Last week, during Gordon’s Beyond Disabilities Week, students and faculty alike engaged in dialogue around a variety of issues. Those conversations spilled over into classes as well, bringing some unexpected opportunities for discovery and reflection. Ivy George, distinguished professor of sociology, writes about one such encounter that occurred in her class, “Social Change and Development in Industrializing Societies,” and offered the following letter to her fellow professors:

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Dear Colleagues,

Please indulge me for wanting to share an amazing experience I had in one of my classes during Beyond Disabilities week, one so unique, I felt compelled to write about it to you.

A student of mine wanted to bring her brother—who is a quad amputee—to class.  This young man is a graduate student in public policy in the D.C. area, and has an aide with him as he travels.  So they came.  The aide was a woman with a scarf around her head and at first, I thought she wore it because of all the snow outside.

My lecture that day was on the poststructuralist and post-colonialist theories of development, and the discussion was lively. But after class, when the other students had left, the aide came to me and introduced herself.  She was “Shabana,” a Muslim from Pakistan whose mother was from India and father from Pakistan.

Shabana hugged me tight, kissed me on both my cheeks twice and said, “You are a brilliant woman.” But then she started to weep.  She looked about my age, or maybe a little younger, and told me some of her story: divorced with two children, an 18-year old son who is married (“better to marry than to commit adultery,” she said), and a 15-year old daughter living at home with Shabana’s nearly-blind mother.  When Shabana finished, she asked to take several photos with me. She also told me that she was proud of me and kept holding my hands, not wanting to let me go.

I knew, however, that the “brilliance” she referred to is a stolen item.  It was in reference to voice, space, self and so much more, a privilege taken away from all the world’s unknown, unnamed women.  She must have resonated with her own fate as a woman, especially as I taught about Dependency theory, Foucault’s concern with the individual and the move away from totalizing narratives.  At some level, she must have found herself in these discussions in the theory.  And from her accent I gathered that she hailed from a family with some means but alas, her gender had doomed her.

I couldn’t help but see that she reminded me of the debt I owed her and others I had not met.  Imagine this encounter, in of all places a conservative Christian outpost here in the U.S., at such an unlikely event like a sociology class!  Imagine that her embrace of me would have been considered seditious in another place and time.

All of this took on even greater meaning for me as I watched that night, a PBS show of Pete Seeger called, “The Power of Song.” It is one I would love to show to all our students.  In essence, it defined patriotism this way: to love the world, to invite the world, to stand up for conviction and to belong to the human race. It is to count myself as one who belongs to something larger than myself, only because Shabana (and Pete) counted me as one!

Even so, I am still unsettled by my location on this map.

Thank you—

Ivy George