Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Sun, 02 Dec 2001 07:11:18 -0500 (EST)
Random Thought: The Virtue of the One

A very early bird good morning to you all. It's a gray early morning. A slight nippy mist is in the air. As I walked, up from below came a wormy issue. I started writing on the slate sky reflections of bits and pieces of a conversation I had Thursday afternoon with a colleague.

I had been sitting on a brick bench for a while, a long while, encouraging and assuring a very shy Maria (not her real name) who was scared about standing before the class during her community's upcoming presentation.

After our talk, I walked across the street between buildings to get a cup of coffee from the Vice-President's office. As I passed a "young" colleague--they all seem young now, and that is scary--from another department who was sitting on another bench, he said to me, "I've been watching you. You talked a while with that one student. Where do you find the time?"

I stopped, sat down, and said, "The same place where I find the time to stop and talk with you. I make it and take it."

"You don't get tenure and promotion around here talking with a student who doesn't care or has a lot of problems."

"So, I guess that one uncaring or problem student isn't important enough to have the time for?"

"I didn't say that. I don't mind taking time with a student who cares about learning."

"Ah, the 'easy' student. The one like us. Aren't many of them around. Never were except in wishful dreams.....Aren't all those students who need your guidance to learn about caring to learn and how to learn just as important, maybe more important, than the ones who supposedly know it already? I don't think we should selective care about the one student who suits us. We have to care about all the students, one at a time. After all, 'all' is nothing but a series of 'one at a time's'"....

"Yeah, sure. What can I do with one student? Change the world?"

"Yes!! ......

"Sounds good. People say you're such a romantic. Now I believe it. And if you do all that you say, which I don't think you can, after you've dealt with one student, there'll be another and another and another. With our teaching loads, it's an endless, time-consuming line, not to mention being thankless."

"With any teaching load......" I felt as if I was in a fencing duel: thrust and parry, thrust and parry, thrust and parry. "Sure it's 'always.' The way to 'always' is only through today, and the way to 'many' is only through 'the one.' It's a life job ahead of you that's through each day. Just because you've worked with one student doesn't qualify you rest on your one laurel for the rest of your career. There will always be others, and each will be different. The most important thing we do as teachers is deal with the challenges thrown out by each student."

"Do you think that student you just talked with really appreciates you just stopping and taking the time to talk with her?"

"If you saw her eyes and read her body language, you'd know the answer is 'Yes.' She appreciated that I noticed her and cared to take the time to care, again. This isn't the first time we talked. Besides, I'm not sure appreciation is a requirement for caring."

"You see. You've talked with her more than once. Here's one student and you had to talk with just her more than once. You don't have any guarantees that you'll do any good and not have wasted your time."

"I did good for myself. But, if you want guarantees, buy a car. I do have a guarantee though. I will guarantee that nothing will change if I don't struggle to help her to struggle to change herself."

"I'm not sure anyone around here cares whether you help a student or not. They don't even notice. It's such a waste. I sometimes think it's not worth either the trouble or the sacrifice."

"I don't believe that for a second. People may not say anything, but they notice. Anyway, you don't it for a handshake or medals. Looking important to someone else is not a requirement for helping a student. Doing important is. You know, I think the real test of being a teacher is not the students; it's....."

"Louis," he interrupted me. "Got to go to class to help all those poor students who are just standing in line asking me to be their father or preacher. Don't take this wrong, but I'm sure glad you're not mentoring me. I'd never get any work done." He smiled, and while slightly shaking his head in disbelief, got up and walked off.

What I wish my young colleague would understand is that in each of us lurks the great teacher even if we don't know it. I was going to tell him that the key to being a great teacher is to recognize that teaching comes with constant trials and challenges and tests and ordeals.

Then again, he's young. Heck, it wasn't until this last decade of my thirty-eight classroom years that I began to understand. Before my colleague cut me off, I was going to tell him that I think the ultimate trial, the paramount challenge, is to let go, surrender control, cut the puppeteering strings, become public and vulnerable to another, lose yourself to another. I have discovered that as I stopped thinking primarily about myself and both my personal and professional self-preservation, as I gave myself to the higher moral objective of helping another person, as I broaden my field of concern beyond my personal few acres, as I left the one parochial world I was in and went into less insular one, I came to what was missing in the world I formerly inhabited, and I slowly underwent a transformation of awareness. For so long I had been thinking one way and only with in the last decade have I slowly began thinking another way. My perceptions changed. I found out more about myself as I went on my inner journey. I found I had a higher nature than I thought I had. I found I was a different guy than I thought I was. As a quality of character I didn't know I had appeared, I perceived what could be done. And, I found myself compelled to struggle to achieve it. And what I did slowly changed as my perceptions slowly changed. It wasn't something I chose to undertake. I was thrown into it. I didn't intend it, but I was in it. And, to my amazement I was ready for it and could eventually handle it, but hadn't known it. And none of it was either instant or easy! Still isn't!!

You know it asks somewhere in the Koran whether anyone can get into the Garden of Bliss without having experienced trials. And, somewhere in the New Testament it says great is the gate and narrow is the way to life. So, I don't see devoting time to, encouraging, supporting, believing in, having faith in, having hope for a student such as Maria is a waste. Life evokes our character. With each student, I found and still find that I find out more about myself. Helping that one student puts me in a position to call forth my higher nature rather than my lower. It offers me the opportunity to perform great deeds rather than consigning and consoling ourselves to impotence. It energizes me to act rather than allowing me to tranquilize myself into a benign passivity. So, I think that each student potentially is both that gate and way for each of us. Each student is a trial to see if we teachers should really be teachers, if we are up to the task, if we have the perseverance and endurance and capacity that enables us to squeeze through that narrow way.

The great teachers I have known and with whom I mingle are not great by virtue of their fabulous lecturing, their vast bank of information, their inventive teaching method, the length of their resume, the height of their position and title, or the breadth of their renown. Great teachers are great by virtue of their virtue. Their greatness comes by way of and through another person. I think the ultimate measure of greatness of a great teacher is that he or she is on a visionary journey during which an urging voice always calls: "teach that one student."

And what is it we teach? If we as teachers have any gift to offer a student, it is a transformation of how he or she thinks of him- or herself and of those around him or her. That gift is a key to unlocking his or her own treasure chest, to guide him or her to his or her uniqueness, to help a student write his or her own song, choreograph his or own dance, design his or her own structure, sculpt his or own image, brush his or own painting, to wean him or her off a lifeless life of dependency to a richer and more rewarding independent life. That means we must complicate and complex our view of ourselves and complicate and complex our view of students. We have to see vast diverse individuality and be exposed to the very guts of life, and embrace the possibilities and excitement and pleasures of that life. We have to retain the flexible poetic sense of wonder and awe of that "one student" and resist its reduction to an inflexible pedagogical prose, to a code, to a creed: this is the way you have to teach students.

And to do so, we need a fine ear, a keen eye, a sharp mind, a sensitive heart, all honed as finely as a chef's knife to cut through the opaque stereotypes to reveal the wonder and majesty of the individual, complicated, and complex human being. Only then can we speak soul to soul and have the possibility of reaching and touching with our teaching as well as being reached and touched ourselves.

Teaching complex and teaching complicated is teaching made each day from fresh ingredients gotten by spending a lot of time roaming among the individual stands at the market, not from a box of ready mix. And if we do, I can assure you we will experience deep happiness and walk through the gate into education's Garden of Bliss.

         Make it a good day.


         Louis Schmier      
         Department of History
         Valdosta State University
         Valdosta, GA  31698                 /~\        /\ /\
         912-333-5947              /^\      /     \    /  /~\  \   /~\__/\
                                 /     \__/         \/  /  /\ /~\/         \
                          /\/\-/ /^\_____\____________/__/_______/^\
                        -_~    /  "If you want to climb mountains,   \ /^\
                         _ _ /      don't practice on mole hills" -    \____

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