Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Mon, 20 Mar 1995

My god! What a williwaw out there this morning! It was a rough walk this morning. It was windy out there at 4:30 this morning. Temperature 41 was degrees. Goodness knows was the wind chill factor was. There I was, huffing and puffing against an oncoming wall of air, being pushed and pulled sideways by gusts every time I passed a side streets, being bombarded by an incessant horizontal rain of pine needles and twigs. Drops of chilled sweat hovered over my tearing, dried eyes. I constantly bent into the wind in an effort to save my leaky, Rudolph-like nose. Blown cold penetrated my worn gloves, frayed long-johns, thinly-lined grubbies, hooded sweats, muffler, knitted UNC hat. Not even the still warm glow of UNC's victory over Iowa State and entrance into the Sweet Sixteen could counter the unexpected numbing wintriness of early Spring. It'll probably be in the mid-70s by noon.

As I struggled to keep my mind off this chilling torture, some weird stuff was popping into my head, maybe more into my spirit. I don't know why. Maybe it was because between the heart-stopping, buzzer-beater basketball games this weekend, I had been reading the students' journals and the evaluations the students had written in them about themselves, me, each other, and the class. It's also probably because I usually get reflective and pensive at the end of each quarter as I review and confront myself with those uncomfortable and demanding "why" and "who" words: why did some things worked, why did some things not, why I may have to change my ways, why I may have to be more flexible, why I connected or didn't connect with a student, why I may have to take more risks, who is each student now, who was he or she at the beginning of the quarter and, above all, who am I.

I think these challenging words are critical in teaching because as one of my students so astutely commented, "I don't think you can separate the person from the teacher." How true. I have discovered that if I ask myself a string of "whys" and "whos", I force myself to realize that I subjectively see things are as they are because I choose to make them that way. These words constantly remind me that underlying my actions and ideas is ME. Who I am as a person significantly influences the outcome of whatever technique I use in class and how I relate to each student. The who I am is important because I operate from deeply held beliefs. It's a way I see the world. It a complex web of idea which includes a view of the nature of students and influences both my judgement and actions. But, I won't let myself forget why erasers exist, that I put on my pants one leg at a time like anyone else, that I haven't won a medal in the sport of water surface walking, that my values are not objective Newtonian self-evident truths, and even if they are, that they may or may not be suitable and workable in present form in any given quarter with any given student in a particular class. I force myself not to take for granted that my beliefs are an unchangeable part of the natural order of things or that I have to be a chameleon, changing my colors but not my essence to apply in different ways me and my ideas as the unique person of the different student in differing circumstances may require. And so, knowing that I and my values influence my judgement and what I do, I always subject them both during the quarter and especially at the end of the quarter to examination and force them to remain open to change. The real questions are to be asked of me inside me, not of that outside there.

Anyway, all this was tied in with the fact that strangely I was really thinking about what I call "The Climb," when several years ago I had to challenge myself to see what I really made out of by free climbing a ninety foot sheer cliff on a wilderness retreat that was part of the program of my son's school. Actually, it's not all that strange since a day hasn't passed that I haven't thought of those moments when I had that spiritual experience of becoming one with the rock. You just don't forget that kind of seminal moment that alters so completely both your personal and professional life. And when I feel myself weakening or faltering, when I sense my courage failing, I take a look at a piece of the safety rope from that climb that hangs on the wall in the spare bedroom I call my study and remember my self-made motto: "You climbed. You can do anything."

I don't why, maybe it was being in the midst of that awful, uneducational process of assigning final grades, but this morning it suddenly struck me how much teaching is like that climb, how reaching for a near-invisible handhold on a sheer cliff is not appreciably different from reaching for a hold on my soul and reaching out to touch the soul of student, how becoming one with a class is not very much different from having become one with the rock, how both climbing and teaching required and still demand the courage to confront myself.

You know, there's a lot of technique involved in teaching. It's as precise an art as painting, dancing, playing an instrument, or climbing a cliff. Teaching, like climbing, however, is more than muscular exercise or brain calisthenics; it's spiritual aerobics. There almost aren't the properly fitting words to describe the higher meaning of either that climb or teaching.

I find that the art of teaching, like that those few moments of rock climbing, is really a form of meditation, a meditation through movement among the spirits and souls and minds of students and myself, as well as the subject. Contact with people helps me to focus on my own life: it helps me to explore my own nature; it teaches me to become a better person. Teaching is personally challenging. It tests my courage and commitment. It gets me out of myself, and the reward is a stunning view of humanity.

Teaching, like climbing, is a series of practical and emotional navigation problems. In that climb, I vividly remember how I fearfully had to navigate the rocks. Nervously, I constantly had to ask myself, as I cursed beneath my breathe: there do I put my hand, there do I next place my foot, do I go up or sideways, how the hell do I move up that cliff without falling down it. In teaching, I no less constantly and nervously have to ask myself: who are each of these students, where is each of them today, what technique do I use here, what method do I modify there, when do I back off, when do I get in a face, when do I challenge, when do I acquiesce, when do I talk, when do I remain silent, when do I do this or that, when don't I, how do I do this, how do I do that, do I trust them, and do I trust me.

I remember that before I climbed that cliff, to prepare myself for that unknown, I mentally tried to climb it. Likewise, before going into each class, I prepare myself for that unknown. I unwrap a tootsie pop. And as I quietly lick it, I mentally teach, emotionally see each student, imagine the things I want to do and want happen, prepare myself for what might and probably will unexpectedly happen, ready myself to let what will actually happen--whether I like it or not or want it or not. As I do this, I find my whole mind and body relaxing and preparing itself. I then take a few conscious licks on the tootsie pop, take a couple of deep breaths--right from the diaphragm--and head for class with my boom box playing, still with some queasiness in my stomach.

Like that cliff I climbed, every student is an individual challenge who has to be confronted cerebrally, emotionally, as well as spiritually. Teaching for me is not oratory or flash; it's dedication to myself and humanity, though oratory doesn't hurt. Teaching for me is not intellectual power or knowledge, though intellectual power doesn't hurt and knowledge is very important. Teaching is for me, above all, caring about myself and the student as well.

For me teaching is not so much a job, a craft, or even an art as it is a conduit to personal awakening of both myself and the students. For me, teaching is almost meditative. I guess I don't have to sit cross-legged, close my eyes, and touch my thumb and forefinger together. There's a spiritual quest to teaching, the attainment of a oneness with myself and humanity. It's not a great lecture, or a technique that goes right or the turning on of a student that teaching is all about. There's a greater meaning in attainment of that oneness.

Teaching, for me, ranks up there with motorcycle maintenance. I don't think a course has any lasting meaning, true meaning, if it only provides information and does not change both the teacher and the student as persons. That's what teaching must be about. Not to cover the all the material, not to have a technique succeed, but to experience that oneness with the students, oneness with myself, oneness with the nature of all things, and, most important, guide the students to learn how to achieve a oneness with him- or herself. That's the greater meaning of teaching, to go beyond exploring the subject, to explore my nature and aid the students in their own exploration of theirs, to provide a way of growing, and that something really happens.

Becoming a teacher has made me a better person, a kinder individual, a more patient guide, a more sensitive and more aware human being. I discovered a genuine sweetness beneath my professorial nature worth exploring. That's why I am always sad when the quarter ends; that's why I can't wait to go into class next quarter. Strange thoughts today.

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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