Several years ago our college began an enormous renovation project that included creating new offices for the English teachers and new space for the Writing Center. The English faculty contributed ideas for these renovations. We asked that the Writing Center be the center of the English department. Our offices open onto the Center, which is, itself, a comfortable place with tables, couches, and lots of light. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday, I get to school sometime between 9:30 and 10:00 and invariably I find that one of student tutors, T., is engaged in a serious conversation with another student, Z, who likes to hang out in the Center. They often turn to me as I walk in with a kind of “what do you think?” question. These conversations range from politics to religion to social conundrums. T. is insatiably curious and asks me things like “Can you explain the situation in Crimea?” or “What is NATO?” or “What do you think about Gloria Steinem?” These questions invariably lead to rich and dense conversations before I have even had time to open my own office door. Because I know T. will ask some question that will test me, I have to make sure that I keep up with what is happening in Crimea, for example. I love it.
Not all our students are as engaged and as thoughtful as T. In fact, many of our students are apathetic or unengaged. Others are driven only by grades so that they will need to enter the nursing or dental hygiene program. However, T. struggles with the bigger questions. He is deeply serious about being a musician. T. is nineteen, and I see him engaging in the kind of thought that makes our live rich and deep. His questions are the questions that I think help make us human.
Z. usually hangs out in the Center as well, and he, too, is part of these conversations. I am not the only faculty member who is part of this engagement. When I finally make to my office, and am spending time preparing for a class, I hear conversations about Libertarian thought. These young men can’t figure out why anyone cares about who one marries, or why anyone would want to restrict access to birth control. They are passionate and caring. We recently had a conversation about Christopher McCandless ( of Into the Wild fame) in which T. expressed admiration for someone who could throw off the constraints of his culture, while Z said he could not abandon in family in the way that McCandless did, but we talked about the romance of McCandless’ journey, and what this journey says about the opportunities (or lack of opportunities) for young people, especially young men to challenge themselves physically and mentally.
What I see in these young men is an unwillingness to settle for the easy life, or to settle for the conventional ideas about success. They both are readers. They each always have a book that is not required for a class in their hands or on the table, and they are both always happy to talk about these books.
I love being part of these conversations. I cherish this time with these guys, knowing that they will both be moving on to a four-year school in not too long. I hope that they continue to question, continue to weigh ideas the way they have in our Writing Center moments.