There was this girl in my class last semester who sat on the other side of the room; a short girl with golden hair. She wore vibrant, colorful eyeliner every day, never too much–loud enough that you knew she had confidence, while quiet enough you knew she wasn’t trying to make a scene or disturb the peace. The professor began to lecture about ethics and the philosophies of the world alongside the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. Quickly the golden-haired girl’s hand went up. She had a genuine question about the church’s funding. Fifteen minutes of the class went by and her hand bounced up again, this time she asked about women authors that could apply to what we were learning. The professor replied that we would not be discussing women authors in this class, because there wasn’t a publication influential enough to consider. I thought it was a fair perspective, no need to push something that isn’t there.
Two days later we were in class again, and the girl with golden locks walked in with perfect confidence. Today’s eyeliner color: pink. Class began, and about ten minutes into the lecture, her hand shot up. She vulnerably shared her sexual orientation as queer within her comment. I’d never known a girl to be queer. My friends identified as straight, gay, or lesbian. She confessed some of her concerns about the church and the LGBTQ community. It seemed to me that she brought up several valid points. I began to look forward to her input every class, finding her perspective more unique and thought-provoking than many of my peers.
A few classes later I talked to her and discovered that she used to be an English Teaching major, like me! She changed her major to women’s studies once she found that she was more passionate about that subject. In particular, she was studying women in church history. On the other side of the room, she sat with some friends. Today’s eyeliner color: sky blue. She was sharing her personal thoughts about her future in the church as an active queer member, when another student responded rather defiantly, as if with authority, while quoting bits of church doctrine. He was an average-looking, unmemorable guy with glasses who had made several comments in previous classes, all reflecting a strong sense of justice and strong positions. Tired, I struggled to pay close attention to the debate in class that day, but I saw the girl with golden hair approach the guy with glasses just before the next class. I overheard her sharing how his comments were insensitive and somewhat offensive to her. She was very calm and respectful. I could tell it was not her first time addressing someone in this way. He replied stoically, without much care or feeling, and said that he was simply speaking the truth. I felt the tension poignantly.
In spite of the rejection, she continued to attend and participate in class. One time she came in late and found a seat next to me, in the back of the class, where we exchanged awkward greetings as she settled into her seat. About fifteen minutes into class, her hand went up. The professor didn’t make eye contact with her… perhaps he was trying to stay on topic. A minute went by with her hand still raised when he let the guy with glasses ask questions. Three more minutes passed with her hand in the air (her arm must have been getting tired) and the professor allowed another student to ask a question. He continued to avoid recognizing her while she continued to wait respectfully. By the time it seemed obvious that the professor must have been blatantly ignoring her, I whispered under my breath, “this is ridiculous.” As I began to get frustrated, the girl uttered nonchalantly, “it happens all the time.” Her hand was still up, about eight minutes later, and I thought I might raise my hand just so that when I was called I could give her the opportunity to speak. I didn’t though; I was scared it would seem defiant or rude to the professor. So I waited alongside the golden-haired girl for her turn to talk, when finally it came. She shared her thoughts and asked an insightful question about a topic that was discussed ten minutes previously. Immediately, the guy with glasses fired a sharp remark at her. He insisted that her views were wrong and that she wouldn’t have a place among the saints because of her sexual orientation. I was shocked and appalled at how blatant his comment was. The professor failed to step in, and instead refocused the class on his lecture slides rather than entertaining the dispute on hand. There was no defense.
Steaming, I talked to the girl during the remainder of class, my face probably similar to her eyeliner color that day: red. I wondered how she could do it. She was so calm. She left class and did not say anything to the guy who was so offensive. She was better than me. Having felt guilty for not acting earlier, I waited until she left and then I pulled the guy with glasses aside. We talked, but he didn’t seem to be listening. Our exchange went on for nearly thirty minutes and we still couldn’t see eye to eye. But I noticed some things about him, things that were a little odd, but familiar: he couldn’t make eye contact with me, he fidgeted relentlessly with the long straps of his backpack, he seemed overly fixated on specific topics of doctrine, and was immovable in what he thought to be true. Then, it occurred to me that he may have been on the autism spectrum. I have two brothers who are on the spectrum, and they both manifest some similar characteristics–including a strong sense of justice and inflexibility. I hadn’t realized this possibility before, but now his blatant comments in class made a little bit more sense.
Not only was the golden-haired girl completely misunderstood, but so was the guy with glasses who struggled to understand her. Had I not been there, I might not have believed it. I might not have believed the frustration of the girl with bright eyeliner or the black and white struggle of the boy. Belonging starts with understanding. It starts with validating people’s feelings and thoughts, giving them the benefit of the doubt, and taking time to learn who people really are. That allows us to have real empathy, respect, and understanding. Only then can we truly begin to see each other as children of God, worthy of love and compassion.
This essay, by Emily Tucker, won third place in the 2023 BYU Humanities Center Essay Contest.