported on his research into the theory of Intelligent Design. As the passionate student talked, the atmosphere in the classroom was electric with yearning. Heads were nodding, smiles were wide. They were sitting up and their eyes shone with fierce hope for order and meaning, for proof of a plan affirming there is intelligent design in all that they experience or dream of acquiring. I played the devil’s advocate on behalf of saving scientific research from the burden of predetermined causes, whether divine or not. Surely, I said, they needed to credit current scientific methodology for discoveries of medicine, the Salk Vaccine, for instance.

They grudgingly fell silent at this, but then continued with the debate about there being a plan, “in general.” It was hard to be angry with them as they mused about the possible design of the entire universe, sharing their thoughts about how there must be something that prevails over everything, how what goes round comes round. That justice prevails, all those things that we salve ourselves with.

I did not contribute anything more, but thought about a Chinese student, just two years in America and out of China, who drove herself to write A papers in English by badgering the tutors in the lab and herself to the point of exhaustion, about how her drive was not generated by some cosmic karma. It was made by her. And about another case: an 18 year old student, abandoned by her stepfather when her mother died, who struggled to raise a sister and see her through high school before acquiring her own GED, who is determined to go to college. Two semesters in, essentially homeless, she has a nervous breakdown. She has a plan, if not enough support. So what does this mean? Is this a sign she should she abandon her plan?

I think about individual students who by sheer will and sacrifice, dreamed the design for their lives and made it come true, and about others, who by sheer luck, managed to as well. And then I think of the less confident students who have a little bit of comfort or maybe more than a little, who don’t risk enough, don’t try hard enough to achieve their dreams because they fear losing what they think they will always have.

And about how all of them yearn to know that purpose that cannot be guided by their hands.

At the end of class, I silently applied my own universal salve. I whispered, salaam, shalom, namaste, peace be with you. And then they were gone, leaving behind a slight disturbance, like lightning that does not strike.