I believe in the power of knowledge to change the world. When I was a second-year graduate student, I assigned my freshman composition class to read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. My job was to guide them through the text and talk about things like sentence structure and parallelism and to teach them skills of summary and analysis. We talked about Douglass’s stunning story of slavery, of course, but mostly we focused on his use of literary devices. Then one afternoon one of my students, a young Muslim woman from India, showed up in my office hours and asked me pointedly why I was making her read this book. I responded kind of glibly, I guess, that I had to assign them a short book and that there weren’t many other texts in the English language, aside from Shakespeare, that were more than 50 but less than 100 pages long. Besides, I told her, I liked the book. Only then did it occur to me to ask her why she had asked me that. She responded that it made her uncomfortable, which I suggested was part of Douglass’s intent—it was, after all, an activist anti-slavery text. But then, well, she stopped me in my tracks. I couldn’t understand, she said. Her family had slaves; she had a slave. She remembered going to the market when she was five years old to select the young girl who would remain with her for the rest of her life. This book made her uncomfortable, in a way that she never had been before, and she didn’t want to keep reading.
Well, at the age of 22, in my first semester behind the big desk, I had hardly a clue how to manage this one. I don’t remember exactly what I said that afternoon, but I did convince her to keep reading and to keep coming to me to talk about the book. She ultimately decided to write her final paper comparing slavery as documented by Douglass with her own experience of slavery in present-day India. It wasn’t a beautifully-written paper, but it was a profound experience for her and for me. That book changed both of our lives. Reading it for the first time, she came to the terrifying realization that she could not, would not return to India to be part of that system. Doing so would mean separating from her family forever, as they would not accept her decision. For me, reading that book for what was probably the dozenth time, I came to understand my life’s calling. Teaching doesn’t offer a lot of these lightning-strike moments, but it makes little differences everyday. I’ve shared this story with many classes I’ve taught since. It’s a tale of the power and durability of the written word. It’s a reminder of the ways in which our contemporary world is connected to the whole of human history. And for me, with every telling, it’s a reminder of the reason I walk into that classroom. I know that knowledge can change the world—I got to see it happen, to witness as understanding changed a life, and to marvel at how that life and all the others touched by it are transforming humanity. This I believe.
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