Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Wed, 5 Jan 1994

Lordy, it was miserably cold and breezy and cloudy out there today in the dawning morning. It was anything but inviting for a walk. To the blues of new winter walking grubbies, today you can add the red of my nose! But, if the temperature outside me was icy, inside I was warmed by something that happened yesterday on that harried first day of class.

The first day is always tough for me. I go to class with a mixture of excitement, anticipation, anxiety, expectation. Each class is a new adventure; in each class are 60 new adventures. There are the handouts of the syllabus, the metaphor exercises, the riddles, the introductions. I get sweaty-palmed, nervous, never sure if I'm sufficiently prepared to introduce, explain, answer. I get that sinking feeling in my stomach as they throw the questions at me with "is he for real" or "what did I get into" stares: triads? journaling? tidbits? office in the hall? attitude and effort? no lectures? grades are unimportant?

I walked out of class drained and convinced that I had blown it, that I was more confusing than usual, less ready than needed to be, more unconvincing than normal. So, there I was, behind my desk, asking myself in my daily journal why didn't I pick an easier way to do things. Then, like an apparition my answer suddenly appeared. As if from nowhere, Jane (not her real name), a student from one of my last quarter's classes, out of breath and a bit harried, popped her head around the doorway. She had a nice smile on her face. There was a slight brightness in her eyes and a spring in her step. "Hi, I'm running to my English class. I just wanted to stop to tell you that I'm going to be OK. I'm on my way. Thanks. Talk with ya later." She pulled her head back and disappeared as quickly as she had materialized before I could say a word. I quietly pushed some papers aside on my cluttered desk, put my feet up, leaned back, took a very slow sip of coffee, put my feet down, straightened up and then wrote in my journal: "It is going to be OK. It's a very good day."

Let me tell you something about Jane. I want you to know about her. I want you to know that students are persons, that they are someone's child, brother or sister, husband or wife, father or mother. I want you to know the power a teacher, as a fellow human being, possesses to spark, to create, to inspire, to help, to guide, to rescue other people if inclined and willing to exert the effort, to endure the pain, to have the compassion.

Jane is an eighteen year old, first year student from a small, impoverished north Florida county, the first female in her family to complete high school and the first person in her family to go on to college. On the first day of class last quarter, she caught my eye. I don't know why, but she did. Anyone who cared to look at her could see the unhappiness and fright that screamed out from her face. She would walk into class limp, almost painful. She would sit in class, motionless and without expression. She looked like a storefront mannequin. It was obvious that distrust of herself and others isolated her from herself, from the members of her triad, and from the class as a whole. She wouldn't contribute during the weekly quizzes or to the class discussions. But, during my regular study workshops for the students in the library, I saw her studying, off by herself, uninterested in interacting with the other students. She religiously did her share of the triad's daily and weekly written assignments. On her weekly self-evaluations she would write: "I'm a listener," "I don't like to talk," "I don't have anything important to contribute," "I'm not comfortable around people," and so on.

I spoke with her on several occasions asking what I could do to help her. I made supportive and encouraging comments on her weekly self-evaluations. I told her, that if she couldn't speak out in class, then work closely with the other members of her triad. Nothing. Then, I noticed that she listened closely, intently, to the open and honest discussions the class had on racial and women issues. It was the first time she had taken a visible interest in the class. On the next evaluation, about six or seven weeks into the course, she wrote with words I remember to this day on her evaluation: "I know I am not doing what I am capable of doing and I know I have issues that I can't face and I know there are issues so deep I need help to find them otherwise I ain't going nowhere." I took that as a signal. I asked her to talk with me in my "office" out on one of the campus benches. "Jane," I said with a plea in my voice, "I know you want to be something."

"I try, but I'm not sure I can."

"Yes, you can. How can I help you?"

"You can't do nothing."


"Why you bothering with me?"

"Because you're worth it."

"No, I ain't."

"Yes, you are and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. I'll be damned if I am going to give up. One of us has to keep fighting for you."

"I ain't worth it."

"Why do you say that?"

"You wouldn't be worth it if you've been fucked by your father as much as I've been?"

I went sheet white. My hands became stone cold and clammy. I could feel a sweat breaking out. I started to shake. I felt a painful tightness in my gut. I mashed my teeth. My eyes glassed over. I was stunned, angry, sad, pained. I have read about it and heard about it, but it was in the flesh in front of me. After what seemed like an eternity of silence and paralysis, I told Jane that I couldn't help her. She looked at me with pain in her eyes as if I had betrayed her. I told her that I wanted to help her, but I didn't have the expertise. She had to talk with a professional.

"I'm not going to talk to no strangers about me."

"You're talking to me and I'm really a stranger."

"You're no stranger. You're a friend and you give a damn.

"Then trust me."

"I can't trust no one."

"Why are you here?"

"Honestly, to get away from my daddy."

"Do you want to stop running from your father and start coming to college for yourself?"

"I think so, but I don't know how."

"Trust me."

With an abrupt "no" Jane got up and started walking off. She hadn't gotten more than ten feet when she stopped, turned around, and asked quietly in almost a desperately pleading whisper, "Will you go with me?" I did. After I introduced her to the university psychologist, I went home. I could hardly walk that block and a half to my house. As soon as I went in, I had a stiff glass of wine, a real stiff glass, and slumped onto the couch drained of every ounce of energy, thinking "I don't need this."

Two days later, without my asking, Jane told me that she had been referred to a local psychiatrist whom she was seeing twice a week. There seemed to be an aura of relief surrounding her. During the last three weeks of class, I noticed Jane starting to make a valiant attempt to participate in class discussions, a word, a phrase, an occasional sentence. It was as if just getting things out was a relief in itself. The other members of her triad commented positively in their evaluations on her activities within the triad and involvement with them. I noticed that she started contributing an answer or two during the last three weekly quizzes. She assumed the role of Dorothea Dix in her triad's final exam presentation. The other two members of her triad voluntarily came to me at the end of the quarter, assaulted my office, and fought, fought hard, on her behalf. "The hell with the first 2/3 of the quarter. Look at what she was doing by the end....She told us some about herself, but that has nothing to do with it....She got the idea for the talk show and worked with us on it....In my book that is worth a hell of a lot....If you're half the person we think you are, you'll pass her....If you don't give her a passing grade, and I mean a 'C', I'm going to pester you until you do!" Jane doesn't know they stood up for her. It was nice, very nice, to see students engaged in something other than selfish cutthroat competition. I was going to pass her anyway. It's that attitude and effort and performance stuff in which I believe.

Jane had sent me a holiday greeting card. In it she wrote this short message:

You'll never know what a difference you made in my life. I'm still seeing someone and will keep seeing her until I don't have to. I think that might be for a long time, but I don't care. For the first time that I can remember, I am really starting to fight for me. It's hard, but you made it easier. You're the only one who cared enough to talk and listen. You're the only one I know who believed in me and showed me that there's something inside me worth looking for. If anyone tries to poor-mouth me again, I'll just think of the time when you said, "you're worth it." Lots of students say you're a mean son-of-a-bitch. I and lots of others know better. I'll come by and give you a 'hi.'

I have a simple idea, maybe simplistic. It's not even a new idea, but in collegiate classrooms it is a generally ignored or avoided idea. Yet, it has a profound impact on how I think about education, teaching and learning, and how I act with students and those around me. My idea is that if students feel powerless inside and outside the class, they get resigned; if they are confused about themselves academically or emotionally, they get nervous. Anxiety and apathy are the two curses in the classroom that affect performance. We so compartmentalize students. We have the spotlighted intellectual and academic on one hand, segregated from the often separated and neglected emotional on the other. By such separation, the two are divorced. What we should do is to connect the two and to be concerned with both. Unless we are aware of, sensitive to, and address the underlying emotional distress that students carry around, it's very hard to motivate them to achieve.

My idea of teaching is to help students reach their inner strengths for development, put themselves at ease, feel true about themselves, feel more engage, in the class and life in general, develop strategies, operate more effectively in the class and in the world. What has helped me the most is to question whether the highest human function is the brain, whether the source of true "competency" and "mastery" lies in the brain. I tend to think it is the soul, the soul in the Aristotelian sense, not in the ecclesiastical context. To speak of that word, soul, that immeasurable essence of us all, might make some intellectuals uncomfortable. I'm sorry. I find that so many teachers are afraid of that word or its synonyms, "attitude," "character," "spirit" and "emotion." I like the word "soul." It's a much more accurate word than "spirit" or "emotion." To me, "soul" is the embracing three-dimensional word that brings together and blends intimately and inseparably "mind," "body," "emotion." That is what journaling, self-evaluations, triads in my classes are all about. For me, everything starts with attitudes and feelings toward yourself.

Yes, Jane answered my journal question. Teaching is joy; it is happiness; it is accomplishment; it is meaning; it is purpose. Jane, and others like her, are the real reasons why I teach. Watching her and other students grow and transform is like walking at the moment a new day dawns, when the those first rays of the sun begin to penetrate the darkness, when I feel the vibrant appearance of life. For me, nothing scholarly is as exciting, as enchanting, as loving, as humbling as the appearance of new life. And when that happens, I live.

Make it a good day.


Louis Schmier  (912-333-5947)
Department of History                      /~\    /\ /\
Valdosta State University          /^\    /   \  /  /~ \     /~\__/\
Valdosta, Georgia 31698           /   \__/     \/  /     /\ /~      \
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