(Lead image – Photo credit: Joeyy Lee, via Unsplash)
One of the required courses for my undergraduate degree was called “Death and Dying.” “Lovely,” I thought. “No better way to spend my summer semester.” It being a summer course meant that it only lasted two weeks, but that the classes were 2.5 hours long. Again, lovely.
I showed up and rolled my eyes as I took in the other students. Half of them were on the football team; one of which was barefoot. I only noticed because one of his hairy feet was up on his desk next to a 12-can case of Dr. Pepper. The rest of the students in the room ranged from your typical American college student, to one woman in her sixties. We were quite the conglomeration of people in that one room. Another strange note I took in was that all the desks were pushed to the very back of the room and quite close together leaving a very open space at the front of the room. With a heavy sigh I took my seat and braced myself for a long two weeks.
In walked the professor, a thin, very tall man with a happy demeanor. I wasn’t at all expecting a happy demeanor from a death and dying class.
He began with an introduction that was extremely distracting, due to the fact that he had severe Tourette Syndrome. Mid-sentence, his entire face would flex and his mouth would stretch open to full capacity before he continued speaking as if nothing happened. It wasn’t long before he called out this elephant in the room by admitting his condition. He apologized that another of his tics was kicking out his long leg, necessitating a wide space at the front of the room. He laughingly spoke of the chipped shin bones of the past.
The entirety of that first two-and-a-half-hour class was spent talking all about Tourette’s. He promised that by the end of our short time together we would no longer notice his tics, but they were so glaringly prominent that I doubted his promise. He gave details about living with it, described other disorders that can accompany the syndrome, and invited us to ask any questions we had, which he answered openly.
Because of this approach to communication, my professor set the stage for transparency, honesty and respect in the classroom. He invited conversation and individual insight unlike any professor or class I had ever attended. What began as a class I dreaded, ended up being one of the best classes of my college experience.
We talked of religion and how it plays into the death experience by hearing from atheist, Christian, and agnostic students. We heard fellow students share about losing parents, siblings and children. At one point my barefooted linebacker friend challenged the professor on a certain viewpoint. Rather than argue back, the professor offered him extra credit to write up his thoughts to present at the next class. Much to my dismay, he returned (with shoes on!) and presented a sound defense to his position. It shattered the stereotype I had placed him in!
It was through those short two weeks that I learned a lesson that changed my life: I need to see through circumstances in order to truly see a person.
Once I was able to see through Tourette Syndrome, I was able to see a talented professor who loved guiding his students to learn from each other. Once I saw through a label I had placed on my classmate, I was able to see a fellow human being rise to meet a challenge. I was able to see through the pain of those around me to the love they felt for those they had lost.
Stereotypes, physical limitations, mental disabilities, situations placed by others, those placed by ourselves… all are things we should practice seeing through. The person underneath needs to be seen for their true selves and not for their circumstances. Every human deserves this right.
My professor inadvertently taught me that if I can do a little better seeing through circumstances, then I can start learning and growing from a more genuine and loving place. How would your world be different if you could remove circumstances and only see people? I promise it would change your world. And yes, my professor was right. By the end of our course I didn’t even notice his tics. I no longer saw Tourette’s. I just saw my professor.
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