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facts & arguments


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Shortly before I retired, I taught a community college writing class. Students would respond to "prompts," sometimes in writing, sometimes verbally. I liked to start arguments on topics that wouldn't get them apoplectic – nothing to do with animals, for example, because "animals are people too."

The topic I chose one day was deaths of climbers on Mount Everest. One death in particular had resonated with me: Rob Hall, head guide of a doomed 1996 expedition, was a New Zealander like me. He'd died after stopping to help another climber. Reading about his goodbye satellite call to his pregnant wife broke my heart.

The media at the time discussed the merits of helping other climbers, or not, if it meant you wouldn't reach the summit.

I posed the question to my students, adding that expeditions are expensive – from $30,000 to $65,000 (U.S.) – and that turning back would mean wasting that money.


Then one student who always attempted an answer (I'd assured my class there were no bad answers) said cautiously: "You could still feel good about yourself, right? Because (ticking the answers off on her fingers), you had done the right thing, and you had climbed most of the mountain anyway?"

The other students nodded in agreement. Yes, they could see that. But one rather cocky young man asked, "Why does anyone want to climb Mount Everest anyway?"

"Because it's there!" I said, thinking of George Mallory, whose frozen body, clad in hobnail boots, tweed and gabardine, has lain since 1924 not far from where Rob Hall died.

The student looked at me blankly, and a deep, embarrassed silence fell. I realized the idea of paying $30,000 to climb Everest was way beyond their understanding.

"Anyone have a similar situation?" I asked desperately. "Come across someone who…"

A hand shot up, a "mature" student of 26.

"I was working the night shift at McDonald's," she began. The class perked up. This sounded like something they could get behind.

"I was driving home early in the morning and I saw a car off the road and I stopped to help."

"Good for you!" I said, thinking, in the middle of the night? I'd have driven right by and called it in. She nodded, agreeing she'd done the right thing.

"The car was in the ditch, and the driver was trapped. I knew the guy."

"So what did you do?"

"Wouldn't you help?" asked the young woman who had answered my Everest question. "It's the right thing to do, right?"

"My brother works as a paramedic" another student said. "He says you gotta leave people where they are unless you know what you're doing, because you could hurt them more than they are already."

"I knew what I was doing," said the mature student, temporarily dashing my hopes for a good discussion. "I used to work as a nurse's aide."

She dropped the other shoe. "But, like I said, I knew him. He drove a truck. He'd been drinking and he begged me not to call the cops."

"Yeah, he'd lose his licence and his job," said the brother of the paramedic.

She agreed. "And he has three kids from his first marriage and two with his girlfriend."

Several more hands went up. Everyone was listening attentively, leaning forward, wanting to join in even though class was almost over.

"You should've just helped him," announced another student. "What would happen to his wife and kids if he lost his job? And his girlfriend and their kids."

"She should've called the cops," said the paramedic's brother, who had assigned himself the role of voice of reason. "She could get into trouble herself if she didn't."

One student turned to the young woman and asked, "Did you have any booze in the car? You could've given him a drink to cover up his drinking."

The serious drinkers in the class nodded. To my relief, the rest chorused "No you couldn't," and "That's stupid!"

A usually-quiet male student who always wrote about hockey put up his hand. "If the guy is a friend, you should get him out of the car and drive him home, then call a tow truck. Why do the cops need to hear about it? He's a buddy, right? You should help your buddies."

"But what if he's hurt?" the ambulance driver's brother persisted. "No offence, but she was just a nurse's aide, not a doctor. She could make it worse and he wouldn't be able to work anyway."

The class split into two groups, a buddy group and a medical group, and the groups turned on each other.

Then the door opened and the next teacher put her head in. "Are you guys finished? I need to get set up."

The class reluctantly picked up their backpacks. I watched them leave: They were animated, still engaged.

I always used to tell them to write about what they knew. Now, as I sit here trying to write a novel set in 1877 New Zealand, I think perhaps I should take my own advice.

Wendy Wilson lives in London, Ont.