Uncommon interview: Dawn LaValle

By Jen Glickel

The University of Chicago is filled with dedicated students, whose interests run the gamut from varsity sports to political science to participating in Scav Hunt. Fourth-year in the College Dawn LaValle is one such student, yet her dedication lies in another realm: religion. Based on a unique interaction between LaValle and Fundamentals professor Leon Kass, the Maroon stopped to chat with LaValle.

Chicago Maroon: What conversation occurred between you and Leon Kass on the first day of your Exodus class this quarter? What was the question that Professor Kass asked you? Did he just ask you randomly?

Dawn LaValle: On the first day of class, we began a discussion of what constitutes a “people.” I mentioned my confusion about the terms of the discussion since it seemed clear to me that each person has a variety of allegiances, while it seems you can only be part of one “people.” Mr. Kass got a strangely intent look in his eye and leaned forward on the table, “I’m tempted to ask you a question, Miss LaValle, but I don’t think I will.” After my insistence of willingness to receive his query, he said, “If I were to ask you how you identify yourself primarily, what would you say?” And a large smile spread across my face, and a feeling of astonishment.

CM: I understand that you replied to Kass by saying that his question book-ended your academic career. Why was this the case?

DL: This was precisely the question that I had been asked on the first day of another class with another Kass. Mrs. Kass had each of us in her HBC class pronounce who we thought we were on the first day. We were a room full of confused and flabbergasted first-years. Many of us simply refused to respond to what we saw as an unfair question. I think she was intending us, in anticipation of our investigation into the virtue of a human being and citizen, to analyze how we saw ourselves, and whether the political order played any role in that identification. And here was Mr. Kass presenting me, one of about 25 undergraduates ever to have had a class with either of the Kasses before, with a tremendous opportunity.

First, it presented me with an opportunity of public self-identification. Not only did I have to decide the answer to the perennial question “who am I?,” but I had to present that answer to a room full of both friends and strangers. And all in about 30 seconds. Second, it caused me to think about the relative power and weakness of education. For, you see, I gave the same answer that I had four years before. Is education, then, useless? Is it even meant to be transformative? What can it transform, and what not? Third, it caused me to look back over my four years here as four years that were, emphatically, without the Kasses. My four years exactly spanned their absence, while I came in pursuit of their presence. And such thinking led me to further thoughts on my recurring questions of the relative advantages and disadvantages of mentors and personality cults, and of the tutor-pupil model versus the individual as an independent academic model. And I realized that the Kasses had provided me with a very valuable service. I was given an opportunity for self-reflection on the nature of my education. They were the standard ruler against which I could measure myself coming and going from the U of C. And whether my response showed admirable persistence or spiritual and mental sloth, I have yet to fully decide.

CM: What, then, was your response to Professor Kass’s question?

DL: I answered, “I am a member of the Body of Christ.”

CM: Could you elaborate on this response? Why do you consider yourself to be a member of the Body of Christ? And what does that mean?

DL: Yes, I got that question from people in my classes as well. The reason that I phrased it as a “member of the Body of Christ” instead of saying that I was a Christian or a Catholic was these words identify the actual change to my nature. I have been grafted onto Christ, I am a new creation, etc. To simply identify yourself as a Christian can be understood in a variety of ways that I am trying to avoid. I am fundamentally identified with Christ, through his physical presence on earth of the Catholic Church. Well, this all sounds a bit heavy handed, but you did ask!

The response that I was going to give was obvious to me. The only thing that I’ve ever experienced that has actually made an indelible change on my nature has been my baptism (and the other sacraments after that). All of the other very important aspects of my life are not so fundamental. I have been thinking about this a bit, though. You are born into all kinds of circumstances that influence you to such an extent that you can never remove their influence upon you (this may actually be true for everything ever encountered by you at all). So, in a very real sense, they are part of your identity, and even seem to be indelible. But they are still secondary, predicated upon this first thing, this primary thing of union with God through Christ.

CM: What kind of reaction did Professor Kass have to your response?

DL: If I remember correctly, he gave a little mumble and said, “Yes, you could identify yourself through involvement in a religion.” Not antagonistically at all, of course. But perhaps as though my response was a bit inappropriate and not on topic. But what else was I supposed to say to such a question? And then the conversation moved away from such personal soul-searching back into a more general conversation about “people”ness.