Some topics just too ‘touchy’

    By far the liveliest discussion ever to take place in any class I taught at Highlands had to do with our conception of proper punishment for sex offenders.

     I strongly believe that spirited classroom discussions are what education is all about. Too often we equate learning with having the teacher instruct the students to “turn to page 67, answer all the questions, and don’t disturb my nap.”
     The discussion, which took place in 1999, erupted when two women clearly resented the fact that we men simply disagreed with them. One said, “Since you’re not a woman, there’s no way you could possibly understand what we go through.” The women wouldn’t have been content unless we all agreed rapists and sexual predators need to be executed.
     The discussion was welcome even though it soon became clear that the coeds would have been happy to defenestrate those who disagreed with them. We were on the second floor of Mortimer Hall, and the windows are large; that would have been scary.
     In the eyes of two students, my role as a conduit, one who merely passes on information, took on that of a chauvinist oblivious women’s suffering. Maybe it was too “touchy” a subject for a college class. But if you can’t have robust discussions in college classes, when and where can you have them?
     Much in history and literature deals with the theme of killing the messenger. Cleopatra offered to reward her messenger if he’d delivery news she wished to hear about Mark Antony. When the messenger told her the truth — sorry, Cleo, but your lover has married someone else — she tried to kill him.
     In the same way, I believe that simply broaching a controversial subject, such as rape, often makes the broacher vulnerable and even culpable, in other people’s eyes. But hey, everyone, I’m not the criminal, just a teacher trying to conduct a discussion.
     First some background.
     When on the reportorial staff of a large Illinois daily newspaper in 1963, a colleague and I covered the phenomenon called Dutch Elm Disease, in which trees that appeared healthy simply started breaking, falling on houses and cars. My co-worker and I did a photo essay filled with photos of downed trees. One photo, which won an award, showed a girl’s doll and buggy flattened just a few feet from a house. The article also mentioned the fact that crews had been working 24-7 cleaning up the mess.
     The next day, a man I remember only as Jack called my extension, asking me to photograph his driveway where, “Just 30 minutes ago a tree fell where my daughter had been playing.” I tried to be sympathetic in explaining that we’d already done our Dutch Elm coverage, and besides, what would there be to photograph but a tree in a driveway?
     “Couldn’t you take a picture of my daughter running away from a falling tree?”
     “No, we can’t ‘stage’ photos.”
     So during the short time we were on the phone, I’d become not only an ill-wisher of his daughter’s well-being, but I’d also planted and poisoned the tree that fell in the driveway which adjoined the house that Jack built. And for good measure, I also felt like confessing to having given the 90-ton tree the final nudge that sent it toppling.
     Perhaps it was the words I spoke, or maybe the way I spoke them that started a torrent of profanity (on his part) that ended when I hung up.
     But it didn’t really end there. In minutes he was at the newspaper office, struggling with our security guards and insisting he be allowed to get to me, probably to perform modifications on my face.
     In my early 20s and feeling macho, I employed some bravado and asked security to “bring him on,” but one look at the size of his biceps made me thankful I’d merely mouthed the words.
     I recalled the Dutch Elm experience at the time the brouhaha brewed at Highlands. What do the two events have in common? Probably just my belief. Whereas I didn’t cause the trees to fall, and I didn’t assault anyone sexually, I nevertheless felt myself in a position in which my role as teacher, or reporter, or observer was tantamount to having done all these things. Let’s kill the messenger.
     Though there isn’t room to cover the ramifications of stiffer punishments for sexual assaults, the recent news of Gov. Bill Richardson’s desire to guarantee prison time even for first offenders merits some future discussion.
     I believed in 1999, as I do now, that rapists need to spend time in prison, but if the legislature, for example, decrees that any person convicted of a sexual crime gets a life sentence, there will be too few jurors who will go along with such draconia.
     I’d prefer an increase in the probability of conviction, coupled with some serious prison time, over the usual plea bargains and mysterious dismissals which often put perps back on the streets.
     In my class, I expressed similar sentiments — let’s not sentence every sexual predator to death — and I paid for it. Later, in the parking lot, the female students, who apparently dropped the class that week, turned the discussion into a quarrel, going from issues to personalities. One of them unleashed profanity which 1) questioned whether my parents had really been married and 2) ordered me to commit an impossible act. Quite coincidentally, these were almost the exact words my phone pal in Illinois uttered three decades earlier.
     Hmm, I wonder if the women are related to Jack.

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