Copyright © Louis Schmier

Date: Sat 7/14/2007 5:51 AM
Random Thought: Why Am I A Teacher

A couple of weeks ago, Susan and I were having breakfast in the dining room of the Boone Tavern in Berea, Kentucky. We were on the first leg of our 3,000 mile drive through the mid-west. The server was a student from Berea College. In the course of our chit-chat, I found out she was preparing for a career in education and she learned I was a teacher. She asked me why I am a teacher. Until 1991, being then a prolific scholarly researcher and publisher caught up in the proverbial publish or perish rat race and feeling somewhat stuck in the dead end of the distracting classroom, I would have feigned a trite but high-sounding answer. But, not now. I quickly thought of a reply I had sent to an e-mail I had received a day earlier in Valdosta, just before Susan and I had hopped in the car. In fact, not to let that message languish unanswered in my mailbox for two weeks, I delayed our departure with a series of wait-a-minutes. As my increasingly annoyed Susan tapped her fingers on the table, I my fingers were feverishly typing out a response on the keyboard.

The message was from a student who had been in class with me a smidge over ten years ago. She opened with the heart stopping sentence, "Hey, Dr. Schmier, I just think it's time after all these years to say 'thank you for changing my life.'" She went on to explain, in case I didnít remember her as I didnít, that she had been a disheartened first generation college student. Only in her second term, without any family financial or emotional support, terrified, despondent, with little self-confidence and self-esteem, she quickly had become discouraged about ever graduating college and tearfully had been seriously thinking of quitting. She said I had ďpulled out her out from the Ďback-of-the-room shadowsí and had spoken with her often, before class began, standing in front of West Hall, lounging on a bench, sitting on the stairs, or just walking along. "The words you said that are branded into my soul were 'Get use to it. I'm in your face young lady. I'm not going to quit on you and I won't let you do it either.' I got use to it. I've been in my face ever since." She told me that she had stuck it out, tapped her potential, graduated, and is now herself a teacher "because of you. I felt so dislocated, but you helped me learn that every achievement is first an achievement of daring, of daring to imagination. And, if I dared to imagine my limitless possibilities, embrace new experiences by to unknown places physically and emotionally and intellectually and spiritually, my life would surely follow. Despite some desperate times and rough moments, it has. I was so trapped in myself, but you helped me break out and away, feel confident and independent, and set myself free by showing me who I am and who I truly could be."

Her e-letter was generous. I was moved. I was uplifted. It was a gift I deeply appreciated. But, as I told her in my response, she was right, I did not remember her. She replied in a message I just read, "That's okay. You do with a lot of other students what you did for me. What's important is that I always remember you, how you were there, how I mattered to you, how you helped me change my perception of myself, and how you help me matter to myself--and I still hear your words and feel your empathy and compassion all these years as I try to be a teacher like you believing I can make a difference in someone's life as you did for me. Letís keep in touch."

Now, for me, she is a monument far more lasting than any carved mountain face or named building. Nevertheless, here she was, a woman expressing deep gratitude for something I could not recall. Now, I didn't flay myself with too many lashes for this lapse of memory. As she said, as a student-oriented self-described "wholeness teacher" and "character teacher," I do often get involved with a lot of students--a lot of students--and the conversations she described aren't extraordinary for me. Thatís what teachers are supposed to do, isn't it? Not just to help others become better skilled, but to help them live better lives by helping them become better persons as well, to empathize, to be positive, to offer encouragement and support, to create a clean and motivating and inspiring air for them to breath, to have faith in, to believe in, to hope for, and to love.

Those crucial teachable moments often arise unannounced. Often they threaten to pass unnoticed. So beware. We teachers don't always know when that occasional word, smile, gesture will have a lasting impact. We just have to be people of faith. We have to have faith that some of the things we say and do will really matter. And since we canít always know what those things are, we have to presume that everything we say will matter.

Back to that student server in Berea. Why am I a teacher? With almost no buildings on our campuses named for anyone other than founders, donors, and administrators, it isn't for fame. My check stub tells me it sure isn't for fortune. Yet, as I told her, I think the answer is simple. I quoted June Carter Cash: "I'm just trying to matter." I am just struggling to live the good life, do significant and purposeful and meaningful work, make a difference, and perhaps change a life here and there. I am a teacher for the sake of another person we call a student. I must be, for if I don't take pride in what I do, how can I take pride in who I am? If I donít want to do something meaningful, how can what I do have meaning. If I donít have a vision, how can I have a purpose in everything I am and do? And, if I don't want the world to be at least a little bit different for having passed through it, how can I live a life that matters?

         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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