I have learned to fear my students – their unknown past and what might inhabit their present is worrying me.
My love of teaching is under assault.
A year ago, I taught a lecture course on religion and magic to about 120 first-semester and transfer students at UNC Charlotte. Our lecture hall was dark, without windows. The entrance was at one end of the long room, opposite the stage.
The subject of gun rights came up early in the semester. A student introduced the issue during a lecture on the term “religion.” He wanted to compare the challenges of definition I described to the difficulty he faced defending gun rights.
I tried to return us to our lecture topic. Another student raised his hand and made a second comment about protecting gun rights. Most Americans misunderstand the nature of an assault rifle, he said.
It was a strange, disconcerting moment.
A couple of months later, on October 29, I walked into class both fragile and fearful. It was just two days after eleven people were murdered at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. The shooter’s social media profiles included an account description that read: “The Jews are the children of Satan” (John: 8:44).
I was to lecture on how magic had become associated with the devil in medieval Christian thought. The lecture would explain how the depiction of Jews as the devil’s offspring had led to labeling Jews as evil magicians and sorcerers.
I mentioned the shooting. Then, I looked across a dark lecture hall filled with people I didn’t know. “I am afraid of you,” I said. “I am afraid to give this lecture.”
Though we spoke about those fears together for a few minutes, I never went into the classroom again without anxiety. My students knew I was Jewish. Some knew I was a rabbi. I’d walk up the stairs to the stage and think wryly what an easy target I could be. I tried to stand behind the podium instead of pacing across the stage, as I usually do.
That fear never went away. Exactly seven months later, on April 29, I went to teach just days after the Poway Synagogue shooting in San Diego. I wondered on the drive to campus: Was I putting my students at risk by teaching a course on the history of European antisemitism? Would a student look up courses on Jewish history and pick up an assault rifle?
Two hours later UNCC was put on lockdown. A shooter killed two of our students and injured four others.
There is no evidence that the shooter harbored any antisemitic views. But he showed how easy it was to bring a gun on campus and to murder people. Simple, really.
This fall, a student in my online course on Hebrew Scriptures (read: Tanakh) wrote me an email suggesting that dropping the course might be necessary. The student wanted to make sure it wasn’t “Jewish-based.”
It was the week Donald Trump called Jews ignorant and disloyal if they voted for Democrats.
Had I been searched online? Had the student discovered I was an ordained rabbi? What kinds of websites did my correspondent like to frequent? Where did the student come from?
I was afraid to provoke by asking what was meant by the comment. I was afraid to do anything more than I did, which was to write explaining that the class material was taught in a secular, academic environment.
For the first time in my life I have gained a semblance of understanding for the kind of courage teaching can require.
I want to thank the teachers of this broken world. I am certain that most of us only want to bring good things into this world.
Dear students: Here, with us, you can learn that the world is beautiful, complex, extraordinary and precious. Here, with us, you can find that humanity can create literature that lasts millenia, art that transcends its time, music that can move each and every soul. Your classrooms are playgrounds for your minds, for your hearts, for your future.
You can learn to love your world and find humanity in our classrooms. If you do, there will be no reason for fear.