I’m late again and for the second week.
I briskly walk through the streets of Downtown Toronto, zig-zagging past businessmen wearing grey suits and carrying leather patent suitcases and students mindlessly listening to music while walking to class. All taking their time to get to their destinations. On the way into the History building, I race to pass a homeless person sitting on an old white plastic pail that holds a sign reading, “Hungry. Anything $ helps.”.
Tired and annoyed with myself for sleeping through my alarm clock, I climbed up three flights of stairs, passed a trail of students waiting to get into a lecture hall, to get to my History of Democracy class. The class itself is small in size, two rectangular tables are pushed together with chairs strewn around it. When I enter I see my two friends, Alia and Zahara, sitting at the corner of the table, an empty seat between them. Only 5 minutes late, I settle into what will be a 3-hour lecture on “the early years of Hitler’s government.”
I zone in and out of class as my mind wanders off to nowhere in particular as the professor’s voice slowly transforms into a buzz: the type of buzz that Charlie Brown would hear when his teacher spoke. When the professor looks at me I smile and nod as if to say, “this is all very interesting, please continue!” As if she needs my encouragement.
When the class is dismissed, my friends and I pack our bags and head to the first floor where the student lounge is located. When we finally leave the classroom my friends Alia and Zahara turn to me with eager eyes.
“Dude, there was a huge argument before class,” Alia starts off before looking over at Zahara, quietly urging her to tell the story.
“What happened?” I ask. It’s Monday morning and I’m in desperate need of a juicy story to boost my energy.
“Before class started Will and Abby had a whole argument about the upcoming elections,” Zahara said.
“It was more like Will was yelling at Abby and Abby sort of retreated from the conversation… if you can even call it that,” Alia clarified.
Our class only has twenty students in it – most of whom are fairly quiet. Since it is a fourth-year seminar course there are a lot of discussions but very rarely do students speak to each other about the subject matter at hand – or anything else for that matter. Whenever someone has something to say, it is usually directed towards the professor as opposed to the class, so hearing that two students not only spoke to each other but had a disagreement was news to me. Quite honestly, I’m more disappointed in missing the argument they had before class than being late to class.
“But what happened?!” I urge.
Seeing that I was beginning to grow antsy, Alia went on to explain the story, “Well, Will reminded everyone to go out to vote for the elections that are going on today and then Abby explained that she had gone through the early voting polls already.”
“That’s when Will asked who she voted for and Abby told him that she had voted for some conservative representative,” Zahara went on.
“That’s when Will lost it. He was yelling at her for a while. He even went on to say things like ‘How could you vote for them?’ and explaining how he was on the receiving end of some homophobic comments from Conservatives,” Alia explained.
All I can imagine is Will’s angry voice ricocheting off the blank white walls, echoing through the classroom as his anger grew.
“How did Abby respond?” I ask.
With a shrug of her shoulders, Alia responded, “She didn’t really… She did mention that she’s from a small farming community… So maybe that’s why she voted for a conservative… Anyways, the professor walked into the classroom by then and the conversation ended. It was just tense the entire time. No one else in the room said anything. We just watched as it played out.”
We all felt some sort of sympathy for Abby. I was shocked by the whole situation while Zahara and Alia silently shook their heads. Whether it be at what Will said or the fact that Abby voted for a Conservative, I don’t know.
With lunch over, I make my way to an Introduction to Immigration Law class. This week was supposed to be focused on immigration and the refugee crisis and how the West is dealing with the issue.
Professor Jameson teaches this course in a fairly unconventional way. At the beginning of each class, we rearrange the chairs to create a fairly big circle so that we can all have a good look at the person speaking. Many recognized each other’s faces. Seeing each other in the library or on our way to the subway. But, if you asked, many of us did not know the name of the person sitting next to us or have heard their voice before. We had to acknowledge each other’s existence in this circle. We had to look them in the eyes and actually listen.
She had one rule in particular: everyone would get a chance to speak and say their piece. The rest of us would listen, and not to think of faults in the person’s argument, but to hear their thoughts.
In hopes of trying to break lectures up to make it more interesting for students, she started the class with a documentary on the refugee crises called, Human Flow by Ai Weiwei. For the next two hours and twenty minutes, the entire class went on a journey through 20 different countries and splits the reason for fleeing into 4 categories: war between states, ethnic conflicts, non-ethnic conflicts and flights from repression. As the documentary continued refugees from different camps were introduced and given the chance to tell their story. Other times experts were shown to give an explanation to the lack of aid refugees were receiving.
By the end of the class, she wanted us to go around the circle to speak about what we had just watched. Jake started the conversation off for us.
Stuttering at first, he went on to say, “Well… I don’t know… It’s obviously sad that they have to go through but.. when you think about it… Canada has already done a lot. We all know what has been going on in Paris or London. They’re not all good. There needs to be a system set up so we don’t let the bad guys in.” It was at this point that I had so deeply rolled my eyes internally that I zoned out of what he was saying.
These people are running away the bad guys Jake, I think to myself.
When we reached the end of the circle, the class was over. I went over to Professor Jameson to ask a question about the upcoming paper, and after receiving the necessary information she asked, “what did you think about the circle activity?”
I told her the traditional things a student may say to a professor about an activity. That it “taught me a lot,” and was “a new way of thinking,” all of which was true, but I couldn’t help thinking back to what Jake had said at the beginning of the activity. Specifically this idea that there were “bad guys” that we had to protect ourselves from when the movie goes into detail about how “bad guys” are created when young people, men especially, see that the West does not care for them or their family.
Feeling safe enough to voice this, I explained my discomfort at the assumption Jake made. More importantly, I explained my shock to Jameson, that after watching the documentary he didn’t seem to recognize the humanity in the refugees.
After speaking I looked up to Professor Jameson for a response. She was quiet for a moment and said very calmly,
“I know. I was a bit taken aback myself. But that’s the point of the circle, you hear what everyone has to say. Then you get to say what you think about the issue. And somewhere in between, there may be a lesson learned.”.
I have taken multiple courses with Professor Jameson and more times than not she never gives a direct answer to things. She’ll give you bits and pieces. I always thought of her as streetlights in a residential neighborhood. They are there but few and far between. Not enough for you to see the bottom of the street from the top, but enough for you to find your way home. I usually listen to what she says, even if I don’t understand it at the time, and leave it in the corner of my mind where it can be cultivated by the experiences I go through. But today, instead of taking what she told me and leaving it for a rainy day, I find an urge to reply.
“Ok, but how am I supposed to learn from what he said? We just watched an entire documentary about the refugee crisis and he still carries the same type of judgment that the documentary specifically calls out and corrected. How can you not have compassion for those people.” I reply, a lump growing in my throat as I remember a scene from the film where Ethiopian and Eritrean refugees were singing traditional hymns. Their arms rhythmically swaying left and right as their collective voices created a hypnotic sound that I lost myself in.
It is one thing to make sure that the country has enough resources to care for everyone, it is another entirely to demonize people before they get a chance to tell their story. Even a criminal here has the right to be treated innocent until proven otherwise.
Seeing me get emotional, Professor Jameson asked if I had a connection to the documentary. I explained that my parents immigrated to the country; my dad stayed in a refugee camp in Khartoum for 6 years before coming to Canada.
Like an old friend, she allowed me to recount their stories of migration and the challenges they faced. Language barriers, emotional ties to the motherland that are hard to overcome, the desire to be more “Canadian”.
She paused before saying anything and asked, “Do you remember everything that Jake had said in class?”.
I tell her what I had said to her at the beginning of our conversation. That Jake was afraid of “bad guys getting in the country.”
“Yes, he did say that. But he also said that his great grandparents migrated to the country from Britain and that he grew up in Guelph,” Professor Jameson calmly says.
I stare at her for what seems like an eternity. Waiting for a lightbulb to turn on in my head. But I get nothing.
Seeing this Professor Jameson goes on to say, “I see how you can get upset at what he said. Like I said, I was too. But, sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know, and learning is a process. We can’t be upset with a person for not understanding where we are coming from if we don’t see theirs. In order to effect real change, you must listen first.”.
We say our goodbyes and I head over to the subway station. I hear her words echo in my head. Learning is a process. You must listen first.