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Pedagogy 2.1 (2001) 112-114

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Paul's Case (with Apologies to Willa Cather)

Kate Duffy

Time changes many things, but not always the right things. In 1986 technology thrust my campus into a brave new world. I now taught my composition class in the computer lab. Scary science--machines the size of washer/dryer sets, flickering black-and-white screens, data stored on a floppy, a word- processing program as flexible and productive as a coloring book.

Collaboration became different in the brave new world. Computer screens and projectors made writing immediately public, easily accessible--big. The pre-e-mail, pre-Internet student body of the mid-1980s saw its own writing, previously held physically close and read only by an instructor or by classmates, suddenly blown up and beamed across the classroom. It must have been like seeing one's diary projected on the "Coming Attractions" screen at the theater. I have always wondered if that change of format influenced Paul. I am almost sure that it did.

Paul was an intelligent, articulate young man whose writing far surpassed that of most of his classmates and surprised and impressed his peers. He was a model, a class leader. His first-person narrative paper stunned everyone. As a small child, Paul had witnessed a cross burning in his front yard. [End Page 112] His narrative was riveting, inescapable. He took his readers into his darkened living room on that hellish night. We heard the horror in his mother's voice, saw the leaping flames reflected on the windowpanes, felt the confused terror of a little boy.

Toward the end of the semester the department put out the usual call for outstanding freshman essays, so I naturally asked Paul for permission to submit his. "Let me think about it," he said. A couple of days later I asked him again. He hemmed and hawed, then said, "Ms. Duffy, that never happened. I made it up."

One, two, three. . . . It took me a few minutes to process his answer before I could even ask why. But the answer was even harder to take. Paul felt that only an extreme, iconic reference could convey to his classmates (all white) the depth of the prejudice behind the innumerable daily indignities that he suffered as a young black male: the subtle, insidious words, gestures, and looks that would be transparent to a white person. Perhaps he believed that his big, Caucasian, electronically enlarged audience needed a Technicolor image.

By Paul's reasoning, I would need to proclaim myself a victim of the Holocaust to convince a Gentile readership that anti-Semitism still exists and that I encounter it frequently, although not as frequently as my daughter, who is, to our knowledge, the only Jew in a sophomore class of over five hundred. No one has ever painted a swastika on our house or broken our windows, but she does receive regular evangelical Christian e-mails from friends, classmates, and even non-Jewish family members. Whether or not they reflect their senders' ignorance or good intent, they are insulting. When someone wrote "JEW" above her locker in black marker, it was not the same as someone writing "Catholic" or "Methodist" or "Irish." Her faith is reduced to a pejorative, tagged to a set of facial characteristics. She is told, as a compliment, "You don't look Jewish." Would anyone consider approaching a classmate or colleague and saying, "Hey, has anyone ever told you that you look Lutheran?" The very idea is absurd.

When the students at my daughter's high school read Elie Wiesel's memoir Night, they united to revile the ravages of anti-Semitism. They gave Auschwitz survivor Mike Vogel a tearful standing ovation when he spoke in their packed auditorium. But the next day at the softball game they told jokes about "dirty Mexicans," and any classmate who says or does something particularly stupid is still called "Jew!" We hold enthusiastic pep rallies for tolerance but leave our ideals on the floor of the empty public arena when we go home.

How can we remain...


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pp. 112-114
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