Copyright © Louis Schmier

Date: Wed 11/9/2005 3:59 AM
Random Thought: A Teacher's Impact

As I was a balmy walk this morning. The air was warm and there was a warm glow inside me. I was thinking of something my friend, Don Fraser, would have said of a surprise telephone call I received and a brief conversation I had last night. "Louis," he would have said, "you just passed the 'Five Year Test.'" Let me explain.

Last night, I had just gotten off the telephone listening to and quietly batted away each of a student's litany of paper thin excuses, rationales, and explanations for not having taken advantage of the ample time I gave and for not having been prepared yesterday for the presentation of the semester's last project, the scavenger hunt. I kept telling her that the only limits she has are the ones she imposes on herself, that her excuses were accusations of self-disrespect, and that no one ever excused his or her way to achievement. It wasn't but a few seconds after I had hung up that the phone rang. When I picked up the receiver, I heard a strange voice. Our conversation went something like this:

"Is Dr. Schmier there?"

"I'm he."

"Hey, Dr. Schmier, you're still alive and kickin'. I haven't heard your voice in almost twelve years. I hope you're not retired yet. You're not the retiring sort as I remember."

"Who am I talking with?"

"This is Al Moore (not his real name). I was thinking about you and thought I pick up the phone to thank you."

Man, that triggered a string of questions. "Al Moore? Thank me? For what? I have to be honest. Do I know you? If I do, I honestly don't remember. What did I do to deserve this call and your 'thank you'?"

"Well, I really don't expect you to remember me. Our paths crossed briefly and I wasn't the type to be remembered back then. I blew the class, dropped out of school, worked some, finally went back to a community college, got serious, and then went on to law school. But, that doesn't matter. I sure do remember you. I think about you all the time. It's as if you're hanging over my shoulder making sure I don't slip. If it wasn't for you, I wouldn't be the professional I am.

"We were in the same class? You've got the advantage on me."

"You and I were in a freshman history class together just as you were beginning to change how you taught and looked at us students. That would be 1994. Spring quarter. Room West 140. I was in the class with Julissa. Remember her? My triad was next to her's. You were experimenting with triads, no lectures, getting away from tests, starting projects, and getting us to journal. It was quite a class, but I have to admit that I wasn't memorable because I didn't feel memorable until that one day towards the end of the quarter."

"That one day?"

"It was the quarter you were first trying out daily journals on a voluntary basis. That was the luckiest experiment for me. For some reason I felt I could be honest with you through the journal. I was right. You had read in my journal about my father being an alcoholic, abusing my mother, being sent off to rehab, and hating us for doing it. After class, when you handed the journals back to us, you called me over and just said, 'How are you doing.?' I felt it was an invitation to dump everything on you. We walked to some steps, sat down, and I told you about the fear I was experiencing, about the difficulty I had concentrating, about how I just couldn't get into the school scene, how I was wishing the pain would go away, about the fear I had for my mother, how I was mad as hell at my father for putting us in this situation and not appreciating that we got him into rehab, and how I felt it was all my fault for letting it get that far. Then, all you did was to speak about what you were going through with your son and how it had been hard for you to focus, about the fear you had for him, about all the time and energy and money you put into fighting to save his life, and that it didn't really matter whether he appreciate it at the time or not as long as he was saved. It felt nice, very nice, and I never forgot it. It was the nicest thing anyone had done for me. You weren't too busy for me. You made time for me right then and there. You made me feel I was worth caring about even though I didn't care to be there any more. And, even though I was screwing around and screwing things up, you didn't treat me as a screw up. You still cared and believed I could do anything I put my mind to. And even though I didn't pass the course, I never could stop remembering how valuable and capable you made me feel on those steps. It ate at me until one day on the job. I was brooding. I hated what I was doing; I didn't like me, and I was resentful of my father although he was patching things up with my mother. I suddenly thought about you on those steps and heard you say once again, "Dammit Al, you're valuable. You can do anything you want if only you can believe it. Have faith in yourself. Don't waste yourself." I got this feeling that you were right and how tragic it would be to loose something so valuable and capable as me....I decided at that moment that I had to take the risk of believing what you believed about me and looking for what you saw in me, and not letting myself down any longer, and I haven't since. So, I just wanted you to know what you did for me. Once again, thank you."

"Thank you. But, first thank yourself," I quietly stumbled. "You did it for you. You made the decision to change your attitude about yourself, not me. Tell me more about you and about how your folks are doing."

"See you're doing it again," he said. "You're being nice. Thanks for asking." After telling me about himself, he went on. "Dad's been sober for the past ten years and the two of them are like two love bugs. And, recently I finally have forgiven him. Maybe that's why I'm calling, to tell you that you were right. I didn't know how right you were until a few months ago. Remember what you told me?'

"Honestly? No."

"You told me about your grudge against your parents and brother. You told me that part of your epiphany was to learn how to let go because you began to understand that the longer you held a grudge, the heavier it got and the more it hurt and held you down, and that forgiving is a form of freeing change. But, that it's not for the weak of heart. It's a sign of strength, not weakness, to break the chains and to forgive, and that forgiving is giving up the right to hurt yourself and to hurt back someone who has hurt you."

"I said that? Damn, I sound like Thoreau, Ghandi, and Martin Luther King wrapped up into one," I chuckled.

He chuckled, too. "Yes, you said it, and I never forgot it. Boy, were you right. The second I forgave my father and told him so, I felt this huge weight lift off my shoulders and got that feeling that I could stand up straight and nothing could stop me from doing anything I wanted to do. And your son?"

"Thanks for asking. Got through a lot of his stuff. Married to a wonderful woman. Has one of the three most beautiful children in the world. Is an artist with food. And, is now the Executive Sous Chef at the downtown Doubletree Hotel in Nashville. I am so proud for him that I could burst."

"Glad to hear that we all came though, stronger and better for it. Well, just wanted say thanks. Take care."

"You, too. Keep in touch, please."

I still can't picture Al. That doesn't matter. He taught me one hell of a lesson I'll never forget. We teachers are futurists. So many of our greatest and most lasting impacts are far beyond the reaches of the assessor's or evaluator's instruments. They so often happen in the future, life-long aftershocks of what proves to be deceptively small, seemingly passing, almost imperceptible, often unknown, earth-shaking moments of just plain old fashioned, sincere caring.

         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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