What’s your turning point in life? You know that seminal moment that you could look back upon now, and say for certain, that if this or that had not happened, my life and it’s trajectory would have been very different. To be sure there are many, many of these turning points in our lives. But some seem to stand out more than others. What’s yours?
I have contemplated this concept many times in many different scenarios of my life. So many times those moments seemed like they were either spirit led, providential, lucky, or just plain bad!
When I first became a freshly minted professor of communication, I got to actually assign this to a group of students to contemplate this idea, process the details, and communicate it to others in a speech in what is called an Ice-Breaker Speech.
In the Fall of 2008, my first semester of teaching students at a university for credit, I was assigned to teach the COMM 101, Principles of Communication, or is it is almost always more affectionately known, Freshman Speech Class. Almost all of the Mass Communication and speech teachers, had one, or two, or more sections of this class, because every student at Harding University had to take this class somewhere along the way. Either they took it elsewhere at another college and transferred the credit, or in high school as an AP class, or now, as a student at Harding. The difference is that one of my sections of this class was designated differently because it was to be filled with only Chinese students. These students had been tested to have very low English speaking, writing or comprehension skills. As a result, they were all placed in my class.
A week before classes started the other communication professors had the normal departmental meeting. Among the many start-of-the-new-school-year-agenda-items was, “Who wants to teach the Chinese Principles of Communication class? I had no idea how many Chinese students were at Harding, or that they even had them at all. Dr. James stood up and said, “We really need somebody who can teach a speech class, just for the Chinese students that we have on campus. Who wants to volunteer for that?
Having no idea how dramatically that would change my life, I raised my hand. I thought, I have ESL training. Why not me? Admittedly, it was only a one-day Saturday training seminar. I told the group of very reluctant professors that I had actually taught ESL to Chinese in a ministry role. Everybody cheered the new guy and said, “You da man!”
On the first day of my new speech, class I had 15 Chinese students wander in slowly to an eight o’clock class asking if I was Professor Shaner, and was this COMM 101? Upon hearing my enthusiastic, “Yes, please come in,” they were introduced to a barrage of greetings from me like, “Hello, I’m Professor Shaner, welcome,” and more.
I then discovered two things that I was unaware of about this class before that day.
1. Among the students were two MBA students who could not pursue their classes because they had not yet passed the English Proficiency test and were assigned this class to help them do so.
2. One of the girls was actually from Viet Nam, not China. Her English was almost perfect. After class I asked her, Why was she in that class? She said, “I don’t know, but I think that my advisor thought I was Chinese and just put me here. She smiled the biggest, warmest smile I’ve ever seen, and said, “Can I stay?”
What I found was the most delightfully inquisitive, warm and friendly class, that I may have ever had, and perhaps as much as any other classes that I had for 12 years after that semester. We just seemed to click together. They were all new to this country and Harding. I was new to teaching this class, and new to them. We bonded over the newness of those things. They all had unique personalities, and as time went on, they all seemed to open up to me and Harding. I found out later that more than half of them had been in the same high school class in their hometown in China, then two years together at the same university in Guangzhou, and now they all came to Harding together. For the most part, no introductions were needed for 10 of the 14 classmates. The class was just abuzz with excitement to start their first day of classes at Harding.
There were some wonderful, sweet and fun students in that class. Some of the students became mentees and good friends to me, and many for whom I visited in their hometowns in China in the forthcoming years.
One of the most amazing students made herself known the minute she walked into the room. She was bold. Her personality was bright. She was beautiful. When she walked into the room, the other students all turned their attention to her! They listened in hushed tones to hear her speak. They laughed when she laughed, they responded when it was their turn. She was in command of the room. She was absolutely the Alpha-Student in the group. The girls wanted to be her. The boys wanted to be with her. She was the imitable Miss “M.” She was Zhang Yixiao, or “M” as we all came to know!
As the semester progressed, one thing that I knew going into the class, that was made even more certain was the fact that these students were NOT Christians. When I say that I do not mean to imply they were wild, sinfully out of control, or debaucherously wild. In fact, they were pleasant, polite, and almost reserved in their view of morals and all things that would exemplify a typical student Harding life.
These students were not Christians! They just weren't. You’d think being at Harding would mean they were? Otherwise, why would they travel around the world, about as far away from home as you could possibly get, to attend a Christian University if you were an Atheist? They were not hostile towards us, or Christianity in general. Growing up, they had all been taught that believing in God was for weak minded people, and that smart, well informed, and intelligent people did NOT believe in God.
The fact is that these students were recruited to a Christian university. They were told Harding was a Christian university, and was what it was going to be like. But they didn't understand that until they got there. They didn't understand they had to go to chapel every day, and they didn't understand that they had to go to Bible class every day. When this class of Chinese students found out what that was, and that they had to comply, they complained about it. And they complained a lot and loudly about it.
In my speech class, the students had to prepare, and stand up and deliver four to five different speeches. I usually had two minor speeches and two major speeches. Most, if not all college and university students have probably had a speech class where the professor wanted you to give what was called a persuasive speech. I did too. After trying to make the class relevant to their needs and still stay in the mission of Harding University I really wanted to challenge them to think about their view of a life lived from a Christian perspective, process that information and articulate how that could be matched up with their lives and world views of all things spiritual.
I always made my persuasive speech may last it was like the final exam speech. And I gave them the topic halfway. I said, you have to give me a persuasive speech, about something that you really believe… that you learned in your Bible class. I was being a little subversive.
Oh, they complained and cried and whined, we don't like that… “We just sleep during our Bible class. We don't really like that Bible class.” And sometimes they said, “We're not Christians, we shouldn't have to do that!”
My reply was, “This doesn't have to be about Christianity. It simply has to be something you learned in your Bible class. Maybe, it's to honor your mother and father? That's a biblical concept and I know you have to do that in China. Give me a speech about why it's important that you honor your mother and father, or something like that, but I said, it has to be something you learned in your Bible class.”
I tried coordinate this with their Bible teacher because they were all in the same Bible class. They had to turn in their topics to be approved by me before they could continue working on the speech. Afterwards we proceeded to learn how to put together an outline, with an introduction, body and conclusion, with everything in between. We went over all of the how-to’s in class.
They continued to grumble and complain about this assignment, until I asked them would they grumble and complain to a Chinese teacher or professor? That just didn’t exist in their culture, so I asked them for the same respect, and they all settled down into their assignments.
They all at least accepted the assignment on face value and got started. Except for M. She didn't want to do it at all. And, she was really given me a hard time about it. She came to me very respectfully after class and again mentioned that she was not a Christian, in fact she was an atheist and that this assignment just would not work for her! We discussed this a bit before I finally said, “I'll tell you what, forget the Bible class. Give me a speech on why you don't believe that there is a God.” She said, “Okay, I'll do that!”
Because I worked in the media most of my life. One of the things that I did in my speech classes was that every time they had to give a speech, I had it in a different room, in a different venue. I said, you're going to be giving speeches somewhere besides a classroom the rest of your life. Plus, I always put the last speech, this persuasive speech, on what they learned in their Bible class, in the TV studio on campus, and we digitally recorded it.
When the day arrived for the speeches M got there early, quickly came up to me and said, “I want to let you know, that I changed my speech topic. I said, “NO, you had to get this approved. You can't change it now!
She said, “Wait, wait… Here’s why… I started researching why there was no God. And, and… I decided there was a God. So, I changed my speech topic to why there is a God. I thought would be OK with you.”
I said, “Yes, go for it. Let's do this.” She gave the most amazing speech (with PowerPoint) on why there is indeed a God! I still have a video copy of that speech.
I kept up with her. She wasn't in my class after that day, but I kept up with her a lot. She really was a delightful student, very popular on campus, and just exuded energy and personality. I even arranged to meet her in China, in her hometown of Guilin on one of my teaching assignments in the summer of 2011.
About three years after giving that speech M graduated. She moved on to the University of Maryland to get her master’s degree. M was now getting a degree in electrical engineering. Did I say how smart and driven she was? She was amazing in almost everything she did and studied about. Before M left, I reminded her that she had given me a speech about God, and before I could finish, she emphatically said, “Yes, I still believe that!”
I then asked her “Did she know people at University of Maryland?” She didn’t. I wanted to make sure she would meet some Christian friends. I found out that there was a church Bible chair, or a campus ministry. We used to call them Bible chairs. When I knew she was going there I looked up some contacts and gave her some names to connect with after she arrived.
Several years later, M texted me one day and said, “I'm coming back to Searcy. And I want to get baptized!” She wanted to come back to Searcy to get baptized because as she said, “That's where she found God.” She actually studied with somebody at the University of Maryland. But she gives a lot of credit to finding God at Harding. She said, “I wouldn't even have talked to them. I had it not been for Harding.”
I didn't baptize her, but we were there that night. I wouldn’t have missed that for the world! And she told the story herself to the group before she got baptized that, “I came here and didn't even believe in God.”
And even though I had engaged with other Chinese students in Chicago as an intentional ministry, I had now been at Harding for a few semesters now, I said to myself, “there’s a real missionary ministry here.”
Teaching that first COMM 101 Chinese speech class, and seeing M become a Christian made me realize that it was not only a turning point in her life, but in mine as well. I continued teaching that same COMM 101 class for the next 12 years at Harding, and sometimes with two sections per semester, plus several times at three different universities in China adding up to more than 500+ students. Some of my dearest and most beloved students and friends came out of the opportunity of me raising my hand and saying, “Why not me? I’ll teach that class.”
Steve Shaner is a professional story teller that delights in traveling to meet new and old friends. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.