Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Sun, 22 Jan 1995

It was crisp and black this morning. There was nothing on my mind. After I returned from my walk, I grabbed a cup of freshly brewed coffee, went into the spare bedroom where my computer never sleeps, and continued an off-list discussion I was having with an e-mail friend about how and whether we professors should and could be one person and many teachers at the same time, how and whether we can play each note and the entire chord at the same time, and how to react when we fail to strike a key or when we strike a key and there's no sound. I told him that we are pulled in the directions of our beliefs. We do and must do the best at the moment with the sensitivity, the caring, the kindness, the power and authority, the ability, and talent we have no matter how small.

I no sooner had sent him my message, when a sudden host of memories of Samantha (not her real name) swirled unannounced into my mind. I occasionally think of her, wonder if she still on campus, how she is doing. I haven't seen her in over a year. She was an honors student in one of my regular first year classes, one of those students who are easy to teach; who has an enthusiasm, is always prepared, never disappoints, does well on tests, grasps concepts, actively participates; who other teachers call "exceptionally bright." In fact, one of my colleagues made a point to call me when she heard Samantha was going to be in my class to say that she was "a good student" and always "happy and alive--and "will even laugh at your lousy puns."

When Samantha first came into class, there was the cherub-like smile on her face and twinkle in her eyes. She did walk with a skip in each step. But, from the very first day of class, I sensed something even though I didn't know what it was. During our biographical exercises I remember writing a note that asked, "a facade?"

I remember Samantha's annoyance at one of her classmates who politely and rightly commented on her not being prepared with her part of a group assignment. I remember her unexpected outburst of anger at me during a private conversation on the hall floor in front of my office the following week that went something like:

"What's going on," I asked. "You're not you lately. Did I do anything? Are we cool?"

"I don't like being criticized," to retorted in almost a reflex. "He had no right to do that and you didn't say anything."

"We are respectfully honest with each other. You know that. It's more than that. The comment was insignificant. Are you happy," I innocently asked.

"What makes you think that," she blurted out with a surprise.

"I don't know. Just a gut feeling." I answered with a quiet, calm tone. "The last couple of days you coldly walk into class and sit down without acknowledging anyone. You've shut down and gone quiet. You sit in class almost brooding. You don't seem to trust anyone. Something is suddenly holding you back. You've had a look of pain in your eyes."

"Who's been talking to you about me? Who have you gone to?" she exploded.

"No one," I quietly replied with my "blueberries" suddenly turned on to full alert.

A mixture of water and mascara unexpectedly gushed from her eyes turning her bright face into a macabre mask. Her lips grimaced. Her cheeks tightened. She rose up from the floor, abruptly turned her back to me, and stomped off. I sat there for a moment thinking to myself, "Back off. You're near the edge. There's deep shit here. Let it go."

I remember the change of tone in Samantha's journal entries after that day. Gone was the shallow chit-chat. She suddenly started writing about being sexually abused until puberty, of being physically abused regularly, of feeling guilty, unclean, unloved, and unwanted, of being told she would never amount to anything.

I remember her entries describing how she had taken these events over the edge of memory to hide them from herself and others, and to protect herself from the lurid outside world behind high, thick, defensive walls, bleak and dark on the inner side, deliberately and deceptively bright and decorative on the exterior. And, I didn't say a word about it.

I remember Samantha and how she described grades as a means of instilling a sense of worth, of being seen, of being noticed, of being wanted and needed. I remember Samantha cursing me in her journal for being the only one to have sensed the very existence of these walls she thought she had so masterfully disguised from herself and all others. I remember one entry that began, "Damn you for caring. No one is supposed to care." And, I didn't say a word about it and consciously struggled hard not to open my mouth, not to let a word or phrase slip out or say anything in my body language.

I remember Samantha during the last third of the course slowly getting her smile back. A slight bounce reappeared in her pace. She began to return part way to her old academic self. She brought in a tap or two for the boom box. Her journal entries lost their seriousness, and returned to the light small talk and chatter of her initial entries. Was she slowly retreating back behind her walls and slowly closing the gates after her? But, she wasn't completely her old self, and in a way I was glad. I was troubled. I was concerned. But, I still kept my mouth shut. I still consciously worked hard not to let if affect how I acted towards her in class.

As the class ran its course, not a day went by that I didn't think of Samantha. Do I have a right to knock on her gates? Was I abusing my position as a professor and imposing myself where I wasn't wanted? Is my concern and compassion for the students too intrusive? Should I have told her what she wanted to hear rather than what I thought she needed to hear? Was all this any of my affair? Or, should I take the easy way, just convince myself that "it not any of my concern," and just keep my nose in my subject? I asked our campus counselors for answers, and got none.

My answer came, at least as far as Samantha was concerned, in an end-of-class bag of Tootsie Pops wrapped in a ribbon with a note of thank you. It came from Samantha. She appreciated that I didn't impose myself on her or intrude in her life after that conversation, or change my attitude towards her for the rest of the class. She understood that she had to find her own way. She had not been happy that I had knocked on the gates of her walled redoubt. But, she said, if she was so happy inside how could I have sensed a sadness; if she was so unworthy, how could I see a worthiness; if she was so comfortable inside why was the place wrecked by alcohol, drugs, and rampant sex. If the wall protected her, they also imprisoned her. She now wanted out. I remember to this day her writing, "I see now that the higher I build my walls, the more I tear myself down. I am tired of being an honors student. I want to be the honors person you see hidden inside me. I know now that only I can dig hard and deep to find her." But, she knew now that she would have to get professional help to open those gates and walk out into the world beyond.

And I didn't say a word about it when next we met. As I said, I haven't seen her for over a year. I wonder how she's doing.

Thinking about Samantha now, I would add to my message to my friend only this: touching one person out of many, touching one person however intentional or inadvertent, however slightly or deeply, however immediate or long- range, however obvious or hidden, is never small.

Make it a good day.


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