Copyright © Louis Schmier

Date: Sun 10/15/2006 5:21 AM
Random Thought: Basically Care

I had a partner on my walk this morning: Frosty the Snowman!! It was a clear, sharp, cold pre-dawn morning. 44 degrees! The first brrrrrrrrr of the year. And while the northeast got hit with a layer of white snow, we woke up to an early, brown-out, pine-needle-fall. Nevertheless, in spite of the chill that was pimpling the skin left exposed by my shorts and t-shirt, I had a warm inner glow. Something surprising and humbling happened in class Thursday that I won't go into that gave me my final answer to a bunch of college professors. They have been responded over the past few weeks to my last few Random Thoughts on happiness as if I had shaken academia to the core with a 9.7 earthquake that threatened to bring down the halls. One hit home. "I basically care about students," one professor proclaimed, summing up most of the e-mails, "but not all the time. We can only go so far. You're being totally unreasonably demanding! Some students just aren't worthy of being cared about, and that's the unhappy truth!"

"Basically care." That phrase stuck with me because it was used over and over and over again by these professors. I replied to each of them, "I don't doubt for a minute you care. Tell me, though, which students, as you say, 'aren't worthy of being cared about?'"

In came the second verbal tsunami of descriptions: "The ones that are such a bother..." "So many aren't appreciative of my efforts, I see no need to care in return." "The ones who don't care. If they don't, why should I?" "Do you know how many whiners and wimps I come into contact with who complain of the 'hard work?'" "I don't care for those who are disruptive in my classes." "It's the ones who don't do their work. "They're the students, the bumps on the log, who are never prepared for my discussions and bother to say anything." "You know, there are some students who are just too much." "The ones who never show up to class or always come in late and disturb the class." "....the ones who are irresponsible." "the disruptive ones," "....the lazy ones...." "....the ones who are not dedicated to learning." "The ones who think sports and fraternities and sororities are more important than the classroom." "The ones who are more concerned with partying than studying." "....the ones with all the lame excuses." "The ones who can't write a paper." "The ones who don't know how to critically think." "I don't like the ones who try my patience." "The ones who just want a grade without making any effort." "The ones not worth my efforts." "The ones who lie and cheat." "The ones who just don't do what I ask." "The ones who just sit there and take up space." "The ones who take up too much of my valuable time." "The ones who just aren't motivated and bore me."

Gosh, that was a lot of 'the ones,' isn't it? Who's left? Aren't the students they list the ones whom we should care about the most? Aren't they who might need our help the most? Aren't they are the ones who might require more of our time and attention. Isn't a large part of our mission to help them motivate themselves? Do we just give up, abandon them, throw them to the wolves, hand them a broom or dishtowel and say "be gone?" Don't ever forget, each of these students is a noble, sacred, valuable human being. Each is someone's son or daughter. Each is a vital thread with which the future will be woven. So it's not easy, simple, convenient, and comfortable to teach them or to help them help themselves. So what! I don't remember Mother Teresa helping only the rich and famous, and walking only the plush streets of the good neighborhoods. I think it was one of the Greek philosophers who said something to the effect that skillful ship captains gain their reputation from braving the stormy and tempestuous seas, not from plying the calm and smooth ones. It just seems to me, then, that it really counts when we give whatever it takes to make it count for and to count those whom we are inclined to discount. We should be measured by the extent to which we assist those who we deem are the least among those in the classroom. We should see such challenging students as opportunities, not as barriers.

Thinking about all this as I trod through the crackling pine needles, I've learned over the years since my epiphany that our joys and sorrows, our frustrations and fulfillments, our meaninglessness and meaningfulness, usually arise from exactly the same situations. The difference is in our attitudes. Our attitude is our most important "teaching strategy." Our attitudes control our lives. Every thought we think is what we have chosen to think. Our thoughts are a secret power working 24 hours a day for good or bad. They can be toxic and wounding and pathological or an antitoxin, healing and therapeutic. They can be debilitating or energizing. They can be nightmarish or dreamy. They have more impact than any method, any technique, any resume, and any amount of knowledge. I've said this many times and will continue to say this: we teach who we are. The attitudes we have and the words, as well as the body language we use to express our thoughts, then, to paraphrase the Bard, doth make the person. That's why in this context I just don't like the word, "basically." As this professor and others have used it, it just is not a word for a place in my Dictionary of Good Teaching. It's not used as a self-motivating word. It's not a word of patience or understanding. It's at best an "often" or "usually" or "generally" but never an "always" word. It's an excluding word. It's an empty "in principle" word of diplomatese. It's both a fencing-in and fencing-out word. It's a word haunted by so many self-centered, self-serving, and limiting conditions. It's an expediency word. It's a word that reeks with comfort and convenience. It's a culling out word. It's a weeding out word. It's a leaving a bunch of students behind word. It's a lock out word. It strips some students of their unique, but as yet unseen potential. It's a slothy word. It's a hesitating word that doesn't allow you to just jump in. It's a blinding and deafening and binding word that prevents you from seeing and listening to--and seizing--those little opportunities that can make great differences. It's a disguised complaining word. It's a word of "victimitis" that breeds anger, frustration, resignation, unfulfillment, helplessness, meaninglessness.

"Basically care, but...." is just not good enough. There are not "buts." Students don't have to earn our care. To say "I basically care, but" is like saying "I really want to care, but not unconditionally, not if it costs too much, not if it takes too much time, not if it's too inconvenient, not if it's too challenging, not if it's too uncomfortable, not if it's not appreciated, not if it prevents me from doing what I really want to do, and not if it stops me from doing what I really need to do."

The point is: we have to be careful to do more than "basically care." It's easy to stretch our list into a longer string of empty 'I basically care' whenever it's convenient to cover our inconvenience, whenever our set conditions aren't met, whenever we stop treating the student as an individual and throw her or him into an impersonal pool. Be careful, every "I basically care" has to be justified by a balancing moral principle, not simply ease and self-interest. The questions you really have to ask yourself are "How many times do I get to act uncaringly before I don't give a damn?" "How many times do I get before my words 'I care' ring empty?" "How many times do I get before the students don't believe a word I say?"

Caring, only when it suits us, only when it's easy and comfortable and convenient, isn't caring at all. And, unless we truly care for the person of each and every student, unless to stop fussing over who students should be, we'll not make the all out effort to help each and every one of them help her/himself become the person she or he is capable of becoming. And then, we'll not uncover the extraordinary in the supposed ordinary.

         Make it a good day.


         Louis Schmier      
         Department of History
         Valdosta State University
         Valdosta, GA  31698                 /~\        /\ /\
         912-333-5947              /^\      /     \    /  /~\  \   /~\__/\
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                        -_~    /  "If you want to climb mountains,   \ /^\
                         _ _ /      don't practice on mole hills" -    \____

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