My tea is getting cold.
As December wears itself threadbare into an unswerving New Hampshire winter, I have to keep a space heater in my office. If I want to get any writing done, I have to remember to give the room an hour to warm up, seeing as how my building’s archaic take on heating is a single, rust bucket of a gas heater at the other end of the apartment. Sometimes I loathe how much my actions are based on the temperature gauge—my activism blanketed in a liminal state of dissipating warmth.
* * *
In the college essay-writing course that I teach at the University of New Hampshire, I often find my role as teacher to be lukewarm. That pessimistic cliché often parades as true for me: “Those who can’t do, teach.” Is that me? At age 28, am I already to feel comfortable being the one to leave after my students, as if I’d given up all pretense of doing the things I try to teach them to care about?
Lately, I’ve decided to start dispensing with the typical rules of teacher-as-authority. Half of my students can grow a thicker beard than me anyway, so why pretend I’m some well-published Ph.D. in tweed and elbow patches? This attitude has been inspired by two assigned readings we covered a few weeks ago: John Gatto’s “Against School,” and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
The first is one of many diatribes Gatto wrote as he left the New York City school system after thirty years of teaching awards. His biggest reason: American schools are based on a Prussian philosophy that seeks not to enhance individual thought, but encourage mindless conformity. Let the strong test-takers become our politicians and artists, and let those allergic to the honor roll fall through so that we have plenty of cogs for the manual labor force.
I was hoping that the irony of reading this essay as a homework assignment wouldn’t be lost on my class. I all but encouraged them to riot against me as a representative of “the system,” but they just sat there, hands in their pullover pockets thinking that, maybe this time, I wouldn’t catch them texting.
In the MLK, Jr. piece, I similarly tried to get a discussion going about the part towards the end where, after a pitch-perfect combo of logos, pathos, and ethos, King entreats his audience to action, calling them lukewarm accepters. He says that outspoken segregationists were more respectable than those who just sat there nodding along.
But they just sat there, nodding along.
* * *
Though it wasn’t preached on much in the nondenominational Christian church of my youth, I noticed that the Bible had some strong words on indecision. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” In Revelation, the church in Laodicea is criticized for being tepid: “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”
At this point in my journey of faith, I often feel like tepid God-spit. I don’t go to church, and, I oddly feel my spiritual worth renewed when critics boldly speak against contemporary Christianity, as Stephen Fry did last March for Intelligence Squared’s debate on Catholicism. Yet, I find myself with my forehead against the kitchen table every morning, struck by the redemptive frailty rendered in the Psalms.
So, who am I to criticize my students for not going to any events for the campus-wide Gender Identities Awareness Week? I encouraged it and lauded the cause as I stood in front of the chalkboard, but I didn’t attend any of the events either. I agreed with their work, and for some reason, I figured that was enough for now.
* * *
In a sense, my role as a teacher is a lot like my current role in the interfaith world. I believe that common ground will lead us to action, and I get nervous when posts like this one by my prolific colleague, James Croft, suggest that finding equal footing can leave us with broken ankles.
However, the reason for the unease is because I’ve started to get too comfortable with my own peaceful terminology. Common ground can be a good thing, but we can’t just run around calling for it and then leave the conversation sitting there to reach room temperature.
In fact, MLK, Jr. would agree more with Crofty on this. He established common ground first so that he could boldly and logically tell his supposed fellow clergymen that they were closer to Klansmen than allies. He didn’t start there, but he went there.
I want to go there.
I want to leave my tepid tea behind, and let the leaders of my youth know that homosexuality doesn’t preclude a genuine faith in God, and that abortion isn’t the only issue that matters during elections. And I want the nonreligious to know that I’m not suffering from a God Delusion, or some spiritual opiate to numb the harsh realities of life and death—that it has the ability to be the opposite of escapism. I still want to reach common ground first, not because it’ll turn us into the Prussian nodders that Gatto warns against, but because it’ll be a lot easier to blaze new trails if I know there’s a community to return to and help keep my temperature rising.