After Seth finished his final exam, he walked up to the front of class and handed me a letter. The last sentence alone made all the difference:
“I learned a lot about Congress, American history and the true nature of politics – but I also learned what I am capable of. And how I can use that to help others.”
As wonderful as this was to read, there was a deeper admission within his letter that really got me. Seth had been an interesting student the entire semester; outspoken and an independent thinker. He was more conservative than most students in the class, but far from an ideologue. In fact, just a couple of weeks into the course, he sent me an article about “Ideology as Addiction” – and related it to a recent class discussion.
Early on, I perceived Seth to be an honest young person. A month into the course, I asked him why he did poorly on the first exam. It puzzled me because he was so confident and vocal in class. There was no bullshit or even a hint of excuse in Seth’s reply. He said he merely hadn’t studied hard enough.
Yet as direct as he was during the fall term, I was surprised and moved by what he shared in the first paragraph of his letter:
“Your class was a large part of a year centered around positive journeys. For me, it is difficult to recognize worth and purpose in myself, and I often find it by overcoming challenges or responding to adversity.”
Unbeknownst to Seth, I found his admission to be ironic because I’ve struggled with the very same doubts and questions far more than he, or for that matter many others in my life, will ever be aware. Earlier this year, some of those demons rose up from a dormant place and cuffed me square in the jaw. A story for another day. But suffice it say, Seth’s message struck a chord. And the courage he exhibited in writing about it to a professor he hardly knew was wholesale inspiration.
There were 81 students in the course I teach on the U.S. Congress at Arizona State University’s School of Politics and Global Studies. I’m newer to this whole teaching gig, so when I hear comments like this from a student, I probably place too much weight upon them. Attrition hasn’t started to creep in on my tender sensibilities just yet. Still, to the extent that a student derived some personal growth from the class, well, that’ll be far more valuable than anything he might remember about the inner workings of Congress.
I replied to Seth’s letter in an email, wherein I told him about how meaningful his message was – and that I truly understood where he was coming from. I also offered him a bit of unsolicited advice with regard to the introspection he’d shared with me: Make sure you give yourself a break. If you’re being kind to people and doing your best, then don’t worry so much about the rest.
I must admit to feeling that I’d included a bit of “do as I say – not as I do” in my reply. Yet even saying words like these always serves as a reminder. A lesson. At some level, we’re all just trying to figure this thing out as we go. And any one of us can teach – or reteach – this lesson to someone else. Learn, or relearn this lesson. Doing so requires only an open mind and an open heart. Nothing more.
And once you’ve got that down, your capacity to do good becomes unlimited.