Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Tue, 27 Apr 1999 06:26:39 -0400 (EDT)
Random Thought: My Fourth Word in My Dictionary of Good Teaching

Good morning. It's garbage and re-cycle pick-up day in the neighborhood. In front of each house, cavernous green garbage bins ominously rose, guarding each house at the streets' curbs like silent Easter Island megaliths. Some bins were overflowing. Their huge lids ajar and like open giant mouths vomiting society's indigestibles. Next to them, loomed occasional piles of irregularly shaped shadowy masses of throw-aways looking like the oceans' blighting floatsam haphazardly gathered and heaped on a beach after a storm.

At first, I didn't think anything of them. My mind was on the mosquitoes with the wing spread of eagles that were hovering above me like featherless falcons looking for prey. In south Georgia, when you spring the clock ahead an hour, you spring over spring into torrid summer.

But, it was not soon that I began noticing this strange processional lining the streets. As I turned my head, I began thinking about one word over and over to the rythm of my steps and the cadance of passing each bin: junk, junk, junk, junk.

And as that word clunked around in my head, a series of events slowly came together like a confluence of tributaries forming a river. First, there was a disturbing, at least disturbing to me, message from a mid-western university professor I have been pondering for almost a week because I didn't really know how to respond. He wrote me that the words I was providing Kenny for my dictionary of good teaching were, in his words, "dangerous" and illusionary." "With the type of students they are now letting into our colleges and universities," he asserted, "it's impossible not to feel that going into a classroom is like trampling through a junkyard. You're setting this Kenny up for a fall." Now before you shake your head in disbelief, too many have the same thoughts and have uttered equal laments only in less graphic terms: "Oh, what is academia coming to!" "They're letting anybody in these days." "Students today don't have the dedication to learning like they used to." "They aren't as prepared as they once were." "They don't want to work as they once did." Those statements may sound somewhat benign, but they no less malign then does "junk."

That, and those bins prodded a second thought. I thought of the time this winter, I saw three huge plastic planting pots placed on the curb for a garbage pickup. In the dim light, my gardener's eye saw that vacant pots were filled with rich potting soil, a treasure for me. After my walk, I went back and loaded them in my car. I put them on my patio for the winter. Lo and behold, in these discards sprouted a hoard of purple cone flower and rudibekia seedlings that are now delightfully decorating my flower garden.

And finally, there was a student I'll call Janet. This professor would probably call her a piece of junk. When she first enter the class and through most of the semester until about two weeks ago she would have initally agreed. She had been told in no uncertain terms by an adviser at another college that she should go to a vocational school because "she didn't have what it takes to be in college."

"I can't get her words out of my head," Janet would always say during conversation after conversation as I struggled to encourage and support her. I can't tell you how many half dollars for the uncountable times she uttered and stuttered a negative about herself. "She made me feel like a piece of useless junk that should be thrown away and forgotten." That retardant self-censor had extinguished the fire in her eyes, leaving her adrift and lost in a darkened "dead zone." That word "junk" sat on her shoulder like an ugly, loop-necked vulture picking away at her spiritless carcass.

Two weeks ago, after making a creative presentation during the Scavenger Hunt Project, I'll just say that her lump of coal became a diamond in the rough. After I gave her thumbs up after thumbs up, after I told her for all the other students to hear, "Don't you ever disrespect yourself and call yourself a piece of junk again," she said to me, "Think maybe I'm not a piece a junk but a chest with a few gems in me?"

"No maybe about it," I winked. I can't wait to see her Broadway Project production.

As I thought of these three images, without a warning, the fourth word in my dictionary for good teaching that I am to hand over to Kenny came to mind. With every step I found the loud, hard, sharp clunking of "junk" slowly being challenged by a whisper and then drown out with a resonant, melodic, and triumphant trumpeting: WILBY, WILBY, WILBY.

No, WILBY is not a jargon word or an anagram. Wilby is a person, and he can tell you something about junk and treasure. His name is Wilby Coleman. No, he is not a professor or an administrator or a staff person. Wilby Coleman is a local prominent ex-lawyer turned local prominent artist who abandoned his profession for his passion, his love. He now is more at home with an acetylene touch in his hand than he was with a writ; more comfortable in his cluttered workshop behind his house than in a pristine office and courtroom; more natural in his jeans than in a three piece suit; more delighted talking about his metal sculptures than his court cases.

How to describe his art. Some would call it junk art, but there is nothing junky about his art. Some would call it baffling, but he works with such clarity and dedication.

For him the junkyard is an oasis rather than a wasteland. What most people see as a dirty graveyard, for him is a rich repository fraught with life. What people pronounce dead, he hears a heart beat; what people turn from, he takes a turn at. In someone's in a rusted radiator he feels a radiance; in someone's discard, he finds a find; in someone's throwaway, he finds a keepsake; in someone's rubbish, he finds valuables; someone's spring cleaning makes him spring. There junk yard is overflowing with cinderellas.

He doesn't use one of earth's honored, precious metals to make the stuff of dreams, but he dreams of making common metals uncommonly precious; he gets a bang out of other people's clunkers; he sees life and function and worth in what other people decide is dead and no longer useful or functional. He makes the clunker ring and sing, the dull shine. But, to do all that he had to learn how to work with metal, to cut, torch, wield, bend--how to listen and see. But, to see a vitality in that tossed rusty saw, he first had to see his own vitality. When you see his art, you see him. There are no masks, no uniforms, no inauthenticity. To treasure that junk, he first discovered and revealed his own inner treasure, his own talent, own ability, own artistry, own creativity, own imagination, own potential, own truth, own purpose.

He has a midas touch in which inner beauty shines through and blots out surface ugliness; he invites excitement and banishes the mundane. He lets the materials tell him what to say; he lets them make what they want to make. He is in partnership with them.

As you walk up his long driveway, you cannot be non-chalant. Well, I guess you can, but then you wouldn't be alive. His metal sculptures dot his wooded landscape, rising from the loam like strange looking saplings, dancing like wild flowers in the woods, swaying like tree branches in the breeze. One or two sing like the birds. They are playful objects, abstracts as mysterious as life forms from an alien world. His house is decorated by an orchestra of sizes, shapes, textures. You find drama or humor where you least expect it. In a corner or on the floor here, on a wall or up in the ceiling there, but always seriousness and importance everywhere. As he gave me a tour of his house, I found he likes the puzzled "huh," the solving "ahaaa," the ponderous "hmmmmm," the excited "wow," the understanding "yea." He wants you to see, not just look; listen, not just hear; feel and think and reflect, not just walk by.

Like the good teacher, he is far more of a transformer than a tinkerer. His work speaks the vocabulary of the good teacher: begin, continue, enjoy, play, smile, love, hope, belief, faith, imagine, create, blossom, alive, nourish, embrace, self, challenge, question, happy, respect, patience, wonder, joy, endurance, fun.

He does it with such pizzaz. He is not a machine pounding it out in a production line fashion; this is a unique human being who sees a uniqueness, a special life, in each piece that makes up each sculpture. Like the good teacher, he opens us to an experience we don't normally have with a thing or subject or person. Like the good teacher, Wilby has the power to see so much in so much that others see so little. "See life in a rusty saw," he proclaims in both word and work. "Know that there is still spring in an old spring. Sit down with a tractor seat. Refuse to believe things are just useless refuse. Dress up dross." No, for Wilby junk, uselessness, ugliness, beauty, useful treasure exist in the eyes of the beholder.

To use the jargon, he and his art is a metaphor for the good teacher's powerful alphabetical pardigm shift from merely _M_oving in the classroom to _L_oving and therefore experiencing true L_i_ving. And when that happens, what to others seem to be an eyesore, with a little faith and belief--and hard work--for the good teacher is transformed into an eyesoar.

So, next time you have an inclination to see a student as a piece of junk, a throwaway, a reject, or a cast off, think of Wilby, and remember that every obstacle is an opportunity in disguise just as, in the right hands and with the right heart, every piece of apparent junk is a potentially, hidden treasure. Then, maybe you'll take time to pause and notice and reach out and embrace.

Yeah, WILBY is my fourth word. I think Kenny will like it word when he understands.

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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