Can’t sleep been up since 3:15 a.m. I was thinking about a “….thank you for caring about me….” message I had received a few weeks ago from a student of thirteen years ago whom I’ll call Joe. The subject line of Joe’s message read “A Long Overdue Thank You.” That message, those particular words took me back over fifty years to Dr. Birdsal Viault. You know, as John Dewey said, we never learn from our experiences, we only learn from reflecting on our experiences. This reflection is where I get really personal about what teachers, or anyone who cares about someone else, can do.
I unknowingly began to walk the road to who I presently am by stepping into Dr. Birdsal Viault’s history class as a default history major in the fall of my junior year. My already weak self-esteem and self-confidence had been shaken to the core by the seismic devastation of a sophomore semester that dashed my–and my family’s–visions of a medical career on the rocks of a lousy transcript. I was feeling more pain than usual, feeling a more than usual sadder disappointment to myself and others, feeling smaller than usual, feeling more unseen in a darker corner, feeling more unworthy and more incompetent than usual. I had reinforced the walls and deepened the moats of my inner redoubt to further protect myself.
About a third of the way into the semester, after handing in a short research paper, Birdsal Viault called me into his office. I thought I would receive the usual caustic “you don’t know how” destructive dressing down I had received so many times from other professors and high school teachers before them. I vividly remember him saying to my surprise, “Mr. Schmier (he always used the formal address), you have a lot of potential. You are a good researcher and a very good writer. I’ll help you if you want me to.” At the time, being a-washed in the formidable shame of “not good enough” and “don’t belong,” I stood there stunned, mentally looking around with a puzzled “who, me?” For a moment I thought he was talking to someone else in his office behind me. After all, only two years earlier I had been a high school graduate voted “clown of the class” by my fellow-students, and my teachers almost unanimously said I would be the least likely college-bound graduate in the class of 1958 to succeed. The first two years, with a GPA dragged down by poor grades, it seemed that I was fulfilling their prophecy. But, Birdsal Viault ignored all that. He saw something in me Over the next two years, he worked with me, encouraged me, had faith in me, invested in me. In his own very, very reserved way, Birdsal Viault, only eight years my senior and relatively new to the professorial game, began to help me start taking down everything I had put up that was supposed to keep me safe, or, at least, he helped me to begin to remodel my sanctuary.
Now a Mr. Keating he wasn’t. He was not one to rip pages out of a book or to get photographs to whisper or to go out on retreats in caves or to jump up on desks. He was not given demonstratives. The reserved airs Dr. Viault maintained made him not one for boisterous academic rah-rahs. I could never envision him as a pom-pom waving professorial cheerleader. He never wore his emotion on his sleeve; he almost embodied the idea that emotion was something to which those in the Ivory Tower not succumb, much less display. He seemed outwardly to numb his emotions; he never let his guard down, always maintaining “proper” professorial decorum, always costuming everything he said and did in intellectual garb, always being the stately Ph.D. he thought he was supposed to be. But, his empathy and compassion, closely guarded as they may have been, came though his outwardly tough armor. He always came out from behind his separating desk, pulling a chair to sit next to me when giving me feedback. His support and encouragement was subdued, slow, patient, and kind, but challenging, demanding, and pushing–and touching.
His comments to my work and me were always kind, constructive, supportive, and encouraging. He never said an angry or corrosive word to me. He always accentuated the positive. He was the first to make me open my eyes–even if they were at the time only a squint–make me feel like I had a future, that I could dream, that I had a unique potential. He showed me things about my self that I didn’t know and didn’t believe were there. It was he who gave me confidence to go on for my Masters degree and then at his urging on for my Ph.D. He made a difference in my life; he helped send me on my way. It was a way I would never have struggled to find, the way ahead to a meaningful, satisfied, purposeful, and fulfilling life. Though he sent me on my way, it was a route that was still fraught with a struggle between an angelic sense of worthiness to be loved and belong on one hand and the demonic minions of self-doubt and worry. It wasn’t until I had my shape-shifting epiphany twenty-eight years later that spark Dr. Viault struck burst into a brilliant flame. I realized at that moment in late 1991 that you find your way not by just opening doors to the amazing unknown ahead, but by what hard doors you close behind you, acting out from a place of knowing your worthiness.
Birdsal Viault has since died. He had lived a short hop from Charlotte where my Susie and I often had visited her parents. But, for some reason, he wouldn’t take my calls, wouldn’t agree for me to call upon him, would never answer my letters, would never respond to my later emails. I don’t know why and I won’t speculate. Then, again, he never was able to accept a “thank you;” always seemingly embarrassed by those two appreciative words. I see now that Dr. Viault, for whatever reasons, might have had what Brene Brown in her “Daring Greatly” calls an “allergy to vulnerability.” I always had a sense that he had built a protective facade around himself, with which I could relate, against being hurt or being seen as weak or being accused of gullibility, or being assaulted as “unprofessional,” or being judged as unmanly. I remember overhearing the chair of the department assailing Dr. Viault as if he was trying to beat the emotion out of him, asserting that when it came to me, Dr. Viault was wasting his precious time, that he should stop being so emotional and, in his words, “just cut him out from the herd.” Nevertheless, he cautiously became my ally. He quietly dared greatly to reach out. He secretly made a connection, and silently went all in wholeheartedly. Though I don’t think he realized it, he had thrown caution to the wind and had put a lot of himself on the line for me.
So, Dr. Viault, though you wouldn’t allow me to say it in person, thank you for being who you were and still are to me. Thank you for extending your hand and having the first hand in my achievement. Thank you for not being isolated and remote, for noticing me, for acknowledging me, for your beautiful thoughts, for mentoring me, for caring about me, for being kind to me, for nurturing me, for loving me in your own reserved way, for having faith in me, for believing in me, for taking me from being stuck in the abyss of hopelessness to start climbing up to the heights of hopefulness, for taking me from ugliness to getting a first peek at my beauty, for being my “philosopher’s stone” and helping me to start transmuting from a base metal of worthlessness to having a noble mettle of worthiness, for letting me begin developing my own “elixir of life,” for supporting me when no one else would, for encouraging me when all others did just the opposite. While I could never pay off the debt I owe you, I realized, however, as someone said, my greatest acts of gratitude is living by them, doing for others what you did for me, that I could “pay off my debt forward” by unconditionally loving with my whole heart and soul, by willing to show up and go all in, and by helping others to be their own alchemists as you helped me. So, I thank you, Birdsal Viault. All the Joes whom you’ve touched through me thank you. And, I thank all the Birdsal Viaults who were and are out there transforming lives, as teachers should, and not just credentialing. Wherever and whoever you all are, I am deeply grateful.