This semester, my colleague and I are teaching the most basic English course at our school, a class that is intended to help students who are far behind in their reading and writing skills. Most of our time is spent discussing grammar or basic writing structure or reading comprehension because these are the skills these students need, despite the fact that most of them graduated from high school.

Because sometimes what we hope for these folks is simply an appreciation for reading and writing that they will pass down to their own children, we are often looking for ways to bring them both up to speed in English but also instill a respect and honor for writing and reading, even if they don’t master the skills we need them to master for successful college course-work. This term, we thought we might be able to serve all our needs for this course by focusing it on the Presidential election. Perhaps, we idealistically thought, these folks will come to appreciate their role as active participants in the political process; or if not that, perhaps they will simply come to understand a bit more about the election process, while also improving their English skills. I was banking on the latter of these options.

And boy, did I underestimate my students! They have proven to be thoughtful and invested critics of both candidates (we try to keep balance in our readings and discussions), critiqueing everything from their acceptance speeches to their websites. I can’t wait to see what they make of McCain’s decision to two take days off my campaigning to deal with the Wall Street crisis. What will they say? Will they think that’s bold or cowardly? I can bet they’ll have an opinion.

When we started the course, most of my students were apathetic, saying that they wouldn’t vote, that they didn’t care, that they didn’t know anything about the election. Now, many of them are invested in one candidate or the other (although to my surprise, most of these folks from a fairly rural conservative community are liking Obama at the moment); most of them say they will vote on November 4th; and all of them can speak with increasing acuity about the value of the election and their opinions about major issues such as the economy, the environment, and the war. I’m so proud of them.

Yesterday, I was working with a student on his paper that addresses why he will or will not vote in November. He decided he wanted to vote and gave three reasons for his position – his need to take responsibility; his desire to create change; and his support of Obama. When I pushed him on why he supported Obama, hoping to help him flesh out his reasons for his position, this young, African American man said that he felt that Obama has “confidence and truly believes in what he says” (those are his words, not mine), that Obama can make the changes that the student would like to see made, and that it was time for Americans to realize that an African American man could do something good. When he made that final statement, I had to turn my head away because I had tears in my eyes because this young man had hit upon something so true and so powerful and had done so without bitterness or judgment. Here, in my office, from one of the students that are most “at-risk” was the most profound truth I had heard all semester . . . this is why I teach.

Today, we will be asking them to help each other with their papers, to give each other feedback, and I have great hope that they will do so. And I have great hope for our future, if these students are any indication of what we have to expect in our country. I am so proud of them.