“This kind of thing happens when a person is getting very old except we never understand their side because when you’re in their shoes you end up dying.”

A cheery post for a gloomy-looking day…

The context of this statement was an essay on mercy-killing or euthanasia, not sure which. Looking back, I see myself as something of a ghoul, really: I’ve given case studies on a man who shot his paralyzed brother, supposedly on request; a parent trying to decide the fate of his daughter, who had been in a coma for twelve years; an elderly man who killed his wife, who was in an advanced stage of Alzheimer’s; the Terri Schiavo case…. The assignment usually was to argue for or against the decision to terminate life.

This assignment design was originally developed by my late and beloved colleague George Blake. I enthusiastically adopted the idea, and together we elaborated it further and generated a number of model cases: something occurs, and is covered in the media, that involves a conflict between two or more moral principles, or between a law and a moral principle, or between two unsatisfactory solutions, or between a law and an individual circumstance, or—well, you get the picture. The “fact sheet” summarizes the case, including the various viewpoints expressed by people involved in the case, and then offers a series of “thought questions” aimed at getting students to see the example in a number of contexts. The assignment ends by inviting students to respond to a specific question and defend their reasoning. I have continued to add cases to the collection and have used the assignment to anchor my composition classes for many years—this year I’m trying something else, but only because I added a new kind of assignment last year and see another way of harmonizing the course’s various activities.

Students at every level of writing ability and intellectual sophistication have written engaged and engaging arguments in response to these assignments. George and I felt that putting small cases into larger contexts would enable students to write about issues they cared about (euthanasia, women’s rights, gay rights, artistic freedom, parental responsibilities, spousal abuse, justice, et al.) but in a focused way; we also valued enabling students to comment on one another’s work not only for the writing but also for the choices made, and our own ability to help students identify details as useful or irrelevant in relation to their choice of thesis. The class discussions have always been lively, at least in part because students could see abstract issues embodied, literally, in real people. Students actually have told me discussions of the cases continued back in the dorms, or over dinner; and over the years I have heard from many former students who say that ever since the course they have looked at news items as potential cases, considering what larger issues underlie them and how people actually in the story might explain themselves.

The statement here might have come from the Alzheimer’s case, but any of the euthanasia/right-to-life/mercy-killing cases could have occasioned such an observation.

The student is, of course, right: in such circumstances we hardly ever hear the patient’s point of view. A living will, an humane recent legal instrument, can tell us what the person thought he or she would probably want, but not necessarily what the person might say when actually in extremis. And the step from vegetative or terminal coma to actual death is a short one, and usually taken in silence.

So again we have an example of a conflict between what the student meant and what he actually said. Oh, that jumble of pronouns! Oh, the “end up dying” phrase! And oh, the picture of a comatose or debilitatingly demented patient lying in a hospital bed, perhaps hooked up to life-support machinery, clad in scanty gown, covered only with a hospital sheet…and there, sticking out from under the sheets, two sad feet wearing SHOES!

Well, I hope those shoes are comfortable, but I also hope you and I don’t end up wearing them any time soon.

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

One response to ““This kind of thing happens when a person is getting very old except we never understand their side because when you’re in their shoes you end up dying.”

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