For forty-four years I taught at least one section of English composition every term. I knew how to choose topics that students would likely write about well. For example, my students often wrote powerfully when asked to describe in close, specific detail an old person whom they did not know. Rather than write in glib, abstract summaries, most chose details that suggested the person’s character and enticed readers to participate actively in discernment.

However, it is just as important for students to come up against topics that stump them, to attempt an assignment which I know ahead of time that most of them will fail. I don’t have to factor the failure into their grades: that is not the point. I want them to receive the failure as a challenge, as a gift, as an exercise in humility, as an exercise in reality.

Forward (1967) a painting by Jacob Lawerence and part of the Migration Series

For example, through four and a half decades my students consistently found it hard to write well given this exercise: “Describe in close detail someone whom you know personally who has exhibited “moral courage.”

Usually less than a minute after I nod for them to begin, a hand goes up.

“Yes?”

“Sir, what do you mean by ‘moral courage’?”

“What do YOU mean by ‘moral courage’?” I would reply, looking again at my desk to signal that they should continue writing. Predictably, most of the papers stank.

Almost anyone six or older can talk or write about courage. But moral courage? It’s rarely mentioned in our education, and even less often demonstrated in public media.

Courage is usually touted as physical and athletic, but it does not have to be. Nor does courage have to be intellectual, though intellect can give courage sparkle.

I’m tempted to say that a courageous person is fearless, but that’s inaccurate. Courageous people know fear like the rest of us. They just do not let fear deter them from doing what thy feel to be right.

Moral courage is rare. Sometimes it shows up in people considered meek. A courageous librarian in my home town, Anniston, Alabama, made sure that books I needed would be there, risking censure from self-appointed book-burners.

Moral courage sometimes shows up in ‘the wimp’ who won’t stop asking determinedly ‘Why?’ and ‘By what authority?’

Moral courage is highly unpredictable. Jesus himself did not know which of his chosen twelve would have the mettle to endure to the end. (Take heart, nominating committees and electing conventions, even he had an 8.3% failure rate!)

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Louie Crew Clay

Louie Crew Clay,  81, is an Anniston, Alabama native and Professor Emeritus at Rutgers. He lives in East Orange, NJ, with Ernest Clay, his husband for 44 years. He holds an M.A. from Auburn University, a Ph.D. from the University of Alabama (Tuscaloosa), and honorary doctorates from three seminaries of the Episcopal Church. He is the founder of Integrity, an international organization of lgbt Episcopalians/Anglicans. Editors have published 2,750+ of Louie Crew Clay's poems and essays — including Letters from Samaria: The Prose & Poetry of Louie Crew Clay, NYC: Church Publishing, Inc., November 2015 and  Our Station Forgot to Give the Evening News,  Poetry Superhighway. An eBook in the press' annual 'The Great Poetry E-Book Free-For-All,' online from December 1, 2016. You can follow his work at Rutgers.edu. See also Wikipedia.org. The University of Michigan collects Clay’s papers.