What I Learned About Representation From a Mistake I Made in College

There is something undeniably unsettling about having to represent someone whose views you disagree with. It seems wrong somehow, to not take a side. And yet part of the responsibility that comes with power is the burden of taking all sides into account. When a politician says “my constituents,” they shouldn’t just mean the people in their party who voted for them. They have a moral obligation to defend the interests of all people.

When I was a junior in college, overseeing a floor of young students in the freshman dorm, I was asked to sign a petition. Due to my greedy and corrupt alma mater once again overbooking students and accepting more people than they had rooms for, our student lounge had been turned into a makeshift dorm room. Bunk beds were brought in, and four student now lived in the corner room, with no bathroom, no closets, and no privacy. It was not an ideal situation. The university was working on buying a hotel for all of these people to live in, which they eventually did.

When the time came for the study lounge students to move out and into their hotel, they had already been living on my floor for over a month. They were friends with the people next door and across the hall. They had gotten used to their situation, and they didn’t want to leave. Their friends didn’t want them to leave. They asked the university if they could remain where they were, and the school said no. Enter the petition. Would I please sign the petition to allow these students to keep living in our study lounge. I looked at the paper and saw the names of almost every kid on the floor. I didn’t care one way or the other, but I wanted these freshman to feel that I was on their side, so I signed it. End of story.

Not end of story. I was called in for disciplinary action. I had violated a core tenet of my supervisory position. I had taken sides. I balked at this idea, and I told the powers that be that they were ridiculous and that I would sign it again in a heartbeat. Then they told me that there was one student who had come to them, from my floor, who did not want those students to remain. This student wanted a study lounge. Seeing my name on that piece of paper had told this student that I would not be helping in this matter. It said that I had taken sides in a struggle that I didn’t even know existed. I was there to support all of my kids, not just 99% of them.

They can study at the library, I exclaimed! They have options! These kids are going to be ripped from their new home and taken from their friends, put into an off-campus hotel, just so one kid can have an extra place to sit?! No! I do not agree with that, and I’m still glad I signed the petition. This went on for some time, with me unremorseful and unrepentant, until it became clear that I was going to lose my job (and free housing) if I did not give in, so I lied and said I was sorry and that I would not do it again. But I totally would have done it again.

But now, after years of reflection, I kind of see their point. As I direct a choir, I need to make the decisions that I feel are best for the group as a whole, but I also have to be sensitive to the needs of every member, and not just the ones that I like the best because of how much they agree with me. As a parent, I can’t play favorites, even when it is very tempting. I am the only father that each of those children has, and I need them to both know that I am unequivocally on their side. Even when they are waging war on one another, I am on the side of peace and justice, not on a specific one of them.

It’s a hard and fine line to walk sometimes, and it is much easier to say “Hey, the majority agrees with me, so the rest of them can just deal with it,” but have you ever been marginalized? Have you even been the one, lone, dissenting voice in the crowd, feeling like nobody was listening. There are many people out there feeling that way today, and some of them are talking to you. Be the ear that hears them.

Posted in Choir, College, Music, Parenting, Throwback Thursday.

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