Empathy for Peter
In Educational Foundations we studied the great philosophers of education from Socrates to Piaget. For this course also the university had set up tutorial classes to facilitate the exchange of ideas in small discussion groups. I spite of my language difficulties I felt I had a noticeable advantage. I was about five years older and therefore more mature in many aspects of learning. I also brought a wealth of life experiences, which enabled me to enrich the class with new and fresh ideas. To the amazement of my much younger fellow students I was not afraid to criticize the great thinkers of the past. There was venerable Rousseau for example, who advocated locking up disobedient children in a dark room instead of using corporal punishment. Remembering all too well my own ordeals being locked up as a young child in the dingy storage room of Mr. Stoll’s carpentry shop, I declared that in my opinion locking up a child was one of the cruelest forms of punishment and that ultimately spanking justly applied without causing physical harm was to be preferred.
Some other time we were discussing the importance of the family in early childhood development. Having a much broader concept of education in mind, I emphasized with as much conviction as I still have today, “The family is the smallest unit in a society. As healthy cells make a healthy body, so family units that are intact and provide a caring environment for the children are the building blocks for a strong society. Take away the health of the family and the state will sooner or later suffer and begin to disintegrate.” I am sure that I expressed these thoughts quite differently, but the idea came across with electrifying results. The students were most likely wondering, where this immigrant student had all his ideas from. Little did they know that I had studied Mommsen’s ‘History of Rome’ and that the ideas about the importance of the family were as old as the Roman Republic!
One day our tutorial instructor felt the need to divide us into groups of four or five students each. To develop a feeling for empathy, a term that can be easily defined in clinical terms but is otherwise quite an elusive concept, we needed someone in our group, who would be willing to take on the role of a client and come up with a story, to which the others as would-be councillor would react with supportive questions and remarks. A lot of time was being wasted, because nobody wanted to be saddled with the difficult role of the client. After a long pause, I said, “OK, I’ll do it. Just give me a little bit of time to think.”
Then I began without referring to any specific time or place to tell the story of my father, how close we had become before he had left home, how he gave me a guiding hand with my schoolwork, how much I was shaken up by my parents’ divorce, how I had to wait for five long years before I could see him again, how I spent many happy hours at his new home, then how suddenly and unexpectedly I had lost my father all over again and this time forever, when he died of a massive heart attack. By the time I had spoken the last sentence, it was so quiet that you could hear a pin drop in the tutorial room. All other groups had stopped their exercise to listen in to the extraordinary story that was grabbing everybody’s attention. Then the students were getting noisy with shouts of praise and admiration. After the tutor regained quiet and order, he said to me, “It seems your creative story caused quite an outpour of empathy. How did you think it all up so quickly?”
In a strange mix of pride and self-pity, I replied, “I’d wish it had been just a story.” With these words I quickly left the room. In my heart I was thankful to tutor and students for respecting my privacy and not asking any more questions in the sessions that followed.