How to participate in serious class discussion: with empathy

Wyatt Waters, Staff Writer

Racism. Religious beliefs. Sexual assault. Depression. Suicide. Over the course of high school, the books we read in English classes expose us to some heavy topics. From the tense discussions of the realities of racism with To Kill a Mockingbird freshman year to Holden Caulfield’s traumatic past in The Catcher in the Rye senior year, the coverage of real-world subjects is continuous.
When your English teacher announces a discussion on these heavy subjects, the apprehension in the room is tangible. The discussions can go one of two ways.
We’re all too familiar with a conversation that is awkward, tense, and offensive; discussions grow heated and insensitivity is rampant. Sometimes, with emotions running high, students leave the room out of frustration or sadness.
But when discussions are handled correctly, delicate topics are covered with sensitivity and grace; students walk away from the conversation feeling that they have a better understanding of the literary piece as well as human nature. Though these discussions can often take a turn for the worse, they are essential.
We cannot ignore the existence and importance of these sensitive topics in our lives and our world: to do so would be apathetic and deeply ignorant. These discussions expose us to viewpoints different to our own and create a space to explore topics that we will have to address later in life.
So, we know these discussions are incredibly enlightening when handled with sensitivity. How do we, as students, engage in these conversations without creating an environment of hostility?
The short answer? Empathy.
You must imagine your classmates have experienced the issues discussed in class—emotional trauma, abuse, sexual assault, depression—because the fact is, that may be the case. If a classmate hasn’t experienced the trauma themselves, a close friend or family member may have. Insensitive, ignorant comments on topics that hit close to home for classmates can be deeply emotionally damaging.
Recognize the tone of the conversation; if the topic is serious, jokes just aren’t fitting. Don’t let your own strong opinion blind you from listening to others. Let empathy be your guiding force with your comments.
Teachers can create safe environments, offer trigger warnings, and encourage sensitivity all they want, but none of that will matter without empathy. In the end, it’s up to you.