My EN 102 students are giving their final presentations this week. This is an opportunity for them to use the persuasive skills they have been learning in my argument class. To understand argument and rhetoric as socially relevant, all semester we have been reading essays and poems by Audre Lorde, articles related to Hurricane Katrina, and a novel on race and gender. At the midterm, I assigned the anthology What Lies Beneath: Katrina, Race, and the State of the Nation. They read the essays, wrote responses, analysed news photos from the disaster, and made presentations related to some aspects of the Katrina event. Today, those assignments made a difference for one student who spoke about his alternative spring break to New Orleans.
Julio stood in front of his classmates this morning and said even though spring break has already passed, volunteering over spring break may be something the class would like to consider for next year. He did it and really got a lot out of it, he said. Julio traveled to Mississippi and Louisiana, with a special trip to New Orleans, to build houses with “this organization called Habitat for Humanity.” At this, my ears perked up. We had spent so much time in class talking about the ongoing rebuilding efforts in the regions most affected by Katrina, and I wanted to listen for any references to our class discussions. His presentation was interesting and certainly filled with pathos — who wouldn’t want to do his/her part in healing a section of the country that is still in a state of repair? — and he persuaded his classmates (and me) to consider alternative vacations, but that was it.
Julio focused mostly on what he did during his trip — hammering together frames for houses — with no mention of our unit on Katrina so I couldn’t tell when he had taken his trip to the south. Perhaps he had done this last year, long before he had registered for our class and long before he had read the assigned texts on Katrina, so after his presentation I asked him directly,”When did you take this trip?” He said he took it this spring. “This spring? Why didn’t you mention this when we were talking about Hurricane Katrina?” I asked. He reminded me that we left for spring break right after we had talked about Katrina, so he had gone to Mississippi and Louisiana after our course discussions had finished. This news excited me. I wanted to ask if the texts and discussions had inspired him toward action, but I had one more question to ask him before I could share my excitement: “Why didn’t you tell me you were going?” He paused. My students know how strongly I feel about the issues that rose out of the Katrina event and they know how deeply I feel about the need to continue addressing those issues in thoughtful conversation. Julio would certainly have known it would have meant something to me that he would be going on this trip. “Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked again.
“Because,” he began, “I know you. You would have made me write a paper on it.” Then he added, “I just wanted to go.”
He was right. If Julio had told me he would be going to Katrina-affected areas to build houses, I would have wanted a paper or a presentation or some kind of talk about what he experienced, who he met, and what he got out of it. I would have wanted him to be conscious of his time there so that later he could be reflective. What I would have wanted is not at all what he wanted. It was clear to me in his answer that he just wanted to help people, and that he preferred picking up a hammer instead of a pen, so I smiled at him, let him sit down, and called up the next presenter. After class, though, Julio and I walked into the hallway and then down the stairs together. I had so many questions, but I asked only one open-ended question, “How was it?”
“It was great,” he said. “I met so many people that reminded me of the book, and they all told me their stories.” He said he told them he had read a book about Hurricane Katrina in his English class, and he said he felt knowledgeable about the kinds of things the victims were telling him. He felt informed, but he also felt surprised. “I couldn’t believe the people I met wanted to come back. They want to rebuild….” We were outside by now, standing in front of the Humanities building.
“I wish you could have given a presentation on your trip,” I told him finally.
“I just did,” he said, “about Habitat for Humanity.”
Indeed, he did just tell us about the benefits of volunteering for Habitat for Humanity, but I wanted to know his feelings, his experiences, his story. Suddenly, there were students walking all around us, and Julio stood against the sunlight looking at me, waiting for me to let him go to his next class or to lunch or to wherever he goes after our class ends. I asked him to send me an email telling me a little more about his trip. He said he would. “With pictures,” I added. He promised pictures, lots and lots of pictures and walked away. I knew he had learned something more than I could have ever intended for him to learn, and it wasn’t through writing a paper, but I hope someday, after he has had time to reflect on the valuable work he has done, he will write his story.