Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.
Sat, 16 Apr 1994
It was a delightful walk this morning. It had just rained and the air smelled clean and sweet. The flowers were glistening in the moonlight of the clearing, pre-dawn sky. Reflections from the drops of water that clung to their petals sent off a multitude of micro-bursts of light as if they were saluting me as I passed by. As I passed a batch of twinkling, trumpeting amaryllis, without thinking, I turned my head, slightly nodded, winked my left eye, and briefly raised my left forefinger as a returning gesture of appreciation. Actually, it was I who I was saluting. I felt good. I felt clean and sweet. I felt relaxed, relieved, satisfied, and at peace with myself. And still do. I flew over the asphalt like a bird which had just left the edge of a cliff and was soaring high and free. I can honestly say to myself that Monday will be the first time I will feel at ease, truly at ease, with one of my classes since the first day of the quarter two weeks ago.
That's curious because my classes had been going very well. In fact, devoting the first week of the quarter to introductory bonding, trust, and critical thinking exercises was successful beyond my wildest hopes. There is a greater sense of a learning community in the classes than at this time in past quarters. Most of the students have a greater sense of trust and openness with themselves, within the other members of their triad, with the entire class then in previous classes at this point in the quarter. Most of them are seriously journaling. Most of them were already struggling to assume responsibility for each other's success. We've already had some good, honest, heated, and respectful debates and discussions about early slavery and racial prejudice, the contributing role of religion in the early American experience, the position of women in developing American culture, and whether the rebelling colonists were unreasonable extremists. Some of them are starting to make discoveries about the subject--and about themselves. Many of them are taking those first uncomfortable steps to come face to face with their prejudices about gender, race--and themselves. They should be pleased with their progress, their development, their discovery, their growth. I am.
Yet, there was something that had been nagging me in one of my intro classes. I always felt slightly unfocused in the room. The sharpness of my "blueberries" was ever so slightly dull. Every time I walked into that class, I felt slightly off-balance, on the defensive. That didn't make sense. I always looked forward to that class with great anticipation wondering, "what will they come up with next?" This is the class in which one student got up to share an article she had read that discussed an accepted tale in one southern family of how one of their innocent young belles during the Civil War had gotten unintentionally pregnant after a Union sniper's mini-ball had pierced her sweetheart's scrotum while they were out walking in the woods, had ricocheted off a tree trunk, and had entered her uterus! You can imagine the wild discussion that started about sexual mores and practices in both past and contemporary American society. Yet, every time I passed over the threshold, I felt slightly ill at ease. What it was, I didn't know, but it was there. I swept it aside saying to myself that "it's just the adjustment jitters of getting used to each other." Deep inside me I knew it was more than that. But, I tried to ignore it.
Then, two days ago, I had a discussion with James (not his real name). He obviously had not been prepared for class and had not participated in the discussion to the extent I felt he was capable. He wasn't challenging himself to reach for his best. His facial expressions betrayed the fact that he was in another world. When he told me that he had not been journaling, I told him we had to talk. So, after class, in the hope I could encourage him, we sat on the steps. We talked for about an hour. He told me that he had a lot on his mind because a lot of responsibility had been dumped unexpectedly on his shoulders when he became Treasurer of his fraternity. "It's so damn distracting. I can't get this stuff out of my mind," he said annoyingly. There were federal tax problems, serious issues of incompetent leadership, and "now its my job to figure out a way to throw a brother out of the house who refuses to leave because he was caught taking a class for another person." But, he assured me that he should have his act together by the weekend and asked if I could bear with him. I told him that I understood. "Yeah, I know." I said sympathetically, "Sometimes shit happens and you can't do anything about it except slog through." I went on to tell him how when my youngest son was at risk it was almost impossible for me to keep my mind on my work. I explained how in class I always had one ear cocked for the secretary coming through the door with a message that Robby was in trouble; in my office I was always snatching secretive glimpses at the telephone, waiting for its ominous ring. I gave him a few suggestions like talking with the other members of his triad and asking for their support, studying in the library instead of at the frat house, drawing up a weekly calendar and setting aside 45 hours for only class and study time, getting together with his triad to study, and dropping by just to talk and suck on tootsie pops anytime he felt he needed to. Towards the end of the conversation, James said, "Doc, you're pretty cool. After your comment to Bill (not his real name) the first day of class, I was really pissed with you. I was ready to drop the class. I thought you hated all Greeks. Even when we talked later in the hall and you explained yourself, I thought you were bull shitting me and just covering you ass. Now, I really know differently. Thanks." We shook hands. As James walked away, it hit me like a revelation.
James was absolutely right. I think by now the students know that I take great joy in bringing excitement and enthusiasm into my classes. I play an eclectic selection of music at the beginning of class to set the mood, to tell everyone, "I'm ready. Let's go!" I find that humor is an antidote to stress, an ice breaker, an instant respite, a simple introduction, an entryway, an image destroyer. But, they didn't know that on the first day.
So, there I am taking role, first names only, starting a bonding process of familiarity and comfort, and I come to Bill. Bill was wearing a ..... fraternity shirt. Last quarter, his fraternity, whose reputation was not the highest on campus in the first place, had been involved in a scandal involving alcohol at a frat-sponsored event, a DUI, traffic accident, and serious injuries. Consequently, it had been placed on indefinite social probation and its members have to perform untold hours of social service. When I called Bill's name and he responded, I looked up. Seeing his shirt, and trying to be humorous, I said, "You sober today?"
As soon as I uttered those words, I tightened my stomach, quietly mashed my teeth, tightened my lips, and screamed silently among other things to myself, "Oh, shit!! Are you stupid." I had inadvertently stepped over the line and I immediately knew it. There's an old saying about sticks and stones breaking bones, but names never harming. Of course, that is not true. Words can harm if they are hurled intentionally or otherwise as weapons. What I said, I knew instantly, wasn't witty. It was a wounding weapon. At best, it was embarrassing, probably a humiliating dart. I so desperately wanted to lunge forward and grab those words before they reached anyone's ears and stuff them back into my careless mouth. Bill nervously chuckled. What else could he do? Although I was prepared to accept any response in kind with good humor, laughter, ribbing and jokes, he didn't know that at the time. He could not have known he could retort in kind. It was too early. We didn't know each other; we didn't trust each other. I was Dr. Schmier, THE PROF. He only knew that I was weird: dressed in jeans, sucking on a tootsie pop, sipping a cup of coffee, playing music in a history class, and bantering with them. But, I was still THE PROF, one of those "hungry wolves," the bestower of the grade who had their future in my hands. And, for all he knew, the grapevine was right, that I was a mean, evil, demanding son-of-a- bitch of a professor. Besides, all that didn't matter because what I said was inappropriate and I was wrong. Period. No argument. End of discussion.
Instead of stopping and apologizing, I whizzed through the role almost like running away from the scene of an accident, hoping against hope no one had noticed or everyone would have a sudden attack of amnesia or that the saying about being out of sight out of mind was true. That was my first mistake. Immediately, after I took roll of the class, we settled into an introductory biographical exercise. About half way through the class, as I walked around, I said, "OK, this is about getting to know each other. Here I am. What do you want to know about me? I'll tell you anything." They asked me about my family, my religion, my background, my dog. Some of the questions got personal, but I answered them honestly. Then, James asked, "Is it true you're anti-Greek?" My "blueberries" caught the signal, but I ignored it. That was my second mistake. I instantly convinced myself that I could deal satisfactorily with what I had done by the indirect, safe and, hidden way, by talking about my belief that fraternities and sororities had their place in campus life though academics had a higher priority. I was afraid that if I were honest, if I admitted my mistake, the students wouldn't understand and my credibility would suffer. After class, I apologized to Bill and explained myself. The next day, as Bill came into class, I asked, "Are we cool?" "Yeah," he nonchalantly answered, "no sweat."
Six days later, journals came in. As I sat on the floor of my office, listening to some music, tapping my pen to the rhythm, sucking on a tootsie pop, I read James' journal. Those words on the first day of class came back to the surface to haunt me. In it he wrote how angry he was with my comments towards Bill and was ready to drop the course because obviously I was anti-Greek. The only reason he didn't was something about me, my honesty in answering personal biographical questions, the "turn-on" I brought into the class, told him to give me another chance. Besides, he had gone up to Bill the next day and had talked to him about it. Bill had told him that he and I had talked, and everything was okay. He accepted Bill's assurances and he figured everything was settled. Again, I didn't act on that signal. I merely talked privately to James in the hall. Mistake number three. I had convinced myself that it had been a small matter that had been settled, but it weighed heavily on my soul because my conscience knew better. It knew that explaining and apologizing privately to both Bill and James was inadequate, unacceptable, and safe.
This last conversation with James, however, pricked my conscience once again and there was no laying it to rest. I could no longer ignore it. No, I knew I had to step up and do what had to be done or be a hypocrite, be like one of those "do as I say not as I do" people. It was another mountain to climb. I knew I had to get past the inertia of caution, ego, image and authority. I thought how painful it is when I hear students say in their metaphor exercises or during conversations that they feel professors are often irrelevant to their education, that they're irritants, the enemy, the obstacles to an education. Yet, though I pride myself on being none of these, I may have given the impression, however subtle, I was in those ranks, that my style was not substantive. I knew if I didn't act on my conscience, not worry about my status, I would remain one those unacceptable "closed books" or one of those "mothers with dried up breasts."
I had a restless sleep. I went walking Thursday morning, real early, to sort things out. The black, thick fog helped envelope me in my own deep thoughts. I started taking an inventory of my personal teaching philosophy. So what was it that I believed, I asked myself as I roamed the streets. I answered that I believe that it is more important to ask if the student learned than to ask if I taught. I believe that no subject matter is more sacred to me than a student's growth. I believe that teaching and learning is an act of human relationship, the cornerstone of which must be an honest bond of trust between teacher and student, and to forge that bond I need to share with the students, not just my subject, but me and the truth of my life. I believe that the student, the whole student, is my prime subject. In handling the situation, I realized that I had submerged the more vulnerable side of myself. I had used my authority somewhat subtly and abusively. And, I realized that to be a truly meaningful teacher, I had to face the students with that truth. I had to expect to struggle and share my growth in the same way I asked of my students. There are always going to be mountains out there that need to be climbed. The question was whether I had the humility to take James' subtle criticisms deeply to heart and had the courage to heed them. I guess I realized that if I wanted to be that spiritual teacher, I would have to be prepared once again not only to reap the unimaginable rewards, but endure the arduous and painful demands and costs of dealing with the truth about myself, my commitment, my abilities, my life. As my walk came to an end and I rounded the last corner, I knew that my imbalance was the result seeing Bill in his chair every time I walked into class and being subliminally reminded of what I had to do but feared doing. Now, I knew what I had to do. More importantly, it was what I wanted to do. It must have been about 5:00 a.m. when I came in from my walk. I sat down and wrote.
I walked into class about three hours later, quiz in my hand, smile on my face, the sound of MEATLOAF resonating throughout the room from the boom box, nervousness in my heart, and a little weakness in my legs. I wondered how the students would react to what I was about to say. Would they respect me or think I was a jerk. Would I make a fool out of myself or a hero? No matter, it was important what I thought. I needed to say it for myself. Then, I turned off the boom box and said, "Before I hand out the quiz, I want to share something with you that I wrote this morning." I didn't read what I had written. I spoke it, but this is what I wrote:
Something about this class has been nagging me, tugging at my conscience, since we began two weeks ago. Unlike my other class, every time I walked in here, I felt something was wrong. I didn't know why. I didn't know what it was, but I knew it was something. Well, actually deep down I did know, but I chose not to know it, maybe hide it from myself. Yesterday, James showed me what it was. It wasn't any of you. It was me. You know, life in general would be so simple and being a teacher would be so much easier if you don't make any mistakes when you try to do the right thing and if all sins were caused by fiends who delighted in hurting people. But, we all have clay feet and none of us has earned a gold medal in the sport of surface water walking. Whenever you try to do something, there's a risk that someone will not benefit. That goes with the territory of trying. There are always going to be those times when you will unintentionally make mistakes, when you will hurt someone. The first day of class was one of those times, and I made one of those mistakes. I think you know by now that I like us to joke with each other about ourselves and each others. That way we don't take ourselves or each other so seriously. But, on the first day in the class, however sensitive I am, I inadvertently screwed up and momentarily forgot to take seriously the unequal relationship that exists between me and you when I made the comment about Bill and his fraternity. Just for a second, I forgot that my words as a professor weighed a heck of lot more than yours as a student. I don't like it, but that's reality. However I struggle to change that relationship, it's still there. However I try to diminish the weight of it's presence, I cannot totally succeed so quickly. You always talk about my authority in different ways: "you're the prof"; "is this going to be on the test"; "will it affect my grade"; "what do you want"; "will this be acceptable." You showed your distrust of professors in your metaphor exercise at the beginning of the quarter. And on that first day, I regretfully showed you that you might be right. Everyone tells you that there are limits placed on you students by your status as students and by the authority granted to me as a professor. It doesn't matter if we recognize that fact or not, it's there. I knew it. I just momentarily forgot about it. My awareness, honesty and sensitivity about our relationship are an important part of my teaching. Common courtesy and respect is never out of place. On that first day, I was out of place. I have to pay at least as much attention to what I say and how I say it as to what I do. We can use a word here or there. But, this classroom is not a saloon. It's not a rowdy party. It's not a company picnic. It's not a matter of infringing on free of speech that should allow me as the professor to say whatever I wish. I do not say certain things in class because I'm afraid one of you is going to sue me. I am not sensitive because I'm afraid that you will complain, that your parents will call, or that one of my bosses will ask me to explain. It's not even a matter of being politically correct. It's simply a matter of decency and of respect. It's a judgement call. And, on that first day I accidently used bad judgement and I was disrespectful to Bill. I've told you that I see my mission is to teach to both your mind and character. To see each of you as a person, not just as a student. That means being understanding, demanding, fair, civil and sensitive. I've already said that when we have discussions in class, when I use an innovative teaching technique, when we attempt to bond, it is not an excuse to 'get personal' and belittle each other's status, beliefs or associations. I ignored my own warning on that first day. Even though I realized what I had done and privately talked with both Bill, and later to James when he courageously, yes courageously, confronted me and told how angry he was with my comment, and everything is cool with them, it's not cool with my conscience. My conscience tells me that the insult was made publicly and so the apology has to be made publicly. The right thing to do is to read this entry to you and publicly admit what I had inadvertently done, apologize to Bill, and demand that if ever that happens again you have my permission to spin my tail to the wall.I then said to both Bill and James with a tone of deepest sincerity, "I'm sorry for having offended you. My only excuse is momentary stupidity. In this case, Ph.D. does mean 'piled higher and deeper.' And if you told others about my comments, please either convey to them my sincere apologies or, if you wish, I will come to the frat houses and personally apologize. Your call."
After a few minutes of silence, I then continued in a perked up voice, "Now, clear the decks. We have a quiz to take." As I passed out the quizzes, I danced around the class as if the shackles had been taken off my feet and a weight lifted from my soul.
I don't think it's unhealthy and dangerous for faculty to risk being open with their students and each other. Acknowledging a mistake is not a sign of weakness, and I found that my status among the students was anything but weakened. It's merely treating the students with the respect and dignity to which they are entitled. We're professors, but we're not finally formed individuals. I admit that it's personally threatening, tough, to review constantly a lifetime of work and a sense of commitment. But, now, as I think about it, if I and those people in my classes are ever to find the place in class, in any class, in life for that matter, where we can march onward hand-in-hand in supporting cooperation rather than engage in fierce, back-stabbing competition, where we can create rather than merely uncover, where we can transform rather than improve, I have the responsibility to serve as a role model, a facilitator if you will, for insight and self-discovery, not only of the subject but of themselves as well. I must be concerned not only with the logic of the mind, but the illogic of the heart. I am an agent of the personal, as well as the intellectual development of my students. I think the impact I may have on a student's academic growth is but a small part of my contribution to the total person. I know, after having read student journals, that my essential mission as an educator is to attempt to be that person for whom so many students are looking, who can show them the way to become the whole person into whom they are capable of developing.
After class, I went back to my office, dropped the quizzes on the floor, and closed my door. An unusual act, but I wanted to be alone for the hour until my next class. I walked over to my desk, leaned back in my chair, propped my feet up on the desk, unwrapped an orange tootsie pop, stuck it in my mouth, put my intertwined hands behind my head, closed my eyes. I felt like I was floating just above my chair. My senses were alive. I twirled the pop very slowly in my mouth. As my tongue felt every irregularity on its surface and savored the taste of every molecule of the tart juices swirling in my mouth, I relived the feeling of those opening moments of that class. I think we became a learning community at that moment. I hope we did. Maybe I'll find out when I read their journals.
I know there will be more mountains to climb, more thresholds to cross over, more mistakes to face, more failures with which to contend. But as I learn to deal with each as they come, those that are to follow will be less difficult to face because teaching, learning, discovering and transforming my life and those of others are a bit more a part of my life. Anyway, on this day I feel good.
Make it a good day. --Louis-- Louis Schmier (912-333-5947) firstname.lastname@example.org Department of History /~\ /\ /\ Valdosta State University /^\ / \ / /~ \ /~\__/\ Valdosta, Georgia 31698 / \__/ \/ / /\ /~ \ /\/\-/ /^\___\______\_______/__/_______/^\ -_~ / "If you want to climb mountains, \ /^\ _ _ / don't practice on mole hills" -\____