- Humanity 101
I was on my way to becoming a philanthropist, or the president, or at least someone who gave a shit, but I was a nontraditional student with a lot of catching up to do. I enrolled in Humanity 101 (not to be confused with the Humanities, a whole separate department). When I flunked the final exam, my professor suggested I take Remedial Humanity where I’d learn the basics that I’d missed so far. I may have been a nontraditional student, but I was a traditional person, she said, the way a professor can say intimate things sometimes, as though your face and soul are aglow in one of those magnified (10x) makeup mirrors.
So I took Remedial Humanity, which sounds like an easy A, but, believe me, it was actually quite challenging. There were analogy questions, such as: Paris Hilton is to a rich U.S. suburban kid as a U.S. middle-class kid is to: 1.) a U.S. poverty-stricken kid, 2.) a U.S. kid with nothing in the fridge, or 3.) a Third World kid with no fridge at all. We were required to write essays about the cause of war— Was it a phenomenon? Was it our lower animal selves? Was it economics? Was it psychological/sexual/religious (good vs. evil and all that stuff)? For homework we had to bend down to talk to a homeless person slouched against a building. We didn’t necessarily have to give them money or food, but we had to say something like How are you? or What is your favorite color? [End Page 24]
We took field trips to nursing homes, prisons, day-care centers. We stood near bedsides or sat on the floor to color with strange little people who cried and were afraid of us at first. I almost dropped out. I went to see the professor during his office hours because I wanted to change my major. He asked, “Is that because your heart is being smashed?” He thought I should stick it out, that I could make it, if I just escaped for an hour a day blasting music into my earbuds or slumping in front of the TV. I said, “But that’s just it. Now I see humanity everywhere, even on sitcoms, even in pop songs, even in beer commercials.” He closed his door and showed me the scars under his shirt where he had been stabbed. He said I had to assume everyone had such a wound, whether I could see it or not.
He assured me that it really did get easier in time, and that it was hard to make music when you were still learning how to play the scales. He made me see my potential. He convinced me of my own humanity, that one day I might even be able to get a PhD. But first I had to, for extra credit, write a treatise on detachment. [End Page 25]
denise duhamel’s most recent book of poetry, Blowout, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award and won a 2014 Paterson Award for Literary Excellence. She has published five other books and received numerous awards, including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. She was the guest editor for The Best American Poetry 2013 and is a professor at Florida International University in Miami.