A Lincoln Laureate

My post is late today because I rose at 6 to drive to Springfield and see a student of mine, David Gayes, be named a “Lincoln Student Laureate.”

The student in question, in my class, wrote brilliantly about theology and disability. His essay became a presentation at our research expo, then won our top essay award, then was published (paywall for non-academics, sorry). David (I’m using his name since I linked to the published work) has cerebral palsy. During his presentation, he had me, as an able-bodied white male, read a standard version of the Gospel story of the paralytic, which links the paralysis to sin. Then he re-read the story through a different lens, divorcing sin from the body. It was a powerful moment.

One of the many things I like about David is that he refuses to be limited to working and writing on disability. He’s a Spanish major and is focused on Spanish, immigration issues, and the like. Sure, disability will be part of his profile, but it’s not going to define him.

A story I learned today is that during his gap year  between highschool and college, David interviewed people with disabilities and wrote about them. He wrote a letter to Studs Terkel and received a type-written reply (and a phone call). I’m in awe.

But here’s my favorite story about David, and one that I hope he won’t mind me re-telling.

Before David became my student, he looked at my class on disability on the syllabus, and decided to interview me. He was skeptical that an able-bodied person could teach effectively, and feared I would evoke pity and need, rather than agency. I’ve never been interviewed by a student like that, and I appreciated his concerns and was excited about having him in class. I told him my approach and he seemed to like it, but then I said that whatever had happened in the past was irrelevant. Having him, a man in a motorized wheelchair, would shift the conversation in ways that I couldn’t predict. We discussed it and he agreed that this was true, but apparently decided to give the class, and me, a chance.

I’m glad he did. I’ve learned a lot from his assessment of issues surrounding disability and representation. He’s pushed me to articulate my viewpoints more clearly. Moreover, in teaching my class on disability and eugenics, I pushed students like David to take positions, to take stances.

Eventually, I realized I needed to take some stances myself, so started writing as I taught the same class the following year. This essay for CNN followed.

I’m so pleased that Dominican has chosen to recognize David for his class work and leadership with this high honor.

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