The Introvert Student

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The Introvert Student Eveline van Staalduine-Sulman

He came from a turbulent country with a lot of religious conflicts. He participated in my working sessions in our renewed course on Hermeneutics, but he was very quiet.

He gave his two required presentations, he answered questions directed to him. For the rest, he listened quietly and did not partake in the discussions spontaneously. Let me just confess that I was too focused on the new book we used. I had more attention to the renewed contents than to the individual students.

The goal of the sessions was to let students of diverse religious and non-religious backgrounds communicate with each other – preferably without conflicts, of course.

The students had read the book of Simon Wiesenthal, The Sunflower, about his experiences as a Jew in Poland before the war and in German concentration camps.

One day, Wiesenthal was asked to visit a dying German soldier, a Roman-Catholic by birth, but later a fiery supporter of Hitler and his ideology. The soldier was severely wounded and needed to confess. He had asked for a Jew, any Jew, and Wiesenthal had been chosen. And confessing he did! It was a horrible story and Wiesenthal listened quietly, but could not say a word afterwards. He could not forgive the soldier, he could neither condemn him in his face. The book closes with a simple question to the reader:

“What would you have done?”

The discussions in my tutorial, therefore, circled around the themes of evil,

confession, forgiveness and reconciliation. What those themes meant in the traditions from which my students came. The group at that moment consisted of an Orthodox student from Greece, three Mennonites from Colombia, the Netherlands and Nigeria, three Eastern-Orthodox students from Syria, two atheists from the UK and Holland, you name it. It was striking that the students from the most turbulent countries seem to be in favour of forgiveness and reconciliation, because they yearned for peace and considered peace only accessible through forgiveness. At least, in the context of our classroom. Others were stressing righteousness and punishment for the perpetrators, because governments must be fair and their people deserve justice. Still, this one student remained silent during these discussions.

In the last session my students had to give a short presentation. Wiesenthal’s book had been used in two conferences. Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, and atheist leaders and scholars had written a short response to the final question “What would you have done?” The students had to choose one response from another religion than their own, and present it, trying to listen as closely to the tradition as possible and doing justice to its beliefs. My quiet student had chosen the response of the Dalai Lama, about

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compassion, and presented his view in an elegant, but very concise way. A few

questions from his fellow students were answered, but he did not open his heart to us.

And at that moment I had the idea that I had failed him.

It was time to stop and to “say goodbye.” We packed our bags and started to put on our coats. I hesitated: would I speak to him? Ask him if he had not felt safe in these working sessions? Before I could walk to him, though, he himself surmounted his silence and started talking. He wanted a picture of the group as a reminder for the days that he would be in his homeland again. He wanted to remember the story of Simon Wiesenthal, the presentations, the discussions. He had learned so much!

He nearly stumbled over his words, when he, suddenly eager to open his heart, tried to explain what it exactly was that he had learned.

 He had noted in the response of the Dalai Lama that one could be a religious leader of one tradition and yet speak in a way that everyone – also he himself, as a non-Buddhist and someone who knew little about Buddhism – could understand it. No, more than that, the student had found out that many people from various traditions were willing to listen to the Dalai Lama, although he came from one specific tradition.

 He had learned from the discussions among the students that people could learn to listen to each other and speak to each other about their deepest feelings – without religious conflicts, without fights, without condemning and hating each other. He had experienced it himself.

 He had learned from the student from Colombia that a country can start a peace process and that inhabitants of that country could opt for peace, forgiveness and reconciliation. It had given him hope for the future of his own country.

He explained he had had so much to think about and to reflect upon during the working sessions that he had had no time to participate in the conversation. Yet, he gave a ten-minutes speech to us about what he had learned and how useful these sessions had been. I could not have imagined a better ending. No text I would have prepared as a teacher could ever have had the impact of this student’s final words. I had not failed him, he just had a different learning strategy than I had anticipated.

Those are the moments that inspire me to continue teaching.

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