My history teacher’s most important lesson

I recently found myself thinking back to my years in the LaCrosse School District.  I learned quite a lot from quite a lot of people; one gem in particular stands out in my mind.

It was the first day of my freshmen year at LaCrosse Central High School.  They call that first day student orientation but for me it felt more like disorientation.  It was a whirlwind of a day and I was feeling completely out of place.  But then came World History.  Mr. Blackbourn, a tall man with white hair and beard, stood at the front, chitchatting, learning our names and covering the syllabus.  As the class period began to wind down, he transitioned to a concluding comment that, looking back, I think has greatly shaped how I live my life.  He told the class “I want you to learn a word that can make all the difference in how you interact with people.”

In big chalked letters he wrote on the board “Empathy”.

Empathy is that willingness to step inside someone’s shoes and try to understand life from their perspective.  It was not a lesson I adapted to very quickly.

One time while our class was surveying world religions, as a Christian I objected to being in the group studying Islam.  He said I was complaining, but he settled it with a coin toss; I won and went to the Christianity group.  But some years later, as a freshman in college, the 9/11 attacks and what the world subsequently became reminded me of why empathy is so necessary for human beings to do life together.  So I enrolled in a semester long Islamic History and Theology course and also visited a mosque in Ohio as an effort to understand a significant piece of what’s happening in our world.  I’m glad I did.

Over the years, empathy has helped me in several ways.  I’ve learned to observe, think slowly, and ask questions first, and try to make careful conclusions after.  I’ve learned observant silence contains a serenity that opens the mind up to several aspects and factors I may not have noticed were I spending my energy opinionizing on things I thought I already knew.  I’ve observed the more I learn, the more I need to learn.  It has helped form in me a patience and kindness with those who tend to test it.  It has helped me to see people, not as competitors to get ahead of, but as human beings in need of merciful connection.

Everywhere I turn these days, I see a vital need for empathy—in the way we treat people, do life at school or at work, how we conduct conversations, social media, relationships, how disputes are discussed or mediated, how we perceive the person walking towards us on the sidewalk, how we perceive and understand so-called enemies.

If we take a long look at how history has often played out, empathy is a perfect lesson for a history teacher to arrive at.  Usually when we talk about what we learned from our history teachers, we cite that line “Those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it.”  I think Mr. Blackbourn’s plea for empathy is the practical solution for that warning.  It’s not just about learning history (information and facts); it’s about loving humanity (souls and stories).

At a time when I felt uncomfortably out of place, this lesson helped me connect with those in that place.  Empathy helps connect us to people, and when people are genuinely connected, interactions that make a difference are able to follow.

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