Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Thu 9/4/2003 4:10 AM
Random Thought: A Gratitude Visit

Something happened to me in a local restaurant a while back that I thought about again as I read a piece by Martin Seligman on making "a gratitude visit" to connect with a person who has been kind to us and done well by us. Without fanfare, drum rolls, medals, awards, or parades, he said, we just ought to acknowledge with some simple words of appreciation those teachers who taught us something greater than and beyond themselves, and something far more important and lasting than any information and momentary grade. He urged the reader never to underestimate the power of an expressed appreciation. I know. I had such an unexpected visitation in, of all unexpected places, that restaurant.

Susan and I were with some close friends. As we were about to order, five students walked by us. Two of them, who were from semesters past, saw me and stopped by our table to chat. Their words of gratitude lasted for a few proverbial seconds; their impact will last a lot longer.

I vividly remember, one of them, Cindy (not her real name) saying, "Dr. Schmier, I've never told you this, I am so grateful to you. I don't know if you remember the day when we were getting ready to present our Bruce Springsteen project I was almost shaking with fear knowing I'd make an ass out of myself and freeze up in front of everyone the second I'd try to sing even though I sang when we did our community building exercises at the beginning of the semester. Our community was sitting in front of you. I guess you saw me starting to have a panic attack and all you did was to lean over and just touched my shoulder ever so gently. I felt so calmed down and I went up and when I looked at you, you winked at me with such a big 'I know you can do it" smile. And then, when we finished, I looked over and saw a small thumbs up and a smile. I want you to know that I don't know what it was, but I haven't been the same since. Every time I think something is going to get me, I think of that soft touch that told me I could do it and I kick ass. And, I haven't let nothing or no one stop me since then. I just want to know that."

I answered with only a quiet and humble, "Thank you." And then I unintentionally blurted out, "And thank Ms Trombly."

The students looked at me with a puzzled "Who is Ms Trombly" stare.

I answered with a non-chalant wave of my fingers, "Never mind. Just someone I thought of."

After the students left for their table, my friends wanted to know what that was all about. I told them "they're what I mean when I say, 'I teach students.'" I went on and explained that those students reminded me of how Charles Schulz, creator of the Peanuts cartoon, liked to ask people to name the last few winners of the Pulitzer Prize, Nobel Prize, Heisman trophy, and even of the Academy Award for acting. Few people could come up with many names. Yet, when he would ask people to name teachers, friends and others who helped them through difficult times, to list people who made them feel appreciated and special, and recall a few people who inspired and encouraged them, almost all the people came up with a host of names. His point was that even enormous achievements like winning prestigious awards seldom leave a lasting mark on individuals. The people who make a lasting difference are those who touch our lives in a meaningful way by caring, loving, believing in, having faith in, seeing, listening, supporting, encouraging, helping, and inspiring.

Sidney, a retired businessman man, replied, that it is the same in business. "No one would listen to me if all I said was, 'I know. Trust me. Do as I say.' I first have to respect them and show them that I cared about them and their needs and earn their trust before they would do business with me." He went on to say that it wasn't what you knew or did that counted as much as it was what kind of person you were. Then he asked me, "Who is Ms Trombly?"

"Oh, she was just a typing and shorthand teacher in high school more than forty-five years ago whom I didn't appreciate at the time," I nonchalantly told him. And, then, we ordered dinner.

"Just a typing and shorthand teacher." Ms. Trombly was more than that. The day after that incident in the restaurant, Cindy sent me an e-mail repeating what she had said in the restaurant and adding that she didn't want to mention in front of strangers that the "words for the day" that I wrote on the blackboard "really hit home every day." I had given her the courage to kick out her abusive boyfriend "who you helped me to have the courage to see was no friend of mine and was destroying me in and out of school."

"I didn't give you any courage," I softly answered. "You did it. If I did anything, it was to help you see your own value and find your own strength and courage. I merely helped you make room for a new joy in yourself to replace the paralyzing pain. It was you who made your life take a powerful turn for the better."

Cindy had ended her message with a questioning "Who is Ms. Trombly?"

I told her.

Because of Cindy, Ms. Trombly has been an apparition haunting me once again. It's a pleasant presence. So, once again, heeding Martin Seligman, I am making another public gratitude visit to Ms. Trombly.

A little over a decade ago, I wrote about Ms Trombly. Everyone treated her as a cellophane "nobody" high school secretarial arts teacher: you walked right by her; you never noticed her; you saw right through her; you never knew she was there; you treated her as unimpressive, invisible, undistinguished, and inconsequential. When we teenagers did notice her, it was simply to make her an object of ridicule. And yet, in the face of subtle and not so subtle derision and shunning, she never thought of herself or acted as as a cellophane person. She maintained a "somebody" stature that I remember noticing but didn't think much about at the time.

I had entered her class thinking I couldn't learn much from a "snap" course on shorthand and typing that I was taking just to get some easy class credits. I wasn't serious about typing and shorthand; she was serious about each of us. I and my classmates poked fun at her own one or two page "words for the day" that she handed out for us to copy over and over as we practiced our typing. There were her provoking statements about character and values that she dictated during our shorthand sessions. And, there were her selections from the great works of literature, philosophy, and religion that we used to practice both our typing and shorthand. I left that course thinking it was such a waste, and thinking everything she did beyond teaching us typing and shorthand was so hokey. But, during the past thirteen years since my epiphany, the more I looked back, the more I saw her, the more I heard her, and the more I saw so much more stuck than merely shorthand or typing. She was more like the last verse of "Cellophane Man:"

So when you pass someone plain on the stair don't look right through him as though he wasn't there he might be the best person you've ever met and the more you offer the more you will get

Ain't that the truth!. She might have been the best teacher I ever had as a model for being a teacher. As I picture roundish, diminutive her once again, peering over her reading glasses that sat half-way down her nose, her hair pulled tight into an out-of-style matronly bun, as I hear and see her once again preparing us as much for life as for a life of typing and taking shorthand, once again she is teaching me with her words and demeanor:

you should pursue your profession honorably and take pride in what you do no matter what anyone thinks or whether anyone notices;

it takes a lot of effort to make your efforts count for something that's meaningful;

if you work to avoid discomfort and inconvenience and challenge, you will make things more uncomfortable, inconvenient and challenging for yourself;

only love and service can lead to a meaningful and worthwhile career;

as you pursue your career you must thrive rather than merely survive;

you must make every day into a day of "enthusiastic and generous joy" day;

you must make every day into a "make a difference" day;

you must make every day into an "opportunity to grow and develop" day;

you should step forward to teach and live this day for everything its worth in the unconditional service of each student;

instead of going in search of your passion, you must put your passion into everything you do;

true and lasting happiness in your teaching is a cause that flows out from you, not a result that flows into you;

instead of searching endlessly for that elusive right job, right moment, right place or right circumstance, you must give it everything you have right now the right way in this place;

you only experience the fulfillment of what you are doing the second you stop looking for it and start living it;

the moment you give up the fear, let go of the doubt, surrender the insecurity, stop hoarding the negatives, the joy and fulfillment will emerge;

the only difference between can't and can, between impossible and possible is largely your belief and faith in yourself.

And finally, I eventually learned that everything I see and feel and do has everything to do with how I see and feel about myself. Marcus Aurelius was right: where life is possible, a right life is possible--even in a typing and shorthand high school class.

And so, here is my regrettably all too late gratitude visit:

	To you, Ms Trombly, wherever you are, I raise my glass
	with a deepest and most sincere 'thank you.' Remember
	how You once read to us that there are seven wonders
	in the world?  At first, we all thought you were going
	to talk just about ancient pyramids or lighthouses or
	colossal statues or hanging gardens.  You weren't.  You
	were talking about seven wonders more universal, more
	wondrous, and more lasting.  However amazing and monumental
	the ancient structures may have been, those mountainous
	things couldn't move mountains; they couldn't change lives.
	The wonders you were talking about could and do.  The
	wonders you were talking about are the ones you lived:
	a soft smile, a kind word, a listening ear, a reassuring
	compliment, a small act of caring, a slight touch of
	encouragement, an quick glance of love.  My world is better
	now because you had passed through my life briefly almost
	forty-six years ago planting the seeds of those wonders in
	me waiting to be nourished and grow without me knowing it.
	I am a better person because you saw me as I didn't or even
	dared to.  I am a better teacher as a result of your existence.
	I'm sorry it just took me four decades for me to begin to
	realize why you have lingered in my mind and why memories of
	all those other teachers never have really meant much to me.
	I wish you were here to hear me.  Maybe you are.

         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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