Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Sun, 25 Feb 1996 08:09:05 -0500 (EST)
Subject: Random Thought: Yemenja

On the dark, panelled wall in my office, above my computer desk, floats an elongated, 15 X 3 inch, bleached, pine, hand- carved primitive African "kuumba" mask. It has been there since I found it one August, 1994, morning leaning against my office door. It had been wrapped simply in a cut-up grocery store paper shopping bag loosely tied with kite string. Hand written on it was an equally simple note: "For giving me a voice, opening my eyes, and for your 'Kuumba'. As-salaam alaikyum. Yemenja"

Yemenja is a non-traditional African-American who was in my first year history class the previous spring quarter. She is not a sculptress by hobby or an art major. She must have spent the entire summer tediously and lovingly hand-carving that mask. I was deeply touched by this unexpected gesture. I quickly and tenderly hung it on the wall where I would see it every day. It has become my most treasured of those sacred objects of my teaching I have scattered around my office that both comfort me and annoy me. Its slanted, deep, dark eye-cuts seem to stare down at me in silent vigil. Like a sentinel, it watches over me to protect me against the assaults of the dark hordes of arrogance and amnesia. There's an eeriness about it. It always seems to float above my computer desk unattached to the dark panelled wall. At times, I can almost hear whispered warnings that I not get so taken with myself that I stop remembering why I do what I do. Once or twice, I've felt an inner sensation as if it was peering into my soul to see if I have stopped asking who I am and what I do and what I should struggle to become and should strive to do. It is the first thing I look at when I enter my office. A day doesn't go by that I don't feel its presence hovering above me as I mediate before going to class. A day doesn't go by that I don't look back at it as assurance and to assure it as I leave my office for class. A day doesn't go by that I don't see some different meaning in it.

For the last two weeks, particularly strong images of that totem have been hovering about me: in class, on all of my walks. Even 300 miles away throughout on-goings of an exciting and invigorating three day conference on teaching in South Carolina it made its mysterious presence felt. It was, at times, eerie. I saw its blurry reflection in the window of the hotel's health room as I struggled to get my mind off the boredom of walking on the treadmill. It seemed to envelop me as I presented my workshop at the conference. My heart's eye caught a glimpse of a faint incorporeal apparition every now and then as I offered a group of graduate students in the University of South Carolina's School of Education called what their professor kindly called an impromptu evening master teacher seminar.

I didn't really know why something so simple had such a strong hold on me. This late February foggy morning, sweating along the pre-dawn streets in a tropical low 70s and humidity in high 80s, after witnessing and experiencing almost two weeks of volatile gut- wrenching, soul-searching, at times brutally honest and personal discussions, arguments, reflections, exchanges and confrontations, I think I began to understand. To explain, I have to back up.

Before I met Yemenja in person, I was introduced to her by rumor, innuendo, and warning. A colleague from my department approached me a day or two before classes had begun. I vividly remember him saying, "I hear that Yemenja woman is in your class. You better watch out and keep an eye on her. She's one of them Black Muslims and you know what they're like. You're going to have your hands full keeping her under control and in line." Other colleagues from other departments similarly approached me. I'm not sure they were expressing concern for my well-being because I was Jewish, or reacting to their own experiences or bias, or gloating that she was going to put me to the test. Anyway, uncomplimentary words and phrases and tones easily fell from their lips: pushy, rude, troublemaker, feminist, pain in the ass, loud-mouth, radical, black activist, inconsiderate, controller, disrespectful, bitchy, argumentative, dominating.

Outwardly, I non-shalantly shrugged off their warning with a confident "great. I'm looking forward to having her in my class", but inwardly I nervously signed a not so confident "oh, my god." For the next day or two, I fought all kinds of crazy images and anxieties.

I didn't have long to find out. It was true that Yemenja had a commanding presence about her. In dress, speech, and demeanor, she couldn't be missed and wouldn't be ignored. It never occurred to her to censor herself because I might have thought ill of her, or that the other students might not agree with her or feel uncomfortable with both her views and demeanor. She never let a fear of going against the grain, swimming against the current, or of being unpopular stop her.

Whether we were talking about the Spanish attitude and treatment of natuves upon their arrival in the New World or the establishment of slavery or the religious Great Awakening or the writing of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution or the early 19th century American reform movement or the struggle in ante-bellum United States or the rise of American capitalism or the Populist movement or ....., she led the charge and unintentionally saw to it that the class was not a model of decorum, that its dynamics were anything but conventional business as usual, and that order was never the order of the day. She challenged assumptions and values, warded off dissent; she criticised gender bias, confronted racial prejudice, grappled with religious hypocrisy, denounced class division and oppression, argued about the legitimacy of capitalist economic exploitation, talked about student submissiveness.

It was a quarter that was uplifting, exciting, and adventurous. But, it was also tense, uneasy, uncomfortable, and threatening quarter. It was physically and emotional exhausting. The stock of mylanta, tylenol, excerdrin--and Beringer--went through the roof. I can't remember one class that I didn't enter or leave relaxed. Sticky palms, nervous stomach, and sweaty shirts were common. Seldom did a class progress as quickly, safely, according to MY agenda, and smoothly as in a class that was either controlled or homogenous. There were moments of panic when I thought things would get out of hand.

I have to admit there was many a day I wished I could put the condom back on the classroom and practice "safe teaching." At times, I wished I could sleepwalk to valuing the presence of each and every student, or that teaching in different ways would be like cozying cozy up to a warm, comfortable fire, or that thinking in different ways about education and students and me would be like the delight of eating a scrumptious double banana split.

But, I bit my lip and said a silent prayer to myself and acknowledged that none of this teaching and learning came cheap or easy. There were claw marks all over my identity, scratches and bruises marred my mind-set, choke marks colored my soul where I had fought futility, thankfully, to cling to my old ways. I was preaching new ideas and was embracing new ways of thinking and teaching, but Yemenja made me see that I still had a long way to go because I still wanted to cling to too many comforting and safe old ways of practicing my teaching. Yet, I discovered I had a fierce will to struggle to let my practicing reflect by beliefs, to break the still too narrow boundaries that encapsuled the way the classroom functioned. I had to accept the simple, but difficult truth that if the classroom is really a free market place of ideas, I had to struggle to let it be free; that if I wanted students to develop their own voice, I would have to let them voice and hear their own voice. And, as I struggled to respect and accept the challenge of this new way to experience, I saw that as other students saw I was willing not only to let Yemenja voice, but respectfully hear her voice, they began being their own voice. And, she began to hear their voices--and my voice--dialogue appeared and mutally respectful understanding developed.

Now, almost two years later, I wonder who the real student was in the class. It has taken me this long to consciously realize what I had learned, had started learning, from that class and from Yemenja. My soul knew it, but my mind just figured it out. My heart's eye saw it, but my mind's eye just took off it blinding patch: I began to learn that maybe the material I most want students to know at any one time isn't necessarily what learning is all about; I started learning different ways of knowing and of saying and of understanding; I saw I had to learn to devise a flexible grading system, keeping standards high, valuing excellence while abandoning absolute and fixed criteria; I began to see that mine wasn't the only important voice to listen to; I continued the struggle to learn to become an involved observer, worker, particpant rather than a distant and detached reader reciting in front of the classroom; I started learning to allow the students, and myself, to talk about personal experience, sharing personal memories and narratives while linking them with academic knowledge--and began to see more clearly how it enhanced their capacity to know, to understand, and to want to learn; I began to learn ways that transformed consciousness and created a climate of free expression; I started learn to question more both the site and perspective from which I teach and the students learn; I began to see more clearly that my voice must always be changing and evolving as I recognize and acknowledge the uniqueness of each student and of his/her change and evolution; I learned more how to teach so the students would learn how to listen seriously to themselves and to one another, to talk with each other rather than at each other, and to learn that more than the professor has something important to say; I began to see with greater sharpness how the classroom is a place where even the student, then, can have authority in the learning process.

That class proved to be critical in my growth, and Yemenja was an important person in my learning. I didn't realize how important until just now. She had helped me travel farther down those difficult personal and professional roads I had started walking a eighteen mongths earlier and gave me both insight and confidence to continue walking them since.

Now I know why that mask is such a strong totem for me. Coming to think about it. Maybe, it should have been I who should have spent many of those summer hours tediously making a carving for Yemenja.

Make it a good day.


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

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