The Space Between

Meg Petersen English

Meg Petersen and student study group.
Meg Petersen (right foreground) and a student study group.

Our composition class met in a high-ceilinged room ringed with ivy-covered windows.  The rattling window air conditioner moderated the temperature for the black computers lining the outer wall like empty staring eyes.

The first-year students pushed chairs into a circle, complaining about the reading.  “I can’t believe you made us read that.”

Katie, always on the edge of crisis yet slightly jaded, adjusted her Abercrombie and Fitch sweatshirt.  Mark wore rumpled sleep pants to this 2:00 class.  Craig sat by the entrance.  I like this group.  But by 2:00 in the afternoon, I’m tired.  Their energy seems to surge as mine wanes.

Today’s reading was “The Singer Solution to World Poverty.”  Singer challenges readers to help eliminate poverty by giving up the luxuries they enjoy.  He attacks rationalizations, going so far as to include links to charitable organizations in his text, urging readers to pause to donate.

Students were enraged by Singer’s article.  I opened the discussion asking what upset them.  They resented the implication they should feel guilty about having money.  They weren’t rich and shouldn’t be expected to support people in other countries.  I asked about their obligation to help the poor in our country.  They said people had the opportunity to earn their way.  If they were lazy, they should suffer.  They stressed individual responsibility.   I asked,  “But what about all the things your parents provided for you, like health care, education, nutritious food, a safe home…?”

“It’s normal for parents to provide for their children.  My parents worked hard so I could go to college and enjoy life,” Kathy said.

I noted not all parents could afford that, and besides they had the good fortune to be born in a wealthy country.

Shawn asked, “Why shouldn’t you enjoy living in this country?  You earned it.  We’re a stronger country.  Survival of the fittest.  We are the fittest.”

“We are the fittest?” I asked, gesturing to the collection of well-fed students.

“Sure,” Mark cut in.  “We’re smarter.  We were born here, so why shouldn’t we enjoy it?  Our ancestors worked hard.”

Mark had shifted discussion from individual responsibility to cultural superiority.  This was too much for me, and passion crept into my voice.  “What about the fact,” I asked, “that much of that wealth was built upon slave labor?  What about the fact that we owe our natural resources to having seized the land of native peoples?”

“Well, no offense,” Katie began.  “But if we were smart enough to do it, why shouldn’t we enjoy it?”

I stared at Katie.  Her carefully made up face betrayed no emotion.  I felt as if I were staring into a moral black hole, as if suddenly she were a stranger.  I recovered and came back with—“So is it only that might makes right?  Anyone with more power deserves to win?”

Did she really mean being smart enough to capture and enslave people and steal their lives away from them?  Being smart enough to steal land from the people who lived there?  Katie gave no indication her comment might be outside the range of normal discourse.

I wanted to blame her, to single her out as a racist, but that would have denied everything else I knew about her.  Katie was 19 years old, came from northern Maine, was trying to decide on a major, unsure about many things.  She’d spent a year working before coming to school, and sometimes felt she didn’t fit in.  She had recently begun to enjoy writing, and eagerly awaited responses to her papers.

Before moving on, I struggled to say something meaningful to reach across the gaping chasm and bring closure.   “So why do you think Singer’s article makes us so angry?”

After a moment of absolute quiet, a voice seemed to come out of nowhere.  Craig said, “Because he is telling the truth.”

Silence followed, broken only by the rattle of the air conditioner.   I took those words as a gift, and moved on.