A College Education

My freshman year of college, I had a wild writing professor. I didn’t realize then how incredible she was, and if I had a time machine, I’d go back and advice my younger self to pay more attention and appreciate what she was teaching and who she was.

This was an Exposition & Analysis class, so the skills being taught were pretty technical. The first exposure to that sort of in-depth writing for most of us. This particular day, the assignment was to select a topic in the news and do a research paper on it. Nothing radical. Maybe five or six pages, as I recall. 

This was, of course, an inhumane degree of work to a room full of softies.

We were brainstorming the issues of the day, and the global HIV/AIDS epidemic was suggested by this one student. This was in the spring of 1993, and the disease was still a terrifying, unknown quantity to some degree.

I don’t remember this student’s name, but I’ll refer to this individual as them/they out of fairness. 

Anyway, speaking with the unearned confidence of a know-it-all college freshman, they announced that they had a capital “T” Theory about HIV/AIDS.

“I think,” they said, “that this is really more about the Earth responding to us, you know? Like, AIDS is this fever that’s thinning our population to restore balance, man. Individual people have symptoms of this disease, but really, like, we’re the disease. People. You know?”

It was 27 years ago that I sat and heard those words, but I’d wager that the quote is 90 percent word for word. Not because of the sheer stupidity of what this student said, but because of how our professor responded to it.

She was a woman of contradictions. Vibrant and exhausted simultaneously. Enthusiastic and apathetic within the same breath. Easy to smile and quick to frown.

Her response this this student, though, possessed no room for interpretation. The professor was pissed.

“You spoiled brat,” she said, glaring at this student. “How dare you come in here and spout that kind of bullshit? Have you held hands with someone dying from AIDS? Watched the light go out in their eyes? Do you know what it feels like to suddenly have that kind of hole in your life? Because I do.

“If you want to sit around and say that kind of bullshit with your pals when you’re stoned, fine. But you do not ever come in here and say something like that again.”

There was much hubbub after class as to whether the professor should have been that blunt. Most of us agreed that she was right to say it, though. The student she was responding to was one of them.

I’ve been thinking about that class a lot the last three weeks or so because I’ve been hearing some of those same sorts of thoughts.

“This is nature’s way of evening out.”

“Mother Nature is trying to change our behavior.”

“The Earth is doing this to us.”

And going along with these statements a lot of times, there are photoshopped pictures of dolphins swimming in Venice and elephants drunk and sleeping in vineyards, along with completely fabricated stories. Stories people desperately want to be true to bring some sort of sense to all of this.

As days have gone by, though, I’ve heard less and less of this sort of mentality. It’s disappeared as the COVID-19 statistics become less about numbers and more about people we actually know. Because making wild suggestions with no basis in reality comes from a position of privilege. Once it becomes about you or someone you know, the two versions don’t jibe. 

We’ll see more of this as we move through this together. It’ll spread – sort of like a virus – into other issues we wouldn’t allow ourselves to take seriously because they didn’t seem to affect us. We’ll allow ourselves to empathize with people we never took seriously or considered our equals before. 

There will be less room for bullshit and more room for each other.

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