Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Sat, 08 Sep 2001 08:26:31 -0400 (EDT)
Random Thought: It's Not About Things

The other day, I came in from an outside blanching in that boiling South Georgia humid air only to find that someone wanted to roast me as well. As I calmly entered the computer room, cup of coffee in hand, eager to work the online Washington Post crossword puzzle, I paniced. Thick smoke was pouring out from the computer. At first I thought it was going to set off the fire alarm. Luckily it was only virtual billows coming from a flaming message in response to my last Random Thought about my apology to Melody.

Did I say flame? It was a blazing bonfire. No, it was a raging forest wildfire. Boy, this professor's collar must have been white hot. Melody was not a happy tune for this particular professor. Melody was more of a dirge. In blistering, no uncertain, and less that cordial and collegial terms, she told me she had received what she called "the last straw" and she "couldn't hold back any longer."

"It is touchy feely people like you," she accused, "who are undermining the professorhood. "There is no place in our intellectual environment for the emotion you want to ram down our throats," she wrote in something of a denouncing tone. She blamed me for "helping to destroy what's left of the academy's sanctity with continued demonstrations of weakness in the classroom." She bemoaned the need to "sacrifice my valuable time for students who shouldn't be in my classroom in the first place when I could be doing important research ." She continued, "My class is not a charity ward. It is not my job to hold their hands or wipe their sniveling noses. I don't get paid for that." She went on to proclaim, "We are professors, not teachers! I am dedicated to my discipline!" She ended her scathing message with ""my position of authority comes from the degrees and awards hanging in my office. My legitimacy rests on my research and publications, not from pandering to unprepared and incapable students. Your Dean ought to take you out to the shed and spank some sense into you"

What could I say. I don't believe in corporal punishment. Actually, her message sounded like she was preparing to go before a Tenure and Promotion Committee. Anyway,I couldn't disagree with her more. This professor seems caught in a despairing obsession of literary proportions. She denigrates and dismisses the very people she is supposed to notice and elevate. She confuses things with people. I can just imagine her stately office decorated with what I call a credentialing look-at-who-I-am "wall of fame." It probably looks like a patchworked quilt of various sized and colored framed squares of degrees, honors, awards, and appointments. It may even be adorned with an autographed photograph of and signed letters from the "rich and famous."

I didn't know how to answer her without seeming to be high and mightly. This professor is committing what I think is the ultimate sin, the sin of not being aware, of not being alert, of not noticing. Being buried in the literature of her discipline, of being "dedicated" to her discipline, both in mind and spirit, to profess the information of her discipline rather than teach students, ultimately is not to value the spirit of education and teaching. It is not to have a value center for what goes on in the classroom.

Trouble is that those "things" on the wall don't have a high message no matter how high they are hung on the wall. Our ultimate destination is not on that wall. Too often those things on the wall are bricks that we use to wall us in and wall us off. If we think who we are and what we've done are nailed to the wall, we'll be separated from the feeling of being alive.

I didn't even know if I should reply. Was there anything I could say that she would hear. Would what I have to say make her want to turn me slowly over a bonfire on a spit? Probably so. Was that important? Remembering the words of Martin Luther King, it more important not to be silent. But, what to day.

Then, yesterday, Melanie provided the music too which we should dance in the classroom.

It was the day we set up the last and most challenging of the four working themes of the course. We had already done the exercises to establish: "It's Communication, communication, communication;" "Never Forget the Story;" and, "Remember 'The Chair.'" These themes are the foundation upon which all supportive and encouraging community building and class projects rest.

Now came the final theme. Using a quote from a student in a semester from long ago, it is called: "I sang; I can kick ass!"

I ask each student, as well as myself, to stand up and sing solo from his or her seat. They can sing a few notes, a bar or two, or a stanza from anything they wish. Yesterday we heard a range of melodies from operatic aria to "Jesus Loves Me" to rap, to "ABC" to "When you Wish Upon A Star," to "Baa, baa, black sheep" to "Ninety Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall" to.....

I never realized in my wildest dreams what was about to happen. It was one of those "YESSSSSS!! Thank You!!!" days you dream about but never dare believe it will happen.

Almost all the students had sung. Now it was Ron's (not his real name) turn. He's a football player. This day he would much have preferred bungie jumping or playing in a game without protective pads to singing alone before the class. He had risen from his chair as if every muscle in his athletic body was aching and tight. He stood there going through the full range of fidgeting. His head stared at the floor. He and I had an exchange. He'd momentarily lift his head, look down at me sitting on the floor against one of the walls, whispered an excuse or reason not to do it. I would reply with silence, a smile, and a caring twinkle. His eyes would return to the floor. At a few second, we'd start our "discussion" again. Each time he said an "I can't sing," "I don't know a song," "My mind went blank," "I don't like to sing," "Do I have to do it," or "This is embarrassing," I would reply with a caring silence.

Then, from far across the room came a soft, angelic, caring, and audible "I'm here for you."

I slowly turned my head toward the voice. Ron looked up and turned toward the voice. It was Melanie. I didn't say anything. I didn't have to.

"You're not alone. You can sing." And with a quiet, support, and encouraging voice whispered as caring, "You're safe here. We all are doing it. Go ahead, sing."

He smiled. And, slowly he sang. At first quietly, very hesitantly, and then he got louder, and then he got into it, and then he started to move his body, and then we couldn't shut him up. I didn't want to. He sat down, beaming, and threw a pointed finger of thank you at Melanie as if she had just thrown him a touchdown pass. She did. He caught it.

After I sang in my off-key voice, "I'm a Little Teapot" but before I could start a "why did we do this" debriefing discussion of the reason for the exercise, Melody jumped in. "In high school I was deathly afraid of doing anything in front of people. It really held me back from seeing what I was capable of doing. I once had to give a recital of a passage from Shakespeare on stage. I was paralyzed with fear. I knew I could do it. I was just so afraid that I couldn't do it. Then, a friend of mine said to me, 'Melanie, I love you. I'm going to be sitting in the front row. I am going to smile at you and support you even if you forget your lines. Remember when you're up there, I'm down here for you. Just look at me. You're not alone.' I looked at her smiles when I was on that stage and did my lines. I never forgot that. Ever since then, I am there for anyone with a smile and encouraging support."

She turned to Ron and continued, summing up the whole purpose of the exercise: "Whenever you do anything in this class, remember you've already sang and can't do anything that can scare you more. And remember, you're not alone. It's safe here. You can risk it all. You'll never be embarrassed or humiliated. You'll never do anything stupid in our eyes. No one will laugh at you. You're free to show yourself and us what you can do. And don't ever forget that you've always got at least three people in your corner: Me, Dr. Schmier, and....." She stopped.

"Who's the third?" Ron asked. No answer. Silence. Then, Don answered his own question, "And me."

I turned to Eva, saying, "And you, too."

Melanie echoed, "And, you, too, Eva. Anyone. Everyone."

Nothing like experiencing that rapture.

I once read a short Hindu tale. A woman approached her master and said, "I do not find that I love God." The master replied with a question: "Is there nothing you love?" The woman answered, "My nephew." And the master smiled, "There is your love and service to God, in your love and service to that child of God."

This is my response to that professor.

         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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