I have learned many lessons from the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, but I think none is as valuable as the lesson Atticus Finch teaches his daughter, Scout, about trying to understand and deal with other people. Scout has just been punished for mocking a fellow student for his dining habits (he pours syrup over his entire meal), but she doesn’t understand what she has done wrong. Atticus points out to Scout that all people are not the same and to try and understand another human being you must “climb into his skin and walk around in it.” The act of conscious empathy is what I believe in as a reminder of how to interact with others daily.
I have been reminded of Atticus’s lesson frequently in my position as an instructor at a technical college in Wisconsin. Because of my own perspective about the importance of my class and the requirements for student success in class, I focus on the value of coming to class regularly and turning in assignments on time, naturally. I am often frustrated that many students don’t share my perspective and attend class infrequently or hand in assignments late or not at all. However, there are times when I am forced to remember the lesson of Atticus Finch, times when I am confronted by the reality of life for some of my students.
There was June who came to the door of the classroom and pulled me outside where I was shocked to see her battered face. She apologized for not being in class but begged for permission to return the next day since she had just been released from the emergency room, the emergency room she had gone to after her live-in boyfriend had beaten her. Carol began class in the final stages of her pregnancy. Missing class after class for doctor’s appointments, she still tried to make up assignments and keep up with coursework. When she left to have her baby, Carol intended to return as soon as her doctor would allow it. She did return, for one or two classes, before she became overwhelmed with her new responsibilities.
Climbing into the skins of my students means confronting single parenthood, long hours of work each evening, sick children, a husband who isn’t fond of the idea of his wife going back to college, a car on its last legs that finally falls, and a wife who leaves for good and leaves the baby for good measure. These are only a few examples of the view that comes from looking through another’s eyes and the value given to the instructor in understanding where her students are coming from is only one benefit of empathy. Still, these experiences make me believe that walking around in someone else’s skin is the best way to inspire the compassion that will help to solve a world of ills. Climb into his skin, walk in her shoes, and then, determine if you are still bold enough to judge.
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