Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Fri, 27 Nov 1998 11:38:09 -0500 (EST)
Random Thought: Holiness in Teaching

Waddling along the streets late, late this morning, I know what a turkey must feel like being stuffed with stuffing. And talking about stuffing, I had a lot of stuff on my mind this morning as I struggled with each step to come out from a caloric coma induced by an ODing on turkey and glorious fixin's. I was thinking gratefully about how, when my son, Robby, got off work at 2:30 p.m. yesterday afternoon, he and his wife drove three hours, arrived late at the farm where we traditionally celebrate the Thanksgiving with friends who are family, hugged everyone, gobbled down leftovers, and left for their home at 8:00 last night to be at work early this morning. It made me realize that Thanksgiving here in the States, thankfully, still is a sacred time of the year. It s a modest holiday. It is a poignant holiday. It is a genuine holiday. It is a quiet holiday. It's a touching holiday. The places of gathering have an unspoken aura of being sacred ground. And yet, it's a powerful holiday. So many of us, like Robby and Beth, go through so much to get home in time to honor this feast of thanks; so many of us take the trouble, like ET, to call home when we can't go home. Our presents for this holiday are especially our presence among family and friends..

I was also thinking about the Lilly conference on teaching from which I just returned. Actually, as I told some newly found friends, Lilly is more of a the retreat and experience than simply an academic gathering of academics.

I always try to put my finger on what it is that makes Lilly what it is. Of course, it is the people who come not as touting professors with egos and reputations aching to burst forth in a fit of presentations, but as a respectful gathering of dedicated teachers and sincere listeners and committed learners. There is something more that, and after what I fear is literally saying last "goodbyes" to a wondrous, sacred person, Beverly Firestone, who has been battling the ravages of cancer for the last five years and whose agonies I personally witnessed as I struggled to help her board her plane, and for whom I wrote a poem as a parting gift of thanks for being called her friend which I am afraid will be eulogy, I am beginning to understand what "that" is. It has to do with a word you don't often hear in academia: holiness.

Dare I use that word? I hope you won't sneer or jeer; I really don't want you to be annoyed. But, if you want to throw darts like "this is not a church," "touchy-feely," "sappy," "saccharine," "preachy," that's is okay. I am just talking about how in the course of the last eight years I am coming to see myself and others, and what we do or are supposed to be doing. For that, I make no apology. After all, studies aside, I know me best and can best talk about me. And, more importantly I hope you think less about what I say and I get you to think about what you might have to say.

I have been in the classroom and around academics all but the first five years of my life. I have had my share of teachers and professors, and I have come to see that those unfortunately very few teachers I remember, whose voices I still hear whispering in my ear and whose presence I feel hovering over me and who occassionally tap reminders on my shoulder. For so long I had ignored them; now I struggle to heed them. They are not those teachers who were the sternest or knew the most or talked the most eloquently or were the most renown. No, in this select group were those who treated me as a person with a regrtettably rare respect and sacredness. I now know that these very few teachers were not just good teachers; they were good persons. They weren't just making a living and getting a salary; they were making a life and giving. I remember they put a lot of caring for me into their teaching, put a lot of themselves in me, saw me as a single, complex "me." And, now I see how they still are teaching me. They knew somehow that "there is a time for....," when to practice soft love and when to practice hard love, when to apologize, when to admit to an "I don't know," when to push, when to back off, when to say something, when to be silent, when to be there to talk with, when to offer to talk and when to listen, when to challenge me, when to challenge themselves by standing aside, when to protect me from the ugliness of the world, when to let me face life's pimples, when to make it safe for me and when to let it be risky, when to make it risky for them, when to stand firm and when to be flexible, when to offer a second and third and fourth chance, when to see that I was a a child or part adult and part child or an adult in training. They noticed; they sensed; they knew; they gave their time; they gave of themselves.

Now they didn't always get it right; they didn't always know where the line was drawn; occasionally, they stepped over the line or didn't come close enough. But, they cared enough about me that they were unwilling to play it safe; they were willing to put themselves on the line for me. Actually, what they offered me felt and still feels like love. It was and is. I now realize, although I am not sure they would say it this way unless prodded, they saw in me--in each and every student--the sacred and holy that was not to be desecrated. And it was in that belief, faith if you will, that was rooted their instinct to pay attention to the little things that were so important. They had that mysterious sixth sense, a feeling for me and each of those others, and somehow leaned into me and each of them. It was from that believe which rose their genuineness and capacity to be real; and, they were comfortable with it and did what came naturally.

Anyway, that's what I want to talk about: holiness. I think we should because I think maybe we ought to see a classroom as something of a church or synagogue or mosque, and I don't believe holiness is reserved solely for these houses of worship restricted to the appropriate day of formal worship. Holiness is not something you pray for inn one place on one day; it is not something you preach about in one place on one day; it is something that is you, it is something you live, and it is something you do--every place, in everything, everyday.

I have come to see the classroom is a place of worship. I now see teaching as a mission; I now refuse to pass a countefeit separation of ways of thinking, ways of feeling, and ways of behaving; I refuse to neatly separate rational facts from emotional facts from character facts, thinking and doing from feeling.

I am convinced that if we looked at ourselves, at colleagues, at students, at anyone with a holiness; if we discovered such a holiness in education our eyes and minds and hearts--our wholeness--would open to discover a sense of community, what someone whom I forget calls the wondrous "hidden wholeness" in each person and in gatherings. In the absence of such an awareness, as I can personally attest, there is so often in academia a detachment, a distance, an aloofness, a coldness, a lack of community--intended or otherwise; so often there is a fear for the new and a fear to risk the new in academia--conscious or otherwise; the connective tissue is missing--acknowledged or otherwise; there is a disrespect for the dependency and hesitantcy in students and in ourselves or colleagues, for students who stumble and when we or colleagues stumble, for students who fail and when we or colleagues fail, for the student who is not perfect and when we or our colleagues make a mistake--recognized or otherwise. It is as if we are tentative, to say the least, fear or hate, at worst, that which challenges us, break through us, forces us to open. We say we are about uniqueness and diversity; and yet, there is a drive to flatten everything, to fill in the valleys, and bulldoze the mountains, rip out the lushness and dry up the streams until the landscape is so barren and uniform the slightest ant hill would not be tolerated.

But, if you excavate below the surface seek the holy, you will find community. You will find the community in which the good teacher believes and has faith, seeks, evokes, invites all, and shuts the door to no one; you will neutralize the academy's acidic culture of fear and disrespect with a culture of respect and love; you will pacify and unify the rampant chaos, disconnection, fragmentation, categorization, anarchy.

When I faced up to my own darkness eight years ago, as I have often shared, I discovered to my amazement that in the dark, if you look upward, you see the shining light of stars. I will venture to say as my life has been transformed, academic life--the system--has even been so slightly altered. The splash from the pebble of my changing spirit has sent out an almost undetectable ripple, but a tsunami nevertheless. And that, too, taught me a great lesson: we have let institutions--the system--become to impersonal, structured, too distant, too cumbersome, too entangling to carry out holiness. I better understand Jefferson's suspicions.

Holiness is something we each have to carry within ourselves, alone, with the faith to achieve community, one person at a time. For me, that realization holds an unyeilding hope that all of academic life would be transformed if everyone--one person at a time--practiced simple respect, acknowledged the holiness in themselves and each of us. If everyone came to see each other as holy, practiced that holiness minute-by-minute, the cataracts of arrogance would be healed and we could see anyone with other than loving and respectful eyes.

Holiness does not destroy difference; it reverently holds it up for all to see. That is the highest form of caring and love!! It says to that single person, be it yourself or someone else, "I see you. I care about you. I love you. I am here for you." Holiness does not grind souls into the ground; it celebrates souls. Holiness does not hide a person; holiness offers smiles of hope; holiness makes the person visible. Holiness is that shining light that allows us to wonder at each individual. Holiness allows us to recover our power in and over ourselves. Holiness will never exhaust, never alienate, never torture, never fear or distrust, never regret. There is no holiness in making or leaving someone feel as what I call an "unperson:" unwanted, unknown, unimportant, unreachable, unteachable, unnoticed, unseen, unlearned, unable, untalented, uncared, unappreciated, unloved. No, I have slowly discovered that the ugly minions of hopelessness, disbelief, faithless, ridicule cannot survive in the presence of holiness.

We are commanded to be holy. That doesn't not mean being divine; it does not mean acquiring a haloed saintliness; and it doesn't mean being perfect. Being holy to me means striving to become the person I are capable of becoming and do the best I am capable of doing, and be that person who helps another person become what he or she is capable of becoming. It means striving to be the best teacher you can be. It means striving to be the best person you can be. That is the essence of education--and of life. It is that simple.

Unless we have respect for each and love for each person, education will be banally about memorizing, distastefully about taking a test, boringly about getting a grade, and merely about getting jobs; it will be about exclusion. It will not be about inclusion, nurturing, hope, excitment, adventure, faith, empowerment, liberation, transcendency, vitality--wholeness.

Simple it may be, hard to do it is. As I recently told a new-found friend, I have discovered that being on a mission of service may mean sacrificing my comfort and safety in order to help students learn. There are times, many times--and I have already forsaken the publish/perish rat race--I have to ask myself if I am willing to pay the price of being in community with others. That is, am I willing to obey the command to be holy.

Am I being sappy, touchy-feely, saccharine, preachy? That is for each of you to judge. I, for one, am nourished by such a sweet oozing. I will continue to be touched and felt as well as feel and reach and touch. For I have discovered that there is a mysterous gift of power--a state of grace--for each student and for me in such passion of loving and being loved, of needing and being needed.

Am I being unrealistic. Am what I asking for too hard to do or an impossible dream? That, too, is for you to decide. Until eight years ago I would have rejected the me of today with a volley of such excuses, explanations, and rationalizations. So, I stand as testimony that the hard and impossible can be achieved, and are accomplished every day.

I have discovered that any true legacy I can leave is not precious baubles; it's not a data bank of information; it's not in a collection of knowledge; it's not even accumulated wisdom; it's certainly not in a title, an award, a publication. My true legacy, if I have one to leave, is a legacy of spirit: words and deeds and feelings, faith and hope, that come from the heart which enter the heart. For the heart--and the mind--is not like a rubber band. Once they are stretched by a new feeling and idea, they will never return to their original form and size.

Make it a good day. 


Louis Schmier           
Department of History    
Valdosta State University
Valdosta, GA  31698                        /~\    /\ /\
912-333-5947                       /^\    /   \  /  /~ \     /~\__/\
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                          -_~     /  "If you want to climb mountains, \ /^\
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