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Polarization, noun: a sharp division, as of a population or group, into opposing factions.

Sometimes it seems as if we're trying to forget. Not the forced amnesia that comes from a tragic experience or painful regret, but the type that comes from requiring oneself to be right instead of sustainably happy. That type of forgetfulness involves staying within the comfort of the echo chamber while never venturing into the growth-inducing discomfort of challenge.

This pre-election political spectrum is an easy target for illustrating the polarization that's overtaken our country, though we can also dip cautiously into other issues as well. It seems so easy to dismiss different experiences as being invalid. If they don't match our own experiences, they must not be real.

Have we forgotten that we pride ourselves on being a melting pot, a cauldron of strength and courage, of differences that make us whole?

But, we say, the other side is so ... evil. Don't you see it? They want to undo everything this country was built on (meaning, what fits into my personal political philosophy regardless of whether it's true or not).

Not long ago, a former student walked through the doors of a pandemic-lightened school. Only half the students were on campus, the teachers fought with technology, and the remnants of Hurricane Laura battered the trees outside.

The former student demanded to see the principal, but he was occupied elsewhere. The secretary told the young man it'd be a while. "I'll wait," he said. The secretary texted the principal, "FYI, 'Benjamin' is here to see you. Says he'll wait."

"Who's that?" The principal typed back.

"The former student, he was here a few years ago."

Memory clicked. Seems like he left before he graduated.

After class, the principal walked through a hallway, listening to the wind whistle through doorways and window cracks. The sky had darkened and there was talk school would dismiss early due to flash flooding. He entered the office and recognized the young man immediately.

"Hello, Benjamin," he said, offering a fist bump.

"Hello, sir."

"What can I help you with?"

"I'm here to talk about the ... you know ... the incident."

The educator froze. In 2020, an "incident" could easily become a social media tidal wave, making its way to national publications and cable news. He ushered the young man into his office and closed the door.

"The incident?"

"Yes, sir. The one where I stole the money."

The principal flipped through memories. Buried deep from years before was the scene of someone stealing from teachers' desks. It got so bad the school set up cameras to figure it out. It was Benjamin. He refused to admit it and left, claiming he'd been misidentified. He hadn't returned since.

"Yes, I remember the incident," the principal said.

Benjamin shuffled his feet, looked through the windows at the gathering storm outside. He grimaced, shaking his head, looking back at his feet. "I came to apologize. Those teachers didn't deserve that."

The older man patted him on the shoulder. "Thank you, Benjamin." Then he offered the go-to platitude. "It takes a big man to apologize."

"No it doesn't," Benjamin said. "Any man ought to be able to do that. But I really want to apologize to the librarian. I took a lot from her. Can I see her?"

The educator nodded and fetched the librarian, reminding her about the incident from years before. Because she's been in education for a while, she had forgotten about it. She came to the office and sat down.

"I wanted you to know I took that money from you all those years ago. But I have a job now and I'm going to pay you back. It's just that I didn't have anyone at home and no money and nothing, really. I just ..."

She stopped him. "I've never stolen money but I have been in situations where I felt like I've had nothing. I've been there and stupid things tend to happen in them. But it's over. You're a good man for coming here today."

Empathy, noun: the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.

Oh, these days where we blithely build walls and close our ears to statesmen, camouflaged as they may seem. These days, where valiant figures put community before politics, the melting pot before sameness, but become whispers to the loudest voices in the room. These days, where we refuse to accept that we're reading the same book; we're just not on the same page. What would it take to get back on track? To listen to the voices of communion and understand that while we must guard our essence, there are countless ways to work together? It starts with being fully informed, with steps taken outside the echo chamber in the direction of empathy.

If you're in education long enough, you'll see former students show up on your doorstep lamenting a problem from their days with you. Misbehavior in youth often tags along into adult life until the baggage gets too heavy and a cleansing is in order. Hopefully, at that time, at that student's lowest moment, they'll find a teacher, or a coach, or, if they're really lucky, an insightful librarian who will say, "I understand."

You see, in order to get back on track and put to rest this nagging anxiety about what will happen on Election Day, in order to put to rest the conflagration of overly committed opinion, we must embrace the power of experience. Experience is what defines essence. Once we understand that, we can get back to the business of being one nation.

Union, noun: the state of having shared interests or goals.


Steve Straessle, whose column appears every other Saturday, is the principal of Little Rock Catholic High School for Boys. You can reach him at [email protected] Find him on Twitter @steve_straessle.

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