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The third major writing unit in my version of English 101 is called “Persuasive Letter”. For this unit, students must choose a particular audience—a neighbor for instance, or a friend—and write a letter to that person in hopes of changing his or her mind about something significant. Most students use this opportunity to persuade a messy roommate to clean up more around the apartment, or to ask Grandma for a small loan…something safe. Sometimes the stakes are higher, but not very often. It’s almost as if students are afraid to ask for something big, to raise the specter of desire if chances are that they’ll get shot down anyway. I think plenty of my students are used to that dynamic, whether they admit it or not. For all the blustery complaints and colorful suggestions they shoot my way via e-mail and on RateMyProfessors.com, when it comes to real-life, mature confrontation, they—as a whole—write softly and carry Wiffle bats.
So it was with particular glee today, after plowing through a stack of letters to boyfriends in hopes of getting the boyfriend to stop cheating, to managers in hopes of getting a chintzy raise, and to themselves—letters written to themselves, in hopes of persuading themselves to stop procrastinating—that I found a true winner. It was written by a student to his parents, in hopes of getting the parents to stop forcing the young man to become a Jehovah’s Witness, a religion they had joined a few years back. In one particularly impassioned and well-detailed paragraph of support for his thesis, the student wrote, “Mom and Dad, a Jehovah’s Witness is asked to be and do a lot of things that people do not want to be or do. Most of those rules I don’t agree with. For example, the church preaches to not celebrate holidays, like my birthday for a good example.
We can’t celebrate my birthday anymore because in the times of Jesus, they would give severed heads as gifts to the king on his birthday. Well, that was thousands of years ago, and a severed head as a gift nowadays is very frowned upon and I’m sure not on anyone’s wish list. The church also says that the men can’t have beards. Well, in all the pictures of Jesus, he has a beard. I’m sure he didn’t have a nice looking one since there were no barber shops back then, but he still had one. I don’t see why I can’t have one. It’s just hair.”
My student had more to say than just that, since a sound argument entails much more than a simple airing of complaints. He knew his job wasn’t over until he had addressed his opponents’ concerns and reiterated his main point, so he continued: “Mom and Dad, I understand that you two believe you know what is best for me. You are trying to keep me away from bad things in life, trying to put me on the right path so I end up on the right side. I understand your reasoning. I don’t want to be on the wrong side. I want to lead a good life and be healthy. But it’s my decision to believe what I want, and I want to play football. You guys didn’t let me play my last four years of high school because you saw it as a distraction from the church, a waste of time, and a dangerous activity. But you never took the time to understand what football really was to me. Mom and Dad, I am not a druggie, a criminal, or a hobo. I just have a different idea of this world than you do. I want to do what I love. I want to be happy. I want to play football.”
After I stitched up my heart and finished my own job of reading and grading, I put down my pen and thought about it. Never before had I wanted more to push a paper up and away and give it legs, let it walk and talk and cross the street if it wanted. I didn't want to say yes or no, pass go or time's up. I wished the paper could make its own decisions, grade itself for once. I think it would have rightly taken the A and run for a touchdown.