This fall our Mastering Academic Conversations course that I am co-teaching with several colleagues for first-year students adopted the book Darius The Great is Not Okay as our common read. Actually, K-State has a common read book program university-wide, but we don’t always participate since we are on a separate campus from the main campus in Manhattan, KS. This year we got on board and read the same book everyone else was reading. As a class, we watched by teleconference Adib Khorram deliver a speech to K-Staters. You need a K-State login to see the entire recorded presentation, but you can see the trailer here:
Students in our class were required to read the book and reflect and respond through various assignments and activities to the diversity and mental health themes present in the story. Each student was to complete a project related to the book for a significant grade in the course. There were several project options from which to choose, including making art, making media recordings, writing alternate endings, writing poetry, and writing a letter of advice and encouragement to the main character, Darius. Writing a letter was the most popular approach chosen by students.
Most of the letters were thoughtful and demonstrated familiarity with the main character and his story. I’d like to share here one of the original works of art and one of the letters submitted for this assignment.
Above is a drawing made by a student in my class, Dustin B. It is the Gate of All Nations mentioned in the book:
A lamassu is pretty much the Persian version of a sphinx: a mishmash animal, with the head of a man, the body of an ox, and the wings of an eagle. As far as I knew, no riddles were involved in mythological encounters with lamassu, but there was probably some extremely high level taarofing.
This lamassu was one of a pair. Its mate had been decapitated at some point, but still, the statues towered over us, mute sentinels of a fallen empire.
“The Gate of All Nations,” Sohrab said. He gestured around to the lamassus and pillar surrounding us. “That’s the name in English.”
It wasn’t much of a gate anymore, since anyone of any nation could have easily stepped around it instead of walking through. But it was still amazing.
For me, the artwork of Dustin is what has been amazing. Throughout the semester I have given students opportunities to write and create art and Dustin never disappointed me. This final project was the icing on the cake for me.
Darius, the title character of the book, suffers from depression along with other things typical and not so typical of growing up. He more or less belongs to two cultures, the American culture of his father and the Persian culture of his mother, so his trip to Iran to meet family and to explore that country was life-changing. So another of my students, Daniel F., wrote a letter to Darius explaining things from his perspective. Here is what he wrote:
I hope you are doing well. I am currently pursuing my Professional Pilot degree at the Kansas State University Polytechnic Campus in Salina, Kansas. I have been here for about four months now, and everything is new to me. I decided to write this letter to you after getting to know your story of depression and visiting a new country (Iran). Having past experiences, I want to let you know that depression and anxiety are not worth your time and effort. If you ever want to get through it, you will keep your head high and try to put it in your past. One of the biggest challenges of life is overcoming depression. I know you feel like the world is all on you. And that feels like a million pounds. You don’t know if you’re going to split. The fact that you cannot express your feelings is the worst feeling someone can go through, and yet you still get out of bed and face life each day. Since I am from Pakistan, studying in college in a different environment has been a new experience for me. Especially coming from a city of 15 million (Karachi), Salina seemed very quiet and reserved. Coming from a very social culture where I hang out with friends every day is common. I told my parents about it, but they told me to look at the good things in life. I can assure you that I have felt and seen the good that is concentrating on what positive can bring. But before this, let me ask you a question. Can you think about what the most successful and happy people think about all day long? Healthy and happy people think about what they require and how to achieve it. In this way, developing a positive attitude can truly change your entire life. You have to push yourself to look at the glass as half full and crossing oceans for people when they wouldn’t cross a river for you. Start saving your money a little more. Travel and find happiness in the little things and love as much as you can because life is beautiful. I know coming from Iran was not a pleasant experience for you after finding a rare friend like Sohrab, but everything is temporary. I know you probably don’t see it that way, and you might not think that anything good will happen, but it is coming. I promise. You are here for a reason. You are doing the best you can. I hope you reach the day when you look into the mirror and see yourself as the warrior you are. Sincerely, Daniel Felix