Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Mon 3/22/2004 2:55 AM
Random Thought: My Garden, the Classroom, and Spirituality

Spring has sprung. Can't sleep. This Levaquin is keeping me off the streets and off-balance, and I've got a heavy tickle in the back of my throat from a touch of "yellow lung." That's what I get from breathing the ochre stained air all day as I played in my bursting flower garden. Spring has sprung, and so have my Susan's allergies. Sneezing, swollen eyes, hacking coughs, stuffy noses, sore throats, headaches, grumpies, and the "miserables" in general are the heralds of winter's end. Billows of golden clouds are sweeping across the land jaundicing everything and everyone in their path. The Saharan sandstorms don't have anything on our South Georgia pine pollen storms. Two days ago, I proved that having a Ph.D. doesn't mean you're smart. I had my car detailed! Dumb! That spic and span look lasted about 30 minutes. Now the pines are giving it a heavy gold plating.

Spring has sprung. Actually, it began with me in December, when gardening was both a faint prospect and distant memory. I took impish delight in pouring through the caladium catalogue, imagining the dazzling color layout, making my selection, and placing my order for 400 of them. Spring has sprung, for, as is the case every year, my Susan feigned--I hope it was feigned--stern annoyance when she saw the four cases of caladiums that had arrived last week before I could hide them from her. Shhhh! She still doesn't know about the six new roses.

You know, there's mystery and magic in my garden. It's really a spiritual experience of preparation, planting, tending, and then waiting for who knows what. I prune, plant seed and bulbs and new plants, divide and transplant old ones to give them new life. I don't know which are going to germinate, take root, grow, or bloom--or when. All I can do is have faith. But, no matter how many years I've been gardening, I am always filled with awe and wonder and joy. Every time I see a seedling peek out through the earth, a dormant flower unfurl a leaf, a stem triumphantly emerge from a clump, or a bloom burst open, I get emotional. For the garden, is such a sacred life affirming place. When I see all this, I am calmed and soothed with a feeling that all is good and right. And, I am thankful for the restorative balm of the garden's comfort.

Don't tell me spirituality has no place in the garden. Or, in the classroom for that matter. The classroom is no less full of sacred life than is my garden, and I get no less emotional. Every aspect of the classroom has meaning and purpose. The classroom sparks a sense of spirituality and life. Taking delight in each of the spiritual processes of preparation, tending, nurturing, waiting, and then giving thanks as a teacher is no different from a gardener in the garden.

Now, I'm not going to define what I mean by spirituality. I did that a little over a year ago when I wrote that "spirituality" was a word in "My Dictionary of Good Teaching." I don't think, however, that spirituality automatically has an place in the classroom as some advocates might argue. At the same time, I don't think spirituality has no place in the classroom as cynics and critics might argue. A fairer statement is that the right kind of spirituality can be a very powerful educational asset, and that better things tend to happen to individuals that consistently are embraced by spirituality and lesser things tend to happen to those who do not.

Now, what do I mean by the right kind of spirituality? It was Joseph Campbell who said that the greatest barrier to a religious experience is organized religion. It's not particularly different in education. Spirituality shouldn't be in the classroom if it's a deadening, "ho hum," put you to sleep, organized, structured, predictable, routinized, ritual "you gotta do this" spirituality that acts as a barrier to an educational experience. But, as I find more and more from the profound impact of a simple exercise we do at the beginning of the class called "The Chair," if it's a "wake up" spirituality, a "freeing up" spirituality, and a "let's see what's inside you" spirituality, you bet it has a place. A prime condition for a spirituality, be in the garden or classroom, that is an alarm clock for me and an awakening for so many others up is simple: not knowing what would happen next, learning to trust yourself and others enough that you let go, take a shot, relinquish control, and let it happen. You let your potential and that of others begin to emerge to take you and them wherever it goes. You let your and their "I can't" and "It's not me" and "I'm not comfortable with that" arduously be replaced by a "Let's see." When you do, a surprising and excited "Gee" so often makes its appearance. With this kind of spirituality, you don't insist on a particular "right way," on control, on order, on quiet, on comfort, on convenience, on guarantee. The spirit of the classroom should not be a place where the spirit is stifled, where it's fenced in, where everything has become a yawning formality, where class attendance is doodling rote and where stale "this is the way to do it" certainties are numbing. Many times I think that the formal lecture format--and even the controlled discussion format--and the formal note-taking and test-taking and grade giving format far more often than not keeps both professor and student from experiencing the vexations of challenged thinking and feeling and doing, where they curl up and allow themselves a paralysis instead of a flexing of their muscles. Sometimes I think far too many academics' attitude about what they do or are supposed to do are like ivy: they cling tenaciously to their point of view.

Yet, mystery is at the heart of education no less than it in the garden. It's called "unique potential." There are things in the classroom that are beyond imagining. It's a place, like my garden, where almost nothing is impossible. There are long journeys being taken, some seen and others unseen, in that limited space. The classroom is fraught with those opportunities of proverbial "teachable moments" that often arise unannounced and unnoticed and all we can do, if we want to make a difference, is to have faith that sometimes, in some manner, at some place, what we say and do will really matter. It's a "who knows what will happen" happening; it's a "who knows" whether our high hopes and the best of intentions will really make a difference; it is based on a faith of ultimate impact that will occur beyond our desire, our knowledge and awareness, and our need for certainty. People who don't understand this, who can't deal with life's essential "don't know," try to cover their anxiety with proofs that this or that happens with scientific studies, with testing, with assessing, with evaluating, with accounting for, with having fixed goals. Real education, however, is not really a testable here and now. At it's core, it's not about the transmitting and gathering of information. It's essence is far more about transforming than informing. The heart of an education is about changing lives. It's what I call a "down the road" and "who knows" and "let's wait and see" process.

The classroom should be the place where a stirring and freeing, not a numbing and chaining, of spirit happens. The classroom should be a spirited place of freshness, of becoming less certain, of more unlearning, of being "forced" to wonder, of being encouraged to create, of searching for the richness of oneself, of exploring the vast abundance of the world, of individual thinking, of being surprised by one's inner possibilities, of being awake, of excitedly being at the edge, of being open to each moment's pearl. In a classroom, the person, the process, and the goal all should be shrouded in mystery and magic, in awe and wonder and joy, in taking delight no less than they are in my garden.

Remember the chinese proverb that says, "He who plants a garden, plants happiness." Do that in the classroom and I guarantee that more than once in a while all your efforts will be affirmed when years later someone gives you the wonderful gift of telling you that you made a difference and changed his or her life. Then, take pause and give thanks.

         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" -    \____

Return to The Complete Random Thoughts of Louis Schmier
Return to the Random Thoughts of Louis Schmier