A Lesson on Engagement, Connection, and Planning

By Rachael

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Disclaimer: we almost forgot to take a photo, so there was much more food prior to consumption and clean-up. But the modeling of the pie and fruit by Brent and Tan is much better than the table full of food would’ve been anyway. 

So because I am from Bowling Green, I originally planned to do my Kentucky Kitchen Table here with family and a few friends or distant relatives for diversity sake. However, that plan went awry. I won’t bore you with all the details (because they are boring and quite anticlimactic), but I ended up rather late in the game without a table. Luckily for me, I’ve met some really wonderful people in this class (looking at you Hilarie and Brent), and they kindly let me crash their dinner. And even though it was very last minute and totally not my plan, as is often the case, the spontaneity and the detour made it all the better.

I’ll get to all that good stuff in a moment, but first, an introduction. As implied by the term “crash,” I did not go in knowing who all would be attending this little soiree. (Just kidding, I looked up that word so I could see how to spell it, and it’s defined as a “fancy evening affair”; our evening was neither fancy nor grand enough to be called an “affair,” but nevertheless.) I obviously knew Hilarie and Brent from class: Hilarie from connecting outside of class because of overlapping friends and common interests and Brent from the social issue paper.

However, there was a lot that I didn’t know about them. For starters, Hilarie is a double major and a double minor. Who knew? And also, how impressive is that? Goodness. Hilarie is not much of a pie person; I know this because I brought an apple and a fudge pie (courtesy our great local bakery Riley’s Bakery). Luckily, she does enjoy ice cream (courtesy of our great local ice cream shop, hangout, and farm Chaney’s Dairy Barn), which made me feel better about my experience earlier in the day when I walked out of the shop, alone, with loads of sweets. (Cute.) Other than the pie thing, Hilarie is a girl much after my own heart—a singer, a social justice discusser, a feminist, and a constant thinker—and has so many talents and assets, not the least of which is her incredible brain and the thoughts that come from it. I so enjoyed getting to hear more of her ideas that night. She is also very gifted in choosing (and applying) excellent, bold shades of lipstick and rocking reddish, purpleish, silverish hair like no one else I’ve seen. She is also a great balance to my proclivity for sweets; she provided our table with homemade organic turkey sandwiches and a veggie tray. Hilarie is a small-town girl (Middlesboro, Kentucky being that exact small town) with pride and purpose because of her roots. If I could pick a few people who I’d like to mold myself after to be when I grow up, Hilarie would be one of those people.

Next is Brent. Brent has ferociously curly hair, which he just cut much shorter right before our dinner! (It looks very nice, Brent; don’t feel sad.) Brent is a Nursing major, something I had either known and forgotten or had never known at all; either way, I am fascinated and extremely impressed. He aspires to one day be part of Doctors Without Borders—color me more impressed. Brent also deeply enjoys chocolate pie, which is why we had fudge pie…also just because fudge pie is delicious. Brent and I have a very fun friendship, in which he makes jokes that I don’t get until later and irks me by “playing” sexist. Hilarious. In return, I like to step on his masculinity by constantly asserting myself in the conversation, laugh too hard at my own jokes, and tell him that no, he could not be on SNL. (Sorry, buddy.) Brent is from Nashville, Tennessee and spent this past summer in Taiwan—another surprise! He is a talented thinker, compassionate human, and I enjoyed hearing his insights and learning more about him at dinner. If I could pick a few people to model my hair after, Brent would be one of those people.

Brent brought along his friend Tan, who is an international student from Vietnam. He is 22 years old, has gorgeous, thick, jet-black hair, and you pronounce his name “Tahn.” He speaks extremely good English (a million times better than my Vietnamese would be, goodness); he is an interesting person outside of how well he speaks (I will get to this momentarily), but I just think it’s really impressive and something we take for granted, as most of us never have to/want to really learn another language. Tan is currently working on his English so that he can pursue a degree in Business. He originally wanted to be a Math teacher because he really enjoys the subject, but he has since changed his mind and decided he wants to pursue business, which, coincidentally, is what both of his parents do. He said he would still like to be able to teach at some point but for the moment is really interested in learning business, working for a company, and eventually starting his own business.

Tan is a pretty quiet guy, or at least was this evening; I suppose it’s a little silly of me to assume one night is the epitome of what a person is. (From some of the nights I’ve had, I would really hope that’s not the case.) Tan was really interested in the number of holidays here and the ways in which we celebrate them. He asked a lot of questions about Thanksgiving and told us that in his country they really only celebrate New Year and even that is different because it’s celebrated in February. I asked him what his parents thought of him coming over here and he said they were very worried about him changing a lot or being corrupted somehow, but that they spoke every day—despite the 11 hour time difference. Tan’s curiosity, bright smile, and eagerness to learn are infectious, and his presence was a real asset at the table.

And finally, there was Jen. Jen was our host for the evening who provided the cozy environment and necessary kitchen table. Jen is a social justice warrior who would never call herself that. Jen works and fights for people. Period. She works very closely with the refugees in Bowling Green in numerous capacities. One of my favorite moments of the evening was Jen talking about “doing good” without doing it for praise or even “because it’s the right thing to do”; for her “doing good” is just basic humanity and shouldn’t have any further thought; it should just be inherent. And I really loved this concept of thoughtful actions done thoughtlessly. I’d never framed it that way, and it was something really special.

Jen was born just outside of Philly and has lived many places, including Texas where one of her boys was born, much to her chagrin. Jen is married to a Political Science professor at WKU, and they have two children—one of whom is in Gatton Academy here. Jen was also a Political Science major in college but has pursued many different careers throughout her 40 some-odd-long life. She is currently working for Pearson as a writer and editor—something very much after my own heart. Jen is an incredibly intelligent, kind without agenda, and insightful beyond what a three-hour long dinner conversation could fully display.

As I am typing this out, I realize I am over 1100 words in and just finishing my “introduction.” And I am chuckling to myself at a couple of things. One, it’s hilarious how much I can pour into something when I’m not even trying to. And two, in direct relation to one, I didn’t even have to think about all the stuff I’ve written. I just remembered it. I have roughly an hour and a half of recordings from that night (I didn’t record our whole conversation because we would shuffle to get tea or something), but I have yet to refer to them once. I’m amazed and stunned at what I can remember when I’m actually listening, when I create an intention behind my listening, when my listening has motivation. This is also sad, obviously, that a looming grade is what has to pressure me to actively engage. And not even engage in conversation by speaking myself but simply by engaging my listening. There’s such a difference there: between being present for a conversation and being actively engaged in it; neither of those options require you to speak, but the first you could so easily not actually be present or engaged.

And I think, because of all this self-revelation I’m having in the moment, that that’s one of my biggest take-aways from this experience: just what it means to listen and to engage. I thought I was good at that already, but seeing how much I can pour out now simply because I was a willing, engaged vessel then shows me that there’s so much I miss. Maybe I already knew that Hilarie had two majors and two minors. Maybe I already knew that Brent was a Nursing major. Maybe I didn’t know either of those things. And that’s not my point. I’m just sort of here typing this, looking somewhat deranged I’m sure, nodding to myself and marveling at how much I would’ve missed if I hadn’t been actively involved that night—if I’d been on my phone or hyper-aware of the time or just unfocused. And what I’m realizing right now is just how powerful that engagement, that listening, is—in all situations. Think of how much smoother and more intelligently our political debates (among politicians and among ourselves) would go! Think of how much harder it would be to dismiss, dislike, or even hate people if we listened first—if we were actively engaged in hearing others. What would that look like?

This is something we even talked about a lot during our time together, but it’s just so moving right now as I sit here and reflect on how much I know about these strangers and semi-acquaintances, on how connected to them I feel now. What if that kind of connection could extend to all people? To the refugees who Jen works so closely with? To the homeless person on the corner? To the girl who sits next to you in class? What if we defaulted to connection, humanity, and engagement? What would our world look like?

And I really thought I would go into all the political conversation and the stories about the refugees Jen told us and how we each described what citizenship means to us, but I’m realizing that like my first plan for this project, that plan for this post needs to change. Because yes, we did have very cool, like-minded conversation about politics in America and the beauty in telling stories and how we all knew this was like-minded political conversation and that the real conversation and engagement needed to happen with people outside of this table and mindset. We had three hours of really cool, smart story swapping and idea sharing. But it was the actual engagement—the sitting down at the kitchen table, totally disarmed, drinking tea, just chatting, and listening—that was the most powerful and important for me. And that’s what is going to make this experience one of my, unexpectedly, best nights of the semester and moments of this course. (Cheesy, cheesy, cheesy, but genuine.)

So, all that said, I’ll just wrap up with some “thank you’s.” Thank you to the darling Hilarie and Brent. Thank you for letting me crash your evening. Thank you for being open and sharing your passions. Thank you, Tan, for coming to a random event and for sharing your experience with us. Thank you for coming to WKU and for being brave enough to take on our crazy, scary, awesome America all by yourself. Thank you, Jen, for being so gracious and for being such a warrior for people—because it should be our default setting to help, and it should be something done without fanfare. And thank you, Dr. Gish, for making this experience happen by assigning this project. I am a vocal and open but quite introverted person and would never have done this had it not been for this assignment. And I’m so glad I got to! So yeah, thank you to everyone for just giving me a chance to engage and remember what it’s like to be at peace in the midst of spontaneity. Thank you all for reminding me that fresh plans are often so much better than “planned” plans. (So much cheese.) (So much sincerity.)

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