A Show of Hands

We numbered no more than fifteen participants—including me, the instructor-for the sophomore history seminar, and over the course of the semester, we came to know one another rather well. Almost too well. Our distinct personalities all gradually emerged, yet one stood out. I’ll call him Matthew.

Matthew was a brilliant student. He immersed himself in his academic discipline so completely that the relative indifference of his fellow classmates to historiographical nuance stunned him. At times, he would remind them of their inattention, unfortunately in tones that reflected his impatience. Naturally, his classmates didn’t warm to these complaints, but I sensed they handled them with equanimity and relative good humor. Until the final weeks. That’s when each student was scheduled to present his or her extended study to the class in a formal, PowerPoint lecture, to be followed by ten minutes of questions and discussion.

The presentations spread over the final three weeks of class, and Matthew gave his report early on. He then turned his full attention to his classmates’ work. Following each talk, he would raise a series of questions that had the effect of challenging at some basic level what had just been said. I sensed growing trepidation in the students’ eyes after each completed his or her formal presentation and opened the floor to questions. Matthew’s arm would immediately shoot up and the inquisition would begin, striking fear in the presenter and freezing the rest of the class into silence. Student after student endured this barrage of exacting questions. Matthew didn’t seem to mean any harm, but neither did he show any mercy. And by the final day of presentations, the pattern was so fully established that reminders about class etiquette could not slow or deflect Matthew’s challenges. Nor could any amount of prodding move his fellow classmates to venture their own queries. The exercise had taken on the aura of a ritual sacrifice.

On the final day, only one student still had to present his work. This student had deferred his scheduled presentation twice before, so it was now or never. His previous delays were clearly the result of his lack of self-confidence—a lack related to both the quality of his work and his public-speaking skills. No student feared the discussion period more than he did. His hands shook visibly as he stood before the class, and his face flushed as he approached the inevitable question period. When he had offered his conclusions, he stared down at the podium for a full minute. Only then did he draw in a deep breath and look at the class. Matthew’s arm shot up immediately.

But then something remarkable happened. For the first time, a number of other hands appeared, each with an important question that needed answering. Some of these led to follow-up questions, and a few classmates even offered unsolicited praise for the talk. The presenter worked his way around the room methodically, taking care to answer each inquiry thoroughly. As he did so, I noticed that his fear was beginning to melt. When he realized what his classmates had done, he relaxed all the more and almost seemed to beam. Matthew also saw what was happening and pulled down his arm. The class had rallied to spare a colleague the torment they themselves had experienced. Even more impressive, they had done it spontaneously, without talk among themselves beforehand, and with no apparent malice toward their nemesis. I found the whole thing a remarkable gesture of human compassion, something I’ll never forget. It reminded me that grace and courage can sometimes be found in the subtlest of human gestures, and that sometimes it can be accomplished simply by raising one’s hand.

In recent years, Catholic colleges and universities in the United States have worked hard to reassert their Catholic identity. Some have expanded their Catholic studies departments, others have heightened their emphasis on religious images and customs. But my own most profound campus experience of a Catholic ethos in action came through those students in that sophomore history seminar.

Published in the 2008-09-26 issue: 

Timothy Kelly teaches history at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.

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