Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Thu, 19 Aug 1993

Well, here I am again, dripping wet and much to the disdain of my wife, bringing some of the south Georgia humidity into her house. A lot has been happening in my freshman history classes this past week as we wind down the quarter. I've wanted to share much of that with you.

This dark morning, as I roamed the streets, I couldn't stop humming Billy Joel's "Piano Man," and I couldn't stop thinking about Lloyd, Elizabeth and Juwarna. They are a personal, very human response to any discussion about education.

These three wonderful people form a triad in my class. I called it my "fearful threesome." They sat clumped together in the left far back corner of the classroom where two cold, cinder-block, windowless walls meet, symbolically darkened by the overhang of a large a/c duct. You may remember Lloyd. He's the student from the metaphors who thought of himself as a lump of clay and with whom I committed to be a "potter partner." You might also remember Elizabeth. She was the shy young lady who finally talked during the class discussion on Andrew Carnegie.

As the class progressed through the second half of the quarter, I could see the self-esteem and self-confidence appear on their faces. They increasingly contributed to the daily class discussions, encouraged by each other, by others in the class, and by me. But, I want to talk about Juwarna.

She came into class almost as a recluse. For about two weeks, she ambled into class, no fire in her eyes, no firmness in her step. She never said a word to Lloyd or Elizabeth, and never voluntarily or involuntarily spoke out in class. And while she was silent, her face and voice and the way she held herself shouted fear and self-doubt. I talked to her in the hall one day before class. To put it in a nutshell, she was carrying a lot of personal baggage. She was distrustful of others, of me as the professor, of the overwhelming majority of white students, and especially of Lloyd and Elizabeth. She had little self-esteem, at least in the classroom, and I suspect outside it as well. Teachers, because of their racial prejudice and classroom "herd" style of teaching, constantly had told her by word and attitude that she had little of value to say, if she had much worth in the first place. She was fearful of saying something that would be wrong and make her, at least in her eyes, look stupid in front of others. Her attitude was paralyzing her, and she could not achieve. I told her that I could see in her more potential than she thought she possessed. I made a deal with her. If she made the effort to tap what I believed was in her, if she displayed the courage to trust herself and others, I would grade her on her effort, not on whether she was "right or wrong" or "good or bad." Secretly, I knew that if she made the effort, she could achieve. She agreed with great hesitation. I think it was just to get me off her back.

During the next three weeks, she refused to make an utterance in class. She wouldn't volunteer a question or statement. She wouldn't attempt to answer my questions. BUT, she had begun to discover that she had a good deal in common with Lloyd and Elizabeth; they had shared anxieties. I could see that they had begun to talk with each other, at first about academic stuff and then about personal stuff. They began to trust each other, rely upon each other, care for each other, support and encourage each other. From the weekly self-evaluations, I saw that Juwarna was increasingly contributing actively to the triad and at times taking on responsibility. During the weekly quizzes, I could see how she got more and more involved with Lloyd and Elizabeth to answer the questions. But, she still wouldn't talk in class. I talked to her in the hall again. I encouraged her to do in the class what I understood she was doing in the triad. I asked if she would answer my questions if all I requested was a "yes" or "no." Again, she reluctantly agreed, and again she did not come through.

Then, with two weeks to go in the quarter, Lloyd and Elizabeth came to me. They wanted to do something different for the final exam. Instead of writing an essay, they wanted to write new lyrics for "Piano Man" about racial prejudice in the U.S., tape their performance, let the class listen, and initiate a discussion. "Go for it," I quickly responded.

A week later, Elizabeth nervously came to me and said that Juwarna had volunteered to write half of the six stanzas, wanted to perform the song live, "up there in front of everybody in the class." Elizabeth nervously told me that when she protested, Juwarna said that the triad "had to do it that way" because it "was the right way to do it."

Well, they did it, had the class sing the chorus after each of the six stanzas. It was substantive, and it was "good." For me, the most important stanza was the last, the one that spoke of contemporary racial issues in the American experience, one that Juwarna wrote. It went like this:

      Now Lloyd, Beth and Juwarna were strangers; 
      strangers who had never met before; 
      But when it's time for the books; 
      who gives a damn about looks; 
      Cause now there's no company they enjoy more." 
All of us sat in silent awe. I felt very humble at the display of their courage, quietly overjoyed with their discovery of themselves. Juwarna later wrote in her class evaluation with a spunk, an anger, she had never previously displayed: "I never believed I had a best in me, but you did, and fuck them who always said I didn't and two (sic) those who said I was worth shit. I hope I can keep at it." She, Lloyd and Elizabeth had begun to climb their own cliffs.

At the end of their presentation, I gave each of them an unspoken thumbs up. I am going to give Juwarna an "A" in my class. Lloyd and Elizabeth also for that matter. I have found that developing their potential is a far more powerful agenda than the bland dispensation of academic information; that gauging a student's success in terms of character growth is more meaningful than in terms of academic achievement. By character I mean the courage to accept challenges, the integrity to be yourself, a concern for others, the curiosity to explore life and yourself, the leadership to make things work, and letting go of images that keep you from being genuine. In short, it is to be the best person possible, to voluntarily find the best in ourselves. And to those who think in terms of either/or, I answer, as I have so often, character growth is the foundation of and the means to achieve excellence; and it is the pursuit of excellence which is an integral reinforcing agent of character development. You cannot have one at the expense of the other; you cannot concentrate on one and ignore the other. That is true not just for my students; it is true for me; it is true for all of us out there.

Make it a good day.


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

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