by Jillian Medina

Pain shot up my spine and tension consumed my muscles. I relaxed as the nurse removed the long, cold needle from my back and prepped me for surgery. A few hours earlier, I asked the nurse why she was poking an IV into my hand. 

“Do you want to stay awake during surgery?” she replied sarcastically. 

Without missing a beat, I nodded. “Actually, I do.” 

Nobody expected that response. The anesthesiologist warned me that to stay awake during the surgery, I needed a spinal injection to paralyze me from the waist down. The surgeon said that no one ever requested to observe their own surgery and the entire surgical team applauded my courage, recounting stories of tough football players having the same surgery who had shuddered at the mere sight of a needle. Meanwhile, I shrugged. The wonder of witnessing my surgery in action overshadowed the image of blood-covered scissors and scalpels. I never allowed fear to restrain me, even in front of a large audience. 

As a member of Lawrenceville’s Diversity Council, I organized a reflection week following the Charlottesville Neo-Nazi rally that concluded with a candlelight vigil where community members shared their thoughts. By the time Zach, the president of Young Republicans, approached the microphone sporting a “Trump 2016” pin over his black blazer, I could already see scowls forming on the faces of my peers. 

Zach was a conservative needle in a liberal haystack at my “woke” school, where people of his political standing simply kept their heads down. I felt uneasy as Zach started by condemning the “overblown crusade” against hate groups. Before Zach could finish his sentence, another student interrupted, heckling him for simply voicing his opinion. Others followed, piling on insults and challenging his right to speak. Feeling under attack, Zach rushed out of the circle.

In that moment, I knew it would be easy for me to take a crack at Zach during his public flogging. My friends would have snapped approvingly before I handed the whip to someone else. Instead, when I stepped up to speak, I took a deep breath, filling my body with the same amount of courage I needed in the operating room. I urged the audience to treat everyone with respect, regardless of political standing. 

Looking around at my wide-eyed peers, hoping my voice was not shaking too much, I sensed anger and betrayal in their furrowed eyebrows — after all, I was a leading liberal voice on campus. How could I encourage such offensively conservative views? However, I knew Zach deserved to speak and I could not let fear of displeasing my peers silence me into compliance.

Immediately after my remarks, I felt a lump form in my throat as student after student maintained that Zach’s views were unacceptable. The echo of liberal voices bouncing around the circle by the end of the event reminded me that most people had gained nothing from the event beyond reaffirmation of their previous opinions. Just as it was my turn to share my parting thoughts, I got my second wind. I asserted that thought-provoking conversations cannot happen if everyone with a minority opinion is driven away. This time, there was no outbreak of critical responses. Some students even nodded in agreement. 

Later, I thanked Zack for contributing a different perspective, invited him to future discussions and was glad to hear him speak out from the crowd at the Young Democrats Gun Control Forum months later.

That experience is reminiscent of the choice I made in my hospital bed, yet the physical fearlessness almost seems trivial when compared to the question that haunted me after speaking up for Zach. Was I being careless in giving a voice to opinions I viewed as harmful to my school and the world? That question haunted me, though the values of free speech and the expansion of political discourse at my school were powerful as well.

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