Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Sun, 1 Jan 1995

Happy New Year! I was out early because I went to sleep early. I don't do up New Year's eve with merry making, horn blowing, streamer throwing, and champagne. Maybe that's because I came within a hare's breath of being killed by a drunk driver at this time of the year back in 1960. So, I do my darndest to seclude myself from the revelry. I just cooked my wife a quiet candlelight dinner. We snuggled in front of the fireplace as we watched a video, deliciously kissed at midnight, and then turned in.

At this time of the year, it was hard not to think about goodbyes and hellos. Isn't that what January 1st is for? This is the first day of the year. Like the early morning hours of each day, everything is fresh. There's time to dream and hope, time to believe. There are no mitigating "buts" and "ifs." Nothing is screwed up yet. So, I was thinking about goodbyes to old illusions and the hope that they will give way to new hellos about the academic garden.

I often have this odd feeling that so many of us enter the classroom and act as if we had passed through Alice's looking glass into a page from HOUSE AND GARDEN and dream we are leisurely strolling in a perfectly designed, lush, perfumed, manicured garden. We act as if the landscape of this classroom garden is planted only with the blue-ribbon students. We have this vision that these first-in-shows are resistant to the disfiguring fungi of laziness, the discoloring mildew of unpreparedness, the distorting molds of apathy, the weakening bacteria of confusion, the sapping viruses of disinterest, and the gnawing insects of ignorance. In the immaculately clean beds, the prize-winners stand straight and tall with an eagerness to learn. They have about them the charming sweet aroma of resourcefulness. They are decorated with the vibrant colors of self-motivation and determination. Their sizes and shapes appeal to our tastes. We have this illusion that they virtually grow on their own, needing only occasional fertilizing and a bit of watering. And so, their low maintenance make gardening so easy and undemanding, and we are convinced that we can go about our other more important business and still grow magnificent beauties.

And then, so many of us are shaken from this dream and are confronted with the demands of the real classroom garden in which grow mostly plants which don't measure up to our ideals. These plants, with their imperfections and vulnerabilities, are not as appealing to our sight and smell. They make gardening more demanding, more difficult, more time consuming, more intrusive on our other and more prestigious projects.

Tending these plants becomes something that we can't be cavalier about. We can't go out into the yard when it suits us; we can't just sprinkle a few drops of water or spread a few grains of fertilizer at our leisure; and we can't just fit it into an occasional opening in our schedule. If we truly want a beautiful yard, we might have to miss a ball game, a club meeting, an appointment, or delay another activity.

Gardening of this sort is back-breaking, pain-staking, demanding, inconvenient, and not always successful. It's a constant battle against, to ward of, to eradicate, and to treat the host of diseases, ailments, disorders, and pests to which these real plants are susceptible. We have to mess up our clothes. We have to get down on our knees and bend our backs. We have to expend huge amounts of energy as we till, dig, cultivate, mix, hoe, rake, lug, haul, mulch, treat, clean, apply, and shovel. We have to get dirt under our finger nails, get soil ground into our skin, get callouses on our palms, get sweaty and smelly, suffer a scratch and scrape or cut here and there, endure muscle aches and pains, and get just plain tired.

With our illusion shattered, we are confronted with a reality with which so many of us are either unwilling to deal, unpracticed in dealing, or don't have the know how with which to deal. We feel betrayed that we are being forced to expend our time and efforts attending to unwanted, bland dandelions when we should be devoting our valuable expertise to caring for coveted, enchanting, and award-winning orchids. "Ah," so many of us forlornly moan, "if only...." Feeling that we are wasting our talents on flowers that will never take home ribbons, we become disillusioned, disappointed, depressed, discouraged, cynical, crotchety, angry, perhaps even arrogant. We point fingers at these blemished students because they have brought the contaminating diseases and pests of the real world into the pristine, intellectual garden growing in the courtyard of our protected ivory tower. We point fingers at something called society because it made these run-of- the-mill plants--with their blotches, rusts, scales, gall, spotting, scorch, and blight--accessible to our academic garden. We point fingers at peers and outside critics who challenge us to evaluate ourselves as gardeners, who challenge us to define the purpose of gardening, who challenge us to improve our gardening, who challenge us to learn new methods of gardening, and who challenge us to assure that ALL students will have a REAL opportunity to bloom.

In our defense, we wail, "They don't belong!" "They don't care the way they used to." "They don't know as much as they use to." "They can't do as much as they used to." "They can't read and write as well as they used to." "They can't grasp concepts as quickly." "They don't ask questions like they used to." "They don't do as well on exams as they used to." "They aren't as passionate about their education they used to." Confronted with a classroom reality that seems to becoming more nightmare and less rhapsody, feeling threatened or offended, so many of us put on sack and ashes, start fasting, walk bare footed, with placards held high, and parade about screaming apocalyptic warnings: "The end of the academic world is at hand."

I am also often haunted with this eerie sensation that when so many of us lament about students that "they don't", we're really bragging that "we did." We are taken in by the tricks of unthinking nostalgia. We create an unfair, comparative, romantic, self-satisfying picture of ourselves as flawless prize flowers in the picture-perfect academic garden, impervious to attacking insects and free of destructive diseases, who as students "never did that" and always "use to do."

We prefer to remember ourselves as students who had stored buckets of elbow grease, gallons of midnight oil, and huge grind stones in our rooms; we were mesmerized by the awe and wonder of learning; we drove ourselves incessantly; we wrote brilliantly; we studied diligently; we spoke eloquently; we asked the insightful questions; we perceptively understood; we zealously pursued wisdom; we selflessly sacrifice for the books; we knew what our future was going to be the second we stepped on campus; we walked the straight and narrow path; we retained our individuality in the face of peer pressure; we put aside the interfering distractions of a job or personal problems; we listened intently as we sat on the edge of our seats; we were all magna cum whatever at graduation. And when we see that students don't match up to the ideal image we have so often created of ourselves, we raise our placards higher and scream our message of doom louder.

We prefer to think that in our day and on our campuses, the unused fraternity files gathered dust; no one ever had someone write a paper for us or wrote one for someone else or knew anyone who did such things; no one ever cut a corner; no one ever copied a classmate's lecture notes or let someone copy ours instead of attending class; no one ever crammed merely just to pass a test or to get a class grade; no one was more concerned with the GPA than with quest for knowledge; we were never so bored in class that we memorized the ceiling; we never slept in a class; we never cheated; we never used ponies or crib sheets; no one ever went to a Greek bash or a game instead of studying; no one ever thought that any outside social activity was more important than their academics; no one ever failed a test or flunked a class; no one ever dropped out of school; no one ever reluctantly went along with the crowd; no one ever changed majors like we were playing musical chairs; no one ever came to class without a completed assignment; no one was ever more interested in soaking up more beer than wisdom; no one ever went to class feeling and looking like the morning after the night before; no one ever confusingly or annoyingly asked "is this important" or "why do I have to take this" or "do I need this" or "what can I do with this"; no one was ever concerned more with material wealth rather than the wealth of knowledge.

In this comforting amnesia, we long for a time that never was. We stand in classroom doorways trying to defend and perpetuate an elitism in a society which has decided that access to the academic garden is part of the American birthright. In the eyes of many students and critics, not unfairly, the operational ethos of academia has been described as uncaring and unaccommodating, of increasing questionable social relevance, and acting selfishly defensive. We're chided for standing up there and doing nothing, or standing up there and do the same stuff in the same way it was handed to us as if the culture of the classroom has not change. We, who are the supposed standard bearers of change, are chastised for being slow to change in times of rapid, lasting change. We're criticized for indifferently seeing those students who don't fit our neat mythological picture of the perfect plants properly nestled in the neat precisely arranged academic garden only as unwanted weeds to be coldly discarded on the compost heap. And, I sometimes get the discouraging idea that our educational system is more geared to giving trophies to such research-oriented, weeding-out professors who do just that than to those teaching professors who have arduously and caringly nurtured students to bloom in the garden, that our institutions are better organized for rooting out students than for cultivating their potential.

I don't think it serves any purpose to self-righteously kevtch. I can't believe that anyone with a dour outlook in their classes can feel good, satisfaction, accomplishment inside. I find it so negative, so unproductive for both the students and us. I think we can do three things to tap both our rich human resources as well as those of the students.

First, we can start by trying to get pass the dream of what we wish we were and journey to the reality of who we really were. If we go back there ourselves, if we can smell the air ourselves, if we stand in the spot ourselves, we can make the connections with ourselves and with our students. When I remembered and then shared with my students that an A on either my high school or college transcripts would have been a far more lonely soul than a D or a C; that my high school teachers voted me the least likely to succeed of the graduates who were going on to college because they remembered my less than serious devotion to my books; that I wasn't that perfect student, and I didn't know very many who were; that neither I nor most of my college classmates comprised a horde of dedicated, brilliant, hard-working, fervent disciples of knowledge; if we soaked up anything, it was beer not wisdom, I found myself talking to a voice within that I had forgotten was there. If we hear that voice, we can use it to talk with the student on common ground, and honestly say, "I understand. I can relate to that. I was there like you. I was once treated as weed and thought I was just a plain ole run-of-the-mill flower. I remember what it was like to be treated that way and act that way. We have a lot in common. You're just like I was."

Second, we can start by trying to get pass the dream of what we wish students to be and make contact with the reality of who are, by trying to see each of them as magnificent creations capable of blooming, and by trying to find ways to nourish them and help them bloom. To do that, we first have to know about them, to see them as real people with real hopes and dreams. We have to find their strengths and address their weaknesses. We have to ask, "who are you really?" "Where did you from?" "What do you need?" "What can you do?" "What do you have to work on?" "How can I help you?" "How can I help them help each other?" Using biographical exercises, metaphor exercises, journals, self-evaluation, relaxing the classroom atmosphere, creating an atmosphere of care and trust and respect, small talking and bantering, and other methods of sharing, I have found several emotional factors, systemic debilitating diseases and pests if you will, which, if ignored stunt the students' ability to thrive. I, as the classroom gardener, must be aware and must treat those ailments if I wish student to truly have an opportunity to thrive and bloom: low self-esteem, diminished sense of self-worth, a history of passive learning, unclear educational goals, alienation from the dominant culture, a lack of information, poor understanding about the options in higher education, little practice in decision-making, lack of experience in time management, inexperience in sustaining commitment to excellence, difficult in making commitments, weak support network in and outside class, peer pressure, personal burdens, and a weak sense of being what I call "street wise."

And third, we have to win the race between the nourishment of love and the techniques of teaching encouragement on one hand, and professorial slander and student despair and self-denigration on the other. I don't think it serves any constructive purpose to negatively proclaim what these students supposedly can't do. Instead, we ought to search out with confidence and belief what they can do. I believe that I'm in the academic garden practicing confrontational gardening. I'm confronting the reality of who the students really are, confronting what they are capable of becoming, confronting the effort I need to make to bring out the potential that lies buried deep within them as well as confronting the purpose and meaning of it all. When it comes to what I do in the classroom, there are no sacred cows. We have to be strong-willed, daring, demanding, imaginative, creative, inventive, sometimes unpredictable, determined, pragmatic, and at other times hard- nosed. My strategy is to show the students the potential I unequivocally believe lays within them, to give them the opportunity and power to make decisions governing themselves, to give them a belief in themselves, and to show them that they have a rightful place in both our academic and society's garden.

We have to dream big dreams, dreams of not merely being after a class style makeover but realizing that if that take place, it can spills over into a life style makeover and enrich the quality of life in the class and beyond.

If you win the race, well...... When I walk through my garden every morning after my walks, I feel a both spiritual and physical refreshment that helps me put my life in proper perspective. Students, like flowers in a garden, are the pleasures of the campus. There is something challenging and satisfying about taking the time, having the patience, and putting in the hard work to transform a supposed unworthy weed or a run-of- the-mill flower into a thing of beauty, of helping to bring forth hidden beauty into radiant magnificence. When that happens, you help transform the academic garden into something that is truly great; when that happens, you transform yourself into something that is truly great.

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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