Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Tue, 8 Sep 1998 09:52:20 -0400 (EDT)
Random Thought: On This Labor Day

Boy, what a laborious--and dangerous--walk this morning after Labor Day. The remnant of Earl still lay shrewn about many streets and sidewalks. Fallen pine cones litter the scene like boulders in a flow field, and feel just as large if you happen to step on one. Broken limbs and branches with sharpened and broken tips lie hidden in the dark ready to snag, snare, trip, sprain, and cut. I dodged, darted, veered, and leaped throughout much of the six mile course. All of that broken field walking reminded me of more than a few of my e-mail colleagues who, last week, tried to dodge, dart, and veer during a vigorous and at time acrimonious exchange on tenure. I guess some were uneasy or unnerved by the very raising of the issue. Many, on-list and off-list, turned the topic from the impact on the pursuit of tenure to the defense of tenure's value. But, that's okay. What wasn't all that okay was the aloofness, distance, and maybe even a touch of arrogance far too many expressed. "They wouldn't understand," was an overwhelmingly common theme. "I don't have to explain," was another. "I'm too specialized to do anything else," was sadly a third that was sent to me privately. "After all the years of studying and preparation, I deserve the perk of job security," was a fourth theme. "They're turning our campuses over to businessmen and politicians," was a fifth that seemed to be preachimg imminent armageddon. Intermingled with these thoughts were flashes of the stalls at the Flatlanders Art & Crafts festival that is held each Labor Day in a town about 15 miles up the road. As we endured the muggy and buggy air, walked up and down the rows of stalls, I looked at ladies joyously sewing a quilt, a blacksmith putting marvelous twists and turns in his iron, a tanner fashioning belts, a carver finding faces and images in fallen limbs, a women who had fashion dolls from field straw. A lot of stuff came together this morning. I'd like to some of it with you.

When I was a kid, like most kids, I spent a lot of time dreaming about what I wanted to be, fantasizing about different jobs, picturing myself as different people. I wanted to be a soldier bravely charging the enemy pill boxes just like in the comic books; I dreamed of being a fireman driving the back of a hook-and-ladder or climbing those tall ladders to heroically save a dog from a flaming building; I wanted to be a policeman who would nab Wille Sutton; I wanted to be a T- Man; I wanted to be a spaceman, especially Tom Corbitt, space cadet, or Captain Video, and meet weird beings from other planets. I dreamed of being a baseball player who would hit that game winning homer in the bottom of the ninth; I thought about going out west and becoming a cowboy or, even better, a gun slinger. I thought about becoming an airline pilot who would fly people all over the world; I wanted to be a doctor and find a cure for a rare disease. Almost everyone I saw working, I wanted to be: a sailor who traveled the seven seas, a high-walking steel worker, a scientist who invented something new, a lawyer like my father though he never practiced, a dentist, a postman who delivered news, a bus driver, a cabdriver, a barber, a jeweler, a butcher, a baker, a chef. But, never an academic, never a teacher. I had nothing but resentful memories about Mrs. Satchel, my second grade teacher at P.S. 160, and after a half century still think unkindly after of her in politically incorrect ways. But, that is another story.

I wasn't what you might call a good student. I never went out of my way to study; I didn't have the discipline or commitment. I graduated 52nd in my high school class of 282 graduates with an average of 86. I didn't particularly have an enthusiasm to go to college. I went more because it was expected of me by my teachers, friends, family then for any other reason. My family wanted me to be a doctor!! Yet, those college years between 1958 and 1963 proved to be some of the most influential years of my life, not because of the book learning I received in classes, but because of the education in life I received outside those classes. As I look back, passing the test, getting the grade, screwing up major after major, acquiring the undergraduate degree, and then going on for the additional graduate degrees, was no where near as important to my life as the experiences and people I encounter outside academia on the formative way to getting those degrees. At the time, however, I really didn't appreciate those experiences or those people. They gave me a flexibility of outlook, a broadened horizon, an appreciation of the world beyond the campus, and a later humility about both myself and my profession that more than a few e- mail colleagues have a hard time understanding as we recently "discussed" the issue of the quest for tenure and tenure itself.

My family was upper middle class. My parents were first generation American-born. When I was 8, in 1948, as a sign of "having made it," we were trail blazers in what historians would later call "White Flight" out to the sunny, clean, open fields of Rockville Center on Long Island from the steep, dark, dirty canyons of New York City's Orchard and Delancy Streets. My father failed in business when I was 14. My sizeable education fund went down the tubes with it. I found that if I was to live up to the expectations of those around me, I had no choice but to work my way through college. At one time during the four years of undergraduate school and my first year in graduate school, I held three jobs: delivered newspapers before the sun rose; I was a short order cook as the sun rose; I was a waiter after the sun set. At other times, playing "musical jobs," getting them and quitting in order to work around my ever-changing class schedule, I was a bartender, a dishwasher, a stock boy in a department store, a delivery boy for a small grocery store; a gift wrapper in an exclusive department store. I was a salesmen in an appliance store; I was a manual laborer, a truck driver, a part-time mailman. I hauled, scraped, dug, built, wrapped, piled, moved, unloaded, loaded, packed, unpacked, concocted; I handled shovels, bottles, steering wheels, dishes, pans, boxes, brick, wood, wire, pipe, concrete, appliances, manure, letters, food, information. I wore aprons, hard hats, hobnail boots, uniforms, and dungarees that at times got so dirty and smelly my mother would fend me off with a broom stick until I stripped naked in the backyard before she'd hose me down and allow me in the house. I cursed my situation: it cut into my study time--that was the least of it--trespassed on my social life, prohibited me from continuing to play sports, hurt my grades, forced me to change majors from pre-med to philosophy to english and finally as a last resort to my childhood hobby of history for what of something else to major in, and lowered my final GPA to a 2.2--not that I was a great student to begin with or really knew what I wanted my future to look like. I "backed" into academics by default and got an M.A. and Ph.D. for want of something to do since I did not want to enter the military or the business world--and the ivory tower proved to be safe. But, that is still another story.

Yet, now that I look back, that was the best schooling I could have gotten. I see that each job was a portal to another aspect of life, each job added a dimension to my life; each job was a lesson in what life was about; each job deepened by understanding that even the so-called lowly job had a high calling; each job showed me the interdependency we have on each other like individual stands in the spider web; each job left an impression of the wondrousness and complexity of people in the world about and with me. As I slowly realized I wasn't going to be a policeman or fireman or sailor or spaceman or athlete, as I jettisoned possibilities of a medical career by making choices or having choices made for me--sometimes reluctant and painful and scary--to become an academic, those scenes in my youth and experiences of my adolescence never allowed academia to shut me up in the ivory tower and to drape a curtailing and separating set of experiences over my psyche like some dark, heavy, victorian curtain. I could not forget that if any academic ever became infected with the virus of superiority, he or she should try putting a saw to the wood, hammer to the nail, screwdriver to the screw; plaster to the wall, shovel to the dirt; he or she should try building the building which houses the classroom from which he or she pontificates on high. When academics proclaim title to some lofty position by virtue of years put into study, they better stop and learn. The demands of becoming an electrician or plumber or welder or mason are often no less arduous than becoming a lawyer, CPA, doctor, Ph.D. These supposed "drones," as one e-mail colleague struggled to denigrated them and futilely tried to inflate herself as we vigorously discussed the issue of tenure, put in many years as apprentices, attend school, and take demanding board state exams than can be as tough as any professional boards.

In my family our collars were very white and I went to college to further bleach that collar, but in getting there my collar was blue. I have never lost the tint on my collar. I learned to respect the expertise, the craftsmanship of these often demeaned workers without whom the designs of modern society would remain as little more than doodles and dreams. I saw how a carpenter wields his tools with the skill of a surgeon, how a cook handles his food with talent of the master artist, how an electrician can read blueprints with the skill of an engineer and architect, and solves problems worthy of any intellectual; how a welder handles the flame as finely as a sculptor. I saw that they knew their physics, chemistry, mathematics, and engineering. They could talk with the best of them about psi, resistance, ohms, amps, volts. I learned how to work with my hands and learned that they were connected to my mind. I learned how to butter brick, mud a wall, plumb a line. I learned to pull wire, and draw pipe. Most important I learned to appreciate the those who work with rock and dirt and mind as much as those who work with words and ideas. They each have a confidence in their own expertise; they each don't understand the value of the other; they each are tentative and intimidated on the other's turf; they each haughtily throw demeaning labels at each other: egghead, laborer, daydreamer, commoner, etc.

Yet, there are times, I think I learned a lot more from those who proudly shared food for the tummy than from those who so often arrogantly threw down food for thought. There are times, I feel those supposed uneducated people were wiser people, more understanding people, more approachable, more supportive and encouraging people, more real people, more effective teachers than were my most of my professors with their less than exciting orations, long lines of degrees and resumes. There are times I think, especially after engaging in many a recent conversation about tenure, that in this vibrant, rapidly changing, competitive economy that provides less security, where cost cutting, deregulation, globalization, downsizing, merging, layoffs, retraining, new patterns of competition, new technologies, competitive pressure force companies to shed workers like a snake sheds its skin, these people have less a fear of life, more of a flexibility and adaptability to change, more of a survivor mentality, than many professors I know.

During those college days, struggling through school, one or two of jobs let me live out some of my fantasies. These days, the wildness of those dreams seem silly. No, not really. I still dream about the day I will fly in an F-16. I want to learn how to fly an airplane. I envy John Glenn and his upcoming flight into space. And, I will Harley cross-country some day. I still want to see new places, meet new people, experience new things, relish new foods. And the wondrous thing about it is, that by accident I am blessed to do those very things, each day, if I never leave Valdosta.

As for my labor, teaching, it is not a chore or burden or distraction at all. It's not about a job; it's not apart from life. It's about my life, my essence, as much as is my family. I don't see academia as a safe haven from life as I once did; nor do I let it impose an inflexibility or unadaptability as I once did. As the oldie song goes, don't fence me in. Give room, lots of room to roam under the starry skies above. I won't allow myself to be confined physically or emotionally or intellectually by and to an stuffy office filled with books. My world is also inhabited by hammers, saws, paint, hoes, trowels, shovels, pliers, and tools of various trades.

The world of my office is a good reflection of me. There are shelves filled with books, magazines and other paraphanalia of academia. It is also a poor version of FAO Schwartz, filled with toys on the floor and desk and shelves. My sacred objects of teaching, a cow's skull, posters, flashing signs decorate the walls. Inflatables dangle and dance from the ceiling. As I gaze at this one or that one, as I dip my wire ring into a Mr. Bubbles bottle, as I unwrap a Tootsie Pop, each is like Tinkerbell that takes me off to Never- never-land. I won't chain myself in a library filled with manuscripts as I once did; I wouldn't enslave myself in a lab filled with smells as I once hoped for. My world embraces people. I walk the campus each day to talk with people, mostly students and people who keep the campus operating.

I also prefer the wide open spaces of the classroom. The classroom has walls only if I have walls on my spirit. Walls are for buildings, not for my soul. For me, the classroom is not a circumscribed world. It's not narrow, not diminishing, not confining, not compromising as too many academics see it. It's a place where I cross geographical and social borders; it's a place where I wander, forge connections with people, have new experiences, where my sphere is ever expanding and changing shape like some floating globule in one of those table ornaments. I equate teaching with journeying, with venturing outward in the world, with mixing among other people, with engaging in the world, with extending myself toward the unfamiliar. I am challenged, tested, stretched, dazzled, exposed. Teaching is not by its nature a tethering, restricting, insular existence. I deal with people, gloriously and wondrously different each day. Each gathering of these people is a melange, each day is a bold and glorious mishmash. Each person is like a piece of those patchwork quilts I saw yesterday--bold and glorious hodgepodge of fabrics, colors, patterns and shapes: calicos, velvets, corduroys, cotton, synthetics, reds, yellows, browns, blues, stripes, diamonds, squares, triangles, rectangles, circles, flowers, cats, horses, birds, fish, dogs. Each day is like sewing on a new and unique piece that gives me meaning to living; each piece shouts at me to be different, to do something different, to be someone else, to do something else, to make sure, as a friend told me, that today is more interesting and more exciting and more important than yesterday. Each day someone leads me down a path I've never walked before; each day someone connects me with something I've never experienced before; each day someone asks me to taste a morsel that has never touched my palate before; each day I am introduced to sights I have never seen before each day opens my world a bit more, each day I now find begins and ends with an expectant "what next?" I love learning with people because I can't help but journey, explore, venture, witness, experience, connect with places, things, and above all, people.. Teaching--any profession and life--should not be otherwise.

Make it a good day. 


Louis Schmier           
Department of History    
Valdosta State University
Valdosta, GA  31698                        /~\    /\ /\
912-333-5947                       /^\    /   \  /  /~ \     /~\__/\
                                  /   \__/     \/  /     /\ /~      \
                            /\/\-/ /^\___\______\_______/__/_______/^\
                          -_~     /  "If you want to climb mountains, \ /^\
                             _ _ /      don't practice on mole hills" -\____

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