This semester, I teach my three courses in two different classrooms, located on a back hallway crowded with benches, recycling recepticles, and lounging students. I enter the building, veer left, and travel down a long, wide hallway—dodging drinkers bending over the water fountain and near-invisible columns guarding arbitrary places. Just where the hallway begins to expand into a windowed sitting area, I take a left. Now traveling this narrower space, I keep to the right, listening for the sounds of shuffling papers, sloshing drinks, and zipping backpacks that indicate the presence of students.
Between the doors along the hallway, people sit with their legs stretched out. Students sitting on opposite sides will find themselves locked in games of inadvertent footsie; the hallway’s width won’t accommodate two pairs of outstretched legs. As I move closer to my classrooms, my cane tapping and sliding scratchily along the carpet, I hear pairs of legs retract—students attempting to slide themselves out of my way. Occasionally, when a student fails to move, I must say, “Excuse me,” in a voice of battlefield cheerfulness. My volume and inflection rouse the absent-minded, and the legs draw up quickly.
Occasionally I piece together an unconventional narrative from the sounds I hear on the hallway. As I walk, I notice the sound of fabric sliding on carpet: students are yanking their feet out of my way. Today I travel along the hallway, which is only half-occupied with students. As I near a girl whose legs seem longer than average, I don’t feel like saying, “Excuse me.” She should be able to hear my approach, but she doesn’t move her legs. My cane taps lightly against something hard—her leg? her foot? I have no way of knowing. I move beyond her and approach my classroom. While I reach for the classroom doorknob, a guy on the opposite side of the hallway addresses her:
“Did that hurt?”
A mumbled response renders no words. Ambivalence on the part of the afflicted.
The guy continues, “Yeah. She’s hit me before.”
I stand maybe two or three feet away from the conversation, easily within earshot.
What is my problem with this brief exchange? I will bring my literary training to bear.
Let’s examine the structure of the guy’s claim: “She’s hit me before.” This sentence is a prime example of active voice, the grammatical pattern that sets up an “X does Y” relationship. In English, active voice is our storytelling voice. It’s the voice we use for quick-and-dirty explanations: “Rain falls in the afternoon,” “I go to college,” “Marcelle baked a cake.” This pattern assigns clear agency—the X is active, a doer with intentions.
In humanities courses, students are encouraged to write in active voice, rather than passive voice. Passive voice is the syntactical pattern used for scientific research. It follows the formula “Y is done by X,” and the “by X” is often omitted. There are several passive sentences in this paragraph. Passive voice finds its usefulness when someone wants to avoid blame: “Mistakes were made,” “A vase was broken,” “The data was collected.” We don’t know who the X, the agent, is, so there can be no agency.
So our hallway guy chose active voice, and with his active sentence comes an unconscious demonstration of preferences—he prefers the story to the study. But his story bothers me.
In his story, I am the attacker, the one who hits deliberately. He offers his sentence to the girl leaning against the opposite wall as a cocktail of bravado and consolation: “Don’t worry, girlfriend, I’ve been hit too. I am tough, but I understand your irritation. I’ve been there. We’ve both gone through something together.“
How do I know that all of this emotion was packed into just one sentence? Because he had to say it then and there—The blind girl hit me too! There was no humor, no wry smile, no “Isn’t that the worst? Well, what can you do?” There was a desperate reaching out, an utterance powered by empathy and a need to unite in the face of adverse circumstances.
Solidarity at the expense of civility.
I wonder if I’ll ever hear someone defend me during one of these exchanges. Will I ever move a few feet away and overhear someone say, “Yes, she’s hit me before, too. But that’s what the cane is for. I don’t think she can see us.” At this stage in my experience, I doubt if I’ll encounter such perfect responses in the real world.
People are more likely to say, “No, she travels so well—I bet she isn’t even blind. She is just faking it.”
If we achieve human connection at the expense of others, what have we really achieved? How can we create a space for civil stories and inclusive explanations?