Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Fri, 29 Dec 1995 15:04:40 -0500 (EST)
A Random Thought: On Courage

I had several greeting cards waiting for me when I returned from spending the holiday weekend in Charlotte. One of them had been slipped under my office door. It was a simple card; it was really a folded 5x8 card, but it held untold value for me. On the outside of the fold was written "Remembering you on this season." The only thing written inside the fold was, "Sarah and Jonathan" (not their real names). It brought back a rush of memories that I could have drawn on to give an e-mail friend whom I met for the first time in the flesh this past weekend in Charlotte a much better response--well, at least, different one--to one of her statements than I did at the time.

We were talking about the internet, my Random Thoughts, and techniques that I used in class when she said she admired that I had the courage to share myself on the internet and take risks in the class room. BAll I could muster at the moment was a sincere and quiet "Thank you. I really appreciate that."

Now, I'm not sure what courage really is, and I won't get entangled in that briar patch. But, whatever it is and if I have it, I think it is because I've had and continue to have some pretty inspiring teachers. Let me tell you about one of them--Sarah

Sarah was one of those "developmental studies" students who so many professors whisper in dismay doesn't belong in college, whom they point at to demonstrate the decline of quality in higher education because as someone on e-mail said, "they're letting everyone and anyone in." Aside for the fact she helps swell our body count as we mindlessly race towards that magic plateau of a student body of 10,000, she is an unwanted presence in academia's womb who so many professors argue should be aborted.

After reading her card, I went over to an old box and I pulled out her journal. I hadn't read it in a long, long time. Over the quarter, bits and pieces scattered here and there in the journal and passing comments during conversations we had as she struggled, in her words, "to be someone", conjured up living images of Erskine Caldwell's _Tobacco Road_. I learned that this 18 year old was struggling to walk a different road. She was the first in her uneducated, poor, rural, clan to finish high school in spite of her teachers' efforts to convince her to drop out "for her own good" because she got pregnant and had a son while in the 10th grade. Her three older sisters never finished school because they had gotten pregnant or had to help support the family. "They were caught up," as Sarah wrote, "in a bunch of nothing jobs going nowhere but where they was" and "in worthless marriages" and "had nowhere else to go or any one to help them." Her older brother had dreams of going to college but had been forced against his will to drop out to get a job "to help the family make ends meet and got to drinking so he could forget his anger about being trapped for life in a deadline job."

She had written in one of her beginning of quarter "gettin' to know ya" exercises that I use to start creating an atmosphere of a supportive learning community, that she was not sure she belonged in college or was any better than mediocre. I remember that what got my eye was when she wrote, "I have to find out who was telling the truth, my heart or my kin and teachers. I'm scared to know what's a dream and what's real. But I've got to know." She had been troubled by an uncertainty of whether she was doing the right thing. She wrote that "no one ever read to me. We never had no money left over for books and magazines and stuff in my house. We had barely enough to scratch together for rent and food and some clothes." Elsewhere she said that "books and stuff were no good nohow in my family 'cause there wasn't much schooling. My mother never went higher than the third grade and couldn't read much more than a stick. Daddy is a kind soul and does odd jobs and can read just enough to get by but he doesn't tell anyone 'cause he's learned how to get around without readin'. It had been a fight for Sarah to finish school. "Everyone in school was telling me that I would be best off if I left school and went out and got a job. They thought I was an embarrassment and sinful 'cause of my son and didn't want to be around me for fear of something rubbing off their precious selves. What they really meant was that I was white trash not worth caring about." Everyone back home, friends and family had been accusing her of being "shiftless because I wouldn't quit school after Jonathan was born and earn some money." They kept telling her that she had no business in "going off into the world that belonged to my betters" and that she was "uppity in thinking she was better than the rest of them." The only encouragement she received was from her father. She was the apple of his eye. He never knew--though her mother did--that know she, like her sisters, had been sexually abused for many years by her maternal grandfather that left her soul darkened and deeply scarred with feelings of inadequacy, guilt, and shame .

She had come to VSU with a poor to mediocre high school average, low SATs, a low expected GPA, placed in "developmental" reading and math courses. "Everyone is waiting back home with a bunch of 'I told you so's." Those scores may have said something-- I'm not sure what--about her skills, but they couldn't measure her heart. And, the heart is the wand and top hat of magic. She came to VSU with no goals except, as she wrote in her journal, "to get out and get better." She displayed so many of what is clinically called "hidden success-limiting factors." But, she had determination--and courage. She never knew where her drive came from since as she wrote, "except for my father, I don't remember many kindly words said about me or kindly things done to me." Elsewhere she wrote that "I have to find out the truth about me. I think I can live with the truth, but I don't think I can without it. I'm scared to know, but I gotta (sic)."

Then, about two weeks into the class, after we had done our "getting to know ya" exercises, after Sarah had gotten up and sung solo to the class, as the triads were struggling to gel, after we had done one project, what I thought was a small moment occurred. It turned out to be Bone of those great events. Sarah began to find that truth.

It was the first weekly, open, 25-short-answer-question quiz. One of the questions, about the ninth or tenth read:

     One of the major differences between the Spanish and
     English colonization was that

     a.  the English colonies were established more as refuges 
           and business enterprises than were the Spanish
     b.  the Spanish came to the New World more as settlers
           than as conquerors and plunders
     c.  the English populated their colonies less than did
           the Spanish
     d.  the availability of lots of gold and silver made the
           English colonies stronger than the Spanish colonies
The correct answer, "a", was taken word for word from the textbook. As I roamed about the class, I noticed that Sarah was disagreeing with the other members of her triad. They said the answer was "a" while she argued that "d" was the correct answer. And though she was finally outvoted, as members from different triads started discussing and debating the answers, Sarah argued for her choice. All of the triads, however, decided in favor of "a." I remained straight-faced through it all. I was at least impressed with her stand, but thought she had completely misunderstand this portion of the material.

At the end of class, Sarah came up to me and asked me for the correct answer. I told her it was "a".

"You're wrong, too" she argued. "It's a bad question because the answer is also 'd' and it's in the book.

"I copied that answer from the book."

With disappointment appearing on her face, she requested in a quieter voice, "Show me."

As students in the next class were filing in, I reached down and open the textbook book. Parting the pages, I pointed, "Right here. It says: 'One of the major differences between the Spanish and English colonization was that the English colonies were established more as refuges and business enterprises than were the Spanish.' 'd' is wrong because the English did not have access to large amounts to gold and silver like the Spanish. It made the Spanish initially stronger, not the English."

Then, in one of those moments that every teacher prays for, Sarah asked, "What does 'initially' mean?"

"At first," I answered.

"Right," she exclaimed. "At first! It also says here," as her finger followed the words a few lines down, "the Spanish were stronger at first because they had found lots of gold and silver."

"See," I interrupted.

"Hold on. Hush your mouth," she respectfully chastised me as she put her finger to my lips and started tasting the sweet fruits of victory and as the other students who were now listening giggled. One of them yelled out, "go after him." She turned her head and acknowledged the support with a nod of her head and a smile. Then, she turn back to me with a feigned scowl. "BUT (her emphasis), it also says that in the long run the reliance on gold and silver made the Spanish colonies weaker than the English ones that built up businesses and trade. So, the availability of gold and silver DID (once again, her emphasis) make the English colonies stronger. You're wrong! Gottcha?"

I thought about it for a few seconds. She did have me. I could feel the audience of students staring at me. "Yep," I conceded as I pulled out an orange Tootsie Pol from my shirt pocket and handed it to her with obvious excitement written all over my face at both her challenge and use of logic, "you got me. I never thought of it that way. 'd' is also right."

The class broke out into cheers. Sarah turned and took an earned bow, and then turned to me.

With her finger poind at my nose, she once again chastised me, "You forgot the chair (one of the critical thinking exercise we do at the beginning of class). Remember there's more than one way of looking at things, and they don't always have to be yours," she beamed as if she had just gotten a 300cc injection of confidence. "And," she added over her shoulder as she swaggered out the door, "don't forget to the tell the class tomorrow. I'm not lettin' you get away. By the way, watch out from now on. I'll be lookin' to nail ya again." B

She wrote in her journal that day, "Maybe it is true. I ain't nobody's white trash. Dare I hope that there won't be any of those 'I told you so's? I almost want to go back and stick in those teachers' faces. But if I did, I'd be as low as them. I won't, but I do so want to" As the quarter progressed, as we worked on her study and learning skills together, as we just small talked when she just needed someone to talk with, as she found support and encouragement in both her triad and the entire class to take more risks, her hope became a reality. She slowly, hesitantly, unsteadily started to part the opaque curtain and peek inside to get a glimpse of what potential lay within her. With agonizing, but deliberate slowness, she struggled with her self- consciousness, meekly asking a question here, whispering a statement during a class discussion there, fighting self- consciousness or the fear of looking stupid or the anxiety of facing ridicule. She won herself a few Tootsie Pops arcing in the air headed towards her for that struggle and displaying the courage.

Sarah is still hanging in there, still fighting her demons, talking with a professional, still holding down a job to pay her tuition expenses, still devoted to her son, still cut off from most her family. The only person she occasionally talks to in her family, who will talk with her, is her father. She's sad about that, but as she says, "sometimes you have to pay a price. But, if you keep looking back, you'll be sure to trip over something." She'll be a Junior soon. She met a guy she likes, but the harsh memories still sometimes get in the way. She comes into the office about once a quarter "just to see what new crazy stuff you've added"--she liked the leg sticking out from under the front of the desk--sometimes she has her son whom she used to bring to class whenever she had baby-sitting problems. She reads to him every night. She once dropped him off in the office for an hour when her baby sitter didn't show because her professor wouldn't hear of her bringing him to class. We had fun blowing bubbles and eating Tootsie Pops together. I'm not sure who was the kid. When Sarah pops her head in the office, we go out and sit in the hall and lick Tootsie Pops and talk together, not as professor and student, but just as two human beings who care. She's not tearing up the campus academically. She's not going to be a Phi Beta Whatever or get any other kind of award or recognition. She's still not sure what she wants to be. Last time we talked, about six weeks ago, she said, "I don't want much money more than enough to make sure Jonathan ain't wanting for nothing (I corrected her grammar). Never had much and wouldn't know what to do with it. I just want to be something like a nurse or teacher or social worker or someone where I can help others dream and make their dreams come true."

And if any of you may wonder why I am an avowed educational "Right to Lifer", just think of Sarah. She has made a difference to me. What a loss it would have been for me, if I had not gotten to know her. I just told someone that teaching is a curious craft. Where else can you help make magic that walks the face of the Earth, helping create a kind of magic that is forever.

Yes, if I've learned courage, it's because I have inspiring teachers.

Make it a good day.


Louis Schmier  (912-333-5947)
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