Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Sun 11/16/2003 10:36 AM
Random Thought: On Teaching, Part X

No walking this weekend. I've got a low level cold that suddenly came on a few days ago that I've got to catch before headig off to the Lilly conference on collegiate teaching next week. So, Susan and I had to cancel our weekend plans. I'm hunkering down with large doses of echinecea, cups tea laced heavily with sweet kosher wine, and bowels of Jewish pennicilin--homemade chicken soup.

While battling sniffles, occasional aches, stuffed noses, and slight coughs, over the past week I've been e-chatting with a few people about some heavy personal and professional stuff. This morning, I read a particularly poingnant message. This colleague talked about struggling to climb "personal mountains."

You know in one way or another we are all mountaineers climbing our own personal and professional mountains, These mountains are no less real, challenging, and dangerous than a Ranier, McKinnley, or an Everest. Maybe our mountains ae harder to surmount. They don't really have a summit and we're forever climbing them, always fighting metaphoric avalanches, crevasses, storms, hidden dangers, changing weather.

So, I think I'll end what has unexpected evolved into a ten-part reflection on teaching by talking "climbing." It is another good word for my Dictionary of Good Teaching. It is a deep word, a "more than anything" word. It's a word for spiritual exploration of the innermost self. For me, it is literally a signature word.

"Climb" also sits well with me because of something I heard a speaker say last week about the glory of the mountain peaks. As I recalled his words, I started staring at a piece of belaying rope that is lazily hanging on the wall behind the computer. It's a souvenir of a seminal event in my recent personal and professional life. It's a constant reminder of an ascent I made up a hundred foot sheer cliff face on a North Georgia mountain as part of a wilderness program in which I participated. It had been sponsored by my younger son's Hyde School in 1991. A day hasn't gone by since that November climb that I don't look at the rope and think about that climb. I've written about it and what I can only describe as its spiritual impact on me in some Random Thoughts. They're "The Climb" and "Blueberries." I have always thought of that climb as a metaphor for good teaching. Today I was staring a tad more intently at the rope as I recalled the speakers words and read my e-colleague's message.

Those occasionally or perennially snow-capped summits, majestic, basking in the brilliant sunlight of rarified air, crowned by floating clouds, are a symbol of achievement, success, endurance, perseverance, commitment. We are so pinnacle-oriented. They're the symbol of our desire for personal greatness. We all like to imagine ourselves standing on these rocky zeniths, surveying the breathtaking landscape with an equally breathtaking exhilaration of "I made it!" Yet, what we seldom think about is what is it that we've conquered or overcome, what is it that we've achieved, to what were we committed, through what did we persevere, what did we endure, and where did we come? As the speaker reminded me, we ignore the value of the shadowy valley depths from whence a climber comes. Yet, the valleys are so important, so essential, for without the valleys there'd be no peaks.

Just how critical are the valleys? It is in the shadows of the valleys where we are frustrated and challenged. It is in the darkened valleys that lie the lessons and the places where we grow. It is in the valleys that we start to scale up to the peaks. It's in the valley that we begin to learn that in every frustration, in every disappointment, in every challenge, in every ache, in every slip there is a lesson. It's in the valley that we begin to have self-confidence and self-esteem. It is in the valleys where reside the tough beginnings. It is on the valley slopes that we scale the arduous and challenging continuations.

And yet, so many us let ourselves get down as we face the struggles to climb up the mountains of our frustrations, disappointments, fears, insecurities, and hardships. Where, however, is the law that says frustration and disappointment and inadequacy must make you miserable, burn you out, and stop you dead in your tracks? I know I fundamentally let them do that to me in one way or another for decades. Why can't they teach us, encourage us, inspire us--if we choose? I now think of frustration and disappointment as a form of passion, as a longing for what truly can be, as a challenge, as an indication that I care. You don't get twisted into knots about something or someone you just don't give a damn about. I now think of challenge as life's way of making sure that I really want the things I'm striving to achieve. Challenge is an excellent tool for keeping me focused on the things that really matter to me. I know, once I learned what these "adversitites" have to teach me, the frustration and difficulty was no more, and the obstacle of the challenge mutated into an inviting opportunity to change and grow.

I read of so many academics who accuse students of wanting to learn "painlessly" without having to climb to the heights. That probably has more than a grain of truth to it. At the same time, however, these same academics want teaching to be likewise "painless." They moan and groan about students who don't do what they want, demand, expect. They complain they cannot control students. They complain about teaching workload. They complain of the challenges and dissappointments and frustrations. Teaching is tough; it's an endless and hard climb. It is fraught each day with challenges, and challenge is difficult, often painful, always demanding, but without it where is the real value, beauty, fulfillment? The value of achievement is in the achieving, in the overcoming of the challenges, in the person I become as a result of going through the process. To have the reward without the effort is to have no reward at all. It's really silly to expect to get some sort of elation or satisfaction or fulfillmet for doing nothing. It would be like hitchiking to the summit on a helicopter. It's just emptiness and meaninglessness.

As I think about that climb twelve years ago, my belayer, Curry, had not mapped out a specific route to follow up that cliff face. There was no chalk line to follow. He didn't place any signs on the cliff face said, "grab here" or "place your right foot there." I looked at that cliff face and trusted that there was a hidden route and had to trust myself that I would find it. Admittedly, at that time I was scared. I was scared silly. I was sweaty scared. I was cold scared. I was angry sacred. I was hot angry. I was snarling, gnarling, cursing angry. Only later did I realize and admit that I wasn't angry at the Hyde School leaders who put this wilderness program together; I wasn't angry at Curry; I wasn't even angry at the cliff face. No, I was angry at myself. On that cliff among the crevasses, as I struggle to overcome my fear of heights and fear of failure, I uncovered a truth and a meaning. It took everything I had, every ounce of energy, to move just a few inches. I struggled for breath as if I was in the oxygen deprived air of Everest. I had to find the strength in myself to continue. Sometimes, it felt as if I had to squeeze out each movement through a pinhole in my soul. And, none of that struggle had anything to do lack of climbing technique or lack of physical fitness. All of that struggle had to do with the struggle within me. I was angry because I was afraid that everyone watching would see my weaknesses, that the climb would, as it did, lay the true me, the real me below the apparitions of title and degree, bare. I envisioned what was going to happen and what nasties people were going to say about me if I faltered or failed. No, I wasn't practiced enough that my mind and energy, and especially my spirit, were free for such a breakthrough. For the impossible climb to become a hard climb, for the impossible climb to become possible, it had to be a "surrendering" experience. And, I was at that time a controller, not a surrenderer of control. In a sense while gripping the rock ledges with my finger tips for dear life, I had to let go. For while I held to the rock physically, I had to freefall mentally and emotionally and spiritually. I had to approach things as I never had before and had never tried and never thought I could. I wasn't really climbing that cliff face; I was facing the crags and crevices looming in my own soul, looking for some foothold and handhold in my spirit. What I didn't know until I reached the top of the cliff as I fearfully made the first hand reach was that the hidden route was not on the cliff face, but within myself. The magic of that short climb lay in the painful reality I found in myself and the expose' of things I had successfully hidden from others and myself at ground level. I found then, as I still find today, that I had to discover, invent, and reinvent as I went along, not invent a route, but to discover and invent myself. With every inch upward I had to have that innocent wonder of a child, a refreshed awareness, a willingness to be naive. I had to start with a tabula rasa. I had to be willing and able to turn things upside down, inside out, and view myself differently; to discover hidden things; to see things in a fresh way and question any and all assumptions and preconceptions.

I discovered on that climb that I couldn't climb high by keeping a foot safely on the ground and I couldn't get a handhold on the cold ledges by holding my hands warmly in my pockets. Now you may ask, what guarantees did I have that I could scale the cliff. None. Boy, don't think that I didn't want some. I demanded them; I shouted out for them. But, I thought I had none. At the time I was at the based of the cliff, readying myself for the climb, I wanted some outside airtight assurance, some hard and fast confirmation that I would succeed.

On the night of climb, in the lodge, after eveyrone had gone to sleep, Curry and I talked in front of the dying fire. We both stared at the flames and whispered to each other, never looking at each other. Curry was not one for useless words. I remember that staccato conversation word for word after all these years. They are branded deep into my soul.

"I was scared I'd freeze during the climb."

"Nothing wrong with having fear. Just face up to it. Saps the strength right out of it. Won't stop you, then."

"You know, I didn't really know if I could cimb that cliff. I almost didn't."

"Well, if you hadn't made the climb, you'd have known for sure."

"What if I had frozen on the way up?"

"You didn't. So, why fret. Anyway, whatever you would have done was more than by staying on the ground."

"I might have failed"

"Why you keeping your fears alive? You learned from them. You climbed. Think about that. Move on."

"I was afraid what the others will think if I didn't make it all the way up."

"It's the 'not climbing' at all that makes you small, not the 'being unable' to make the whole climb. The others would have been the small ones if they didn't see that."

"Well, I didn't think I had a choice. But, God, I wanted a guarantee I'd make the climb."

"You're frettin' about nothing. You had one all along and with all your learning still didn't even know it."

"What guarantee did I have?"

"You. You're the only guarantee you have and need. Time to turn in."

With that he got up and left me staring at the embers with my thoughts.

He was right. I learned from that day on that I don't have much faith and condifence in myself if I want guarantees. That if I want certified protections against failure, that if I don't make the climb unless I have them, I'll continue to hide behind my fears and doubts and insecurities. I won't do much if I always want only a marked out route. And often, prescribed options can be disguised guarantees, that is, laid out in advance alternate routes that are no less restricting and inflexible than the original route. Sometimes having too much knowledge about "you can always do... in case of....." gets in the way of being open to the unexpected, to the unplanned for, to new experiences, to a willingness to take risks, to a daring to be inexperienced, to asking the right questions, to traveling without a map, and to being bold enough to just go ahead and do it--and the heck with guarantees and options.

I find that when I run out of the protection of a triptik and alternative routes, when I no longer worry about getting lost or the consequences, that's when I start being creative to stay on course. That's when I stop filling my mind with worrisome and weighty and hesitant "what ifs;" that's when I stop filling my mind with halting and fretting, and complaining and or blaming thoughts; that's when I fill my mind with positive, enthusiastic, loving and life-affirming "let's see what will happen" ones. That's when the curses of mournful "why me" are be replaced by joyful blessings of "thank you."

The truth is that the classroom is not a gathering of controlable drones, identical clones, or lifeless mannequins. It is a bubbling human cauldron of relationships, actions, and interactions. It's a constantly moving kaleidiscope of every hue in the rainbow endlessly forming into an endless number of colored patterns. It's a world of unimaginable possibilities where control, predictions, guarantees, and even prescribed options are often obstacles. No two moments in a class are alike. Most cannot be prepared for. The probabilities change. Possibilites are always popping up. People and situations change from day to day, moment to moment. They are always new and different and unique.

To be sure, then, things don't turn out and people don't do necessarily as I expect. Life isn't predictable or controllable; why should I think life in a classroom is otherwise. Were it to be so, everything would be so dull and tiresome. But, it's not. There's no way I cannot be anything other than alert; no way I can be complacent. Now, I don't worry or fret, complain or blame. I don't get thrown off course. I adjust. I adapt. I adopt. I make corrections. I shift my balance. Adapting to ever-changing conditions is not a matter of compromising my values, straying off course, dumbing down my rigor, altering my purpose, surrendering my dreams, or lowering my goals. I find that it is often the ability to adapt that enables me to maintain those values and to reach those goals. I just have to be as extraordinarily as limber as Plastic Man of the comic books, and have the powerful ability to adapt to whatever comes along: semper paratus. There's Steven Sample's "thinking gray" once again.

Yeah, climbing is a good metaphor for teaching, and I have been climbing on campus and in class ever since that climb.

         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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