Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Turning Points

Crystallizing moments; they seem so rare, seem to melt away so fast, but while they last, it is as though God has shone a light on the right decision to make.

I had several such moments when I was a freshman in college. I'd started at Dordt with my future figured out: I was going to be a journalist, reporting for a newspaper. The where wasn't so clear, but I'd had my career picked out since early in high school. As a sophomore, I'd written a 9-page research paper on reporting and during my junior and senior years, I'd written, edited, taken pictures and drawn cartoons for the high school paper. Armed with a journalism scholarship, I was certain that I'd be graduating with a communications degree just a few short years later.

Sadly, college journalism was a let-down, retreading much of what I'd already learned in high school and proving much less exciting than I had envisioned. For the first time, I questioned what I thought had been a career choice set in stone. Each assignment served to blur, rather than sharpen my view of my calling. I lost my desire and motivation to become a reporter, and despaired at the prospect of four years spent battling disinterest to earn a degree I didn't even want anymore. In hindsight, I believe that there wasn't so much wrong with the journalism program as I'd had exceptionally strong journalism instruction in high school. Still, at the time, I was disappointed.

So, I chose to switch majors at the end of my first semester. Early on in my "Kingdom, Identity and Calling" class (at the time, Dordt's introduction to... well, Dordt, Calvinism, Kuyper, etc.), I had written an essay about how I wanted to be an agent of truth, to wake people up to injustice in the world. At the time I'd written the essay, I'd had journalism in mind, but in December, while writing a 'bookend' essay to that very first one, it occurred to me that teaching not only fit those goals, but it fit with who I was as a person, as well. This was a crystallizing moment, and one that led me to enroll in Ed. 101 for the second semester.

Of course, once I started my introductory education class (which I immediately and thoroughly enjoyed), I was left with another major decision: what to teach? There were two subjects in high school that I had particularly appreciated: English and History. Both would lend themselves to my goal of teaching against injustice, but I could only afford to choose one endorsement.

As luck would have it, I happened to be taking both an American Lit course and a Western Civ course at the time. I resolved to make my decision based on how those two classes went.

For most of the semester, it was a brutally tough choice: I loved both classes. However, toward the end of the semester, I had another crystallizing moment that would tip the scales to favor a history endorsement. This came in the form of a three-week intensive simulation of the French Revolution.

Up to that point, the class had been primarily lecture, reading and discussion. I loved every minute of it, because the professor was a good lecturer, storyteller and facilitator. So, when he presented us with the option of playing a game for several weeks of class, I couldn't help but wonder why he was shaking things up. I mean, if it ain't broke...

Still, I was intrigued (as were my classmates) by the mysterious simulation option, which the professor had informed us would be a lot more challenging than class normally was. So, we unanimously opted to play the game. Almost immediately, we were assigned a ton of reading, including Rousseau's "Social Contract" and a game packet that was over 100 pages long. True to form, I put the reading off until the last minute and scrambled to finish it. I barely passed the reading quiz that our professor gave us (which was also a wake-up call as I was usually able to get good grades despite last minute, hasty work).

We were then assigned roles that we would need to fill as we simulated the meetings of the National Assembly just prior to the French Revolution. I was assigned to be Georges Danton, the leader of the Parisian mob. Unlike the clergy, the Jacobins, the nobility and the Feulliants, the common people did not have representation in the National Assembly (which would take place in our small classroom). We could, however, watch the proceedings from the fringes of the room and comment on what was happening.

During our first meeting, we sat quietly and watched as the various factions stood at the podium, made proposals and then voted on those proposals. It was sort of interesting. Then, my fellow Parisian mobster, sitting next to me, handed me a note from the professor. I unfolded it and read:
"Nate--don't be afraid to be OBNOXIOUS!"

Obnoxious was underlined several times. I looked at the professor and he raised his eyebrows, and tilted his head to direct my attention to the speaker, who was making a proposal and quoting Rousseau.


I had no idea if this was really what Rousseau was saying, but I thought I'd take a stab all the same.

The effect of my outburst was stunning: I'd interrupted the speaker's train of thought and gotten the attention of everyone in the room. The speaker looked to the professor worriedly, and the professor gave a non-committal nod as if to say: "Roll with it."

From that point on, I dove into the role--made sure I was comfortable quoting (and if necessary, misusing) Rousseau to promote the plight of the poor in Paris. I stayed up all night editing my faction newspapers in Adobe InDesign, I drew crude cartoons during meetings of the National Assembly, called for the king's head to roll on more than one occasion, and started angry chants that would derail proceedings. At one point, I even staged a mob uprising in which I stood on the desks in the room, singing "C' Ira", a traditional French mob song (translated into English). When it became clear that we wouldn't finish all of our items of National Assembly business in the time provided, our entire class voted to meet a half hour early for several days--a decision made all the more radical by the fact that we met at 8:00 am. In fact, this turn of events even helped to inspire Professor Mark Carnes, the creator of that simulation (and others), to write an article for the "Chronicle of Higher Education" and also an entire book on the merits of historical simulations in education.

Though the mob ultimately lost the simulation (or at least, failed to win), those weeks provided another crystallizing moment for me. I realized that I could, with training, learn how to make history come alive for my students in a similar way, and make them see the relevance not only of decisions that were made in the past, but also decisions in their own lives.

Of course, as luck would have it, I now teach both history and English and thoroughly enjoy both. Still, I am grateful that I made the decision that I did--taking the history classes that I did helped to sharpen and focus my calling, and I am glad that the LORD provides such moments of clarity in our lives.

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