In 1979 I had major conflict with a teacher who turned my world upside down inside out. Although I played sports almost all of my academic life, I was also passionate about forensics, or what later became known as speech class (i.e. oratory, debate, etc.)
This was one of those pivotal moments in life where you can mark a change in yourself as a human being.
My overly competitive nature spilled over from my athletic training and into all other aspects of my life. When it came time to deliver oratory, debate or engage in persuasive speaking I was always attempting to out shine my classmates. I didn’t say my attitude at the time was healthy but, then again, healthy attitudes weren’t what kept you off of your back on the football field.
In 1979 the Equal Rights Amendment was a very hot button issue. Our speech class teacher let us know that we would be debating the ERA the following week and that we needed to come prepared. I was excited because it would be another opportunity for me to “wipe-the-proverbial-floor” with whomever I would be debating against. Once again, I was young, competitive and, yes, very arrogant.
Having been reared by a single mother I was very familiar with the issues the ERA was seeking to address and, because of my mother, I was also exceedingly passionate about this historic amendment. I labored over my preparations for this debate more than I had any other. I had witnessed my mother suffer, first hand, not only the disparity in rights and compensation but innumerable indignities as well attempting to make a life for us in male dominated work environments.
I showed up to class armed with a battalion of information and a passion unequaled by any of my classmates.
Our teacher sat us down and gave us the usual instructions. She then pointed at me and said, “You will be arguing “against” the ERA.”
“What!” I screamed and I must have yelled pretty loud because the room got deathly silent.
Up to that point she had always permitted us to choose the stance we would argue from and I had always chosen to argue from the point of view that I agreed with. This wasn’t fair! I wasn’t going to argue against the ERA, it wasn’t in my makeup to argue against it. My sincere pleas not to have to argue a side of an argument, that I was morally against, held no weight with her. She repeated her instructions and divided the class into teams. Of course she had me lead the “against the ERA” team.
She gave us time to formulate our arguments and assemble our facts. I have to say that this was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life. Words and ideas that countered my own philosophy literally choked in my throat and made my heart ache. There were a few times when my team was discussing our possible counter points that I felt angry and wanted to storm out of the room. Athletics had taught me something about being a team player and I had to set my own issues aside because, after all, I was the captain of this team.
When it came time to debate I made sincere attempts at rising to the occasion but fell short. Our opponents were “wiping-the-floor” with us and, as team leader, I had to accept responsibility for our poor showing. I was at an age where losing hurt and hurt badly.
It was painful to listen to the opposing team articulate sentiments and facts that resonated so deeply with me and then have to counter with dissonant ideations that damn near brought me to tears.
That day I left the classroom feeling like an absolute failure. I left feeling like I had betrayed myself morally. I was young, very young and these feelings were new and discomforting.
Over the next few weeks our teacher led us down a path of self-discovery that I will never forget. The importance of being the type of human being that is capable of viewing an issue from multiple angles is a key to developing a healthy worldview. If I had not been forced to experience the pain of that debate I know that many of the opportunities that I have received in this life would have passed me up. Being forced to view life through the eyes of another was not easy for me in my youth and I now see it is almost impossible for many adults today.
When I reflect on this teacher, I think about how she helped to alter the way I see and think about the world we live in. What she gave me was not part of any “core curricula” or “standard” at the time. I know that this woman saw us more as developing human beings than as mere students.
I see the level of intolerance today as symptomatic of narrow-mindedness and childish arrogance possessed by those whose social and intellectual development remains stagnate. I’m not sure what type of an adult I would have been had I not had this woman in my life to challenge my assumptions but I know that I am better for having known her.
I shutter to think how many brilliant people like this are being threatened with pink slips and lay off notices today as we devalue the role of teachers and education. What type of adults will our children be tomorrow if they are not touched by adults like this today?