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    Jay Atkinson

    Learning from my students

    Tufts University students pose for a photo at their May commencement ceremony.
    Dina Rudick/Globe Staff.
    Tufts University students pose for a photo at their May commencement ceremony.

    After the semester has ended, educators begin to assess what they’ve accomplished over the school year. Certainly, there’s a knack to effective teaching that combines a deep knowledge of your subject, the ability to listen to questions and respond accordingly, and perhaps even a sense of theater. Nobody learns very much in a dull classroom.

    But while the material that I share with my classes is important, I also spend time reflecting on what I’ve learned. The art of teaching is an ensemble performance, not a solo act, and you must let each member of the orchestra play his or her part.

    This year, I’ve been enlightened by the tolerance and respect my students have shown for one another. While teaching a freshman seminar, I couldn’t help notice that a friendship had developed between a street smart Jewish kid from the Bronx and an openly gay young man from Minnesota. They and a few others were chosen for a panel discussion I was moderating on a Saturday, which meant they wouldn’t receive any “credit” for participating. But as I often tell my students, most of your education takes place outside the classroom. Without any hesitation, the kid from the Bronx said he was going. He even offered to drive his classmates to the event.


    College kids do not usually travel 80 miles on a Saturday morning with a bunch of relative strangers. So I had to laugh when a battered gray hatchback arrived outside the venue with the Bronx kid at the wheel, smoking a butt. The doors opened and a gaggle of students popped out, like clowns emerging from one of those tiny cars: an Asian kid clutching his cello; two smart young women in grown-up shoes; and a wry-tempered philosophy major. It was the excitement of a shared adventure — their willingness to throw in with one another — that was so contagious and appealing. Unfolding himself from the backseat was the six-foot three-inch gay kid wearing a furry hat-and-mittens combo that looked like he had killed and dressed a polyester raccoon. Now that’s style.

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    In my classes, I want students to believe that anything can happen, and often subvert our expected roles. In one of my courses, a popular kid from New Jersey, while deciding on a partner to help steer our discussion, chose a bright young fellow with Asperger’s syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder that can include awkward social skills. Realizing that his classmate knew a lot about movies, the Jersey boy asked him to introduce the 1949 British film noir “The Third Man,” starring Orson Welles.

    People with autism spectrum disorder sometimes talk in a drawn out, stammering manner. When the Asperger’s student delivered his prompts, the entire class smiled and nodded its encouragement, hanging with him through some difficult moments. But the kid knew his stuff. His observation that Welles’s shady war profiteer delivered his first speech from the apex of a giant Ferris wheel, but ended up in the sewers beneath Vienna, sparked a discussion about “film grammar” that lasted all week.

    On Friday, the kid from Jersey and his autistic classmate embraced in an exaggerated “bro hug” to wild applause from the class. It was one of the emotional highlights of my career. While they were clapping, it struck me that my son Liam, a freshman at the University of Maine who has Asperger’s syndrome, belonged to a generation that was more open-minded — and open-hearted — than mine. The gesture I was witnessing went beyond mere tolerance to affection, and I was grateful for that.

    Teachers have a lot to be thankful for. It’s inspiring to be around people who are culturally astute, irreverent, easy going, and, for the most part, socially colorblind.

    Jay Atkinson teaches at Boston University and is the author of seven books, including “Memoirs of a Rugby Playing Man.’’ Follow him on Twitter @Atkinson_Jay.