I still remember every book I was asked to read for Dr. Tom Nolen’s class, The One and the Many.

It was my first semester at Northern Arizona University. I entered the classroom curious — but also defined. Raised a devout and conservative Christian, I had helped my family start a church and began giving sermons when I was 14. At 16, my charisma and speaking gifts had me sharing a sermon about every other month with a congregation of 260 people. I was the student body president of my high school, captain of the football team, and the valedictorian to boot. I made the last minute decision to attend NAU, a state school, because the cost and distance of going to the Christian college of choice seemed too big at the time.

On the first day of class, Dr. Nolen set the tone. He was inviting us into a large, complex, and uncomfortable conversation. How does society balance the needs and rights of individuals with that of the whole? What can we learn from exploring different views through literature and discussion? There were about 20 of us. The course would be rigorous. We were to keep a weekly journal, write five large and challenging papers, and read 7 books in 16 weeks. Reading would be done out of class. Class would be a bit of lecture and mostly discussion. He would treat us like the writers he edited for world-class magazines. His explanation went something like this: “I will challenge what you write, offer suggestions, but I will do so in the support of growing your skill with writing. I will do it in pencil. Then, at the end of the day, you change what you change, and I will evaluate and grade your work.”

In order to really discuss honestly, Dr. Nolen asked us questions at the beginning of each week. I remember the first class vividly. I felt like such a fish out-of-water. As we went around the room, I was introduced to many firsts . . . the first openly bi-sexual person I had ever met, the first person from a conservative Jewish family, the first person with a nose-ring, the first person from New Zealand, the first lesbian . . . and more. I was nervous that first day and uncomfortable. But there was something about the way Dr. Nolen had made his invitation. While I was uncomfortable, I did not feel rejected. He would take my ideas seriously. I wasn’t ‘wrong’ to think like I did — but neither was anyone else. I wasn’t going to get a free-pass but, again, neither was anyone else. We were going to explore. And while my world had clearly been a little small – I had always wanted to know more about the world.

My first readings were like going to the ocean for the first time. I wasn’t sure how far to wade in — but the sensations were powerful and deep. I may not get the title or the spelling right (and to keep it real I won’t go and search for perfect accuracy), but this is the reading list still etched in my memory: Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo; And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts; Feminist Thought by Rosemarie Tong; Illness as a Metaphor by Susan Sontag; The Future of an Illusion by Sigmund Freud; The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood; and Siddartha by Herman Hesse.

Within the context of the class, I began to explore my homophobia, my religious ideas, the complexity of race, class, and power, and the complexity of war — on my own terms. I wasn’t getting programmed, I was being invited to see the world from different points of view.

I left the class changed. The books, the personal journal, the writing, the lectures and discussion in class, my thoughtful and challenging classmates, and my own willingness to keep showing up transformed my world and my experience of learning.

Dr. Nolen wasn’t flashly. In fact looking back on it, it’s worth mentioning just how ordinary he made it all seem. Yet, in my life, this class remains my single most powerful formal learning experience. I didn’t leave the class with answers. I left with more questions. I also left a better writer, with tools to think more critically, and with friends who had completely different ways of thinking and being in the world. I was deeper, more compassionate, more complex. So was the world. At least, my world had become much bigger than the one I knew when I first entered the room. Thanks, Dr. Nolen.

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