During the first four weeks of the semester, I ask my first year students to do all kinds of things outside of class time – an overnight retreat, lectures and workshops, and a play downtown. When I found out that Snowstorm University, the big college next to us, was bringing in Famous Woman Who Discovered that Chimpanzees Use Tools, I told them I would see if I could get us tickets, but that I had already taken up so many of their evenings that I was not making the lecture mandatory. They could come if they wanted. It was completely up to them.
Out of 60 students, all but two signed up for the lecture. The only two who did not come were two who had to work that night.
When I met my students outside their residence hall yesterday evening so that we could walk over to the lecture together, leaving 45 minutes ahead of time so that we could get good seats, some of the students were so excited about seeing Famous Chimpanzee Activist that they could not stand still. "I can't believe we are going to see her in person," one woman said, bouncing up and down as she talked. "She has been my hero all my life."
As we walked from Small Green Campus over to the much bigger campus of Snowstorm University, my students were chattering excitedly and moving so fast I had to practically run to keep up. One student demonstrated some Irish step dancing moves on the concrete steps we had to ascend, and many other students followed suit, dancing sideways up to the top. Some students had gone over even earlier, to wait in line before the doors opened and get the best seats, and they were in constant cell phone contact with the group of us who were walking over now.
We were so early that the big auditorium was still almost empty when we arrived. The first rows were reserved for people more important than us, but we filled in the whole area right behind the reserved section. All around me I could hear students exchanging what information they knew about Chimpanzee Expert: what books they'd read, what television programs they'd seen, and what impact she had had on their lives, bringing many of them to the field of wildlife biology. As we talked, the auditorium around us gradually filled with hundreds of Snowstorm University students.
When Woman Who Lived Near Chimpanzees approached the podium, she could not speak for several minutes because the applause from the first year students went on for so long. When she did speak, she was intelligent, articulate, and inspiring. Her facts were sometimes depressing, but she ended on a note of hope.
I too was thrilled to see Chimpanzee Expert, but the most exciting part of the evening for me was watching the attitudes of my students, who all jumped at the chance to attend the lecture, who sat forward in their seats listening to every word she said, and who afterwards filled the night air with talk of ecology and habitat destruction and grassroots activism. As we walked back to our own campus, following paths splashed with light from the windows of buildings, I could feel their energy rushing all around me, as they talked and danced and bounced their way back to their residence hall. Reason for hope.