WHAT REALLY MATTERS

Saturday is my 74th birthday. It has become a sober as well as a celebrating time for me.  For the past seven years, before the elated moments of celebrating with Susie, and the joyous gorging myself on her cheesecake, I always feel deeply introspective, dive real deep, about my birthday.  I shouldn’t be here.  Saturday will be exactly seven years, one month, two weeks, six days that I’ve been living on the edge of life.  The early morning of that day, Friday, September 14, 2007, the second day of Rosh Hashanah, was for me not just the beginning of a new year, but the start of a new life.  That day was the day I should have died.  That day was the day I experienced an unexpected massive cerebral hemorrhage from which 95% die or survive with serious mental and physical impairments.  And, here I am.  Alive.  Unscathed.  I vividly remember the neurosurgeon tearfully telling me six weeks after my head exploded, on the afternoon of November, 1, 2007, the very day of my 67th birthday, that he’s never seen a “walking 5% miracle.”   His clean bill of health and promise that I was not a ticking time bomb were not too bad birthday gifts!

A “walking 5% percent miracle.”  That number changes you.  At least, it did me.  A day hasn’t gone by since that I haven’t asked the unanswerable question, “Why?”  Why did it happen without warning.  Why wasn’t I among the other 95%.  When I was told that possibly the hemorrhage was the result of a cracked skull I had suffered in a collegiate soccer game almost exactly 48 years earlier, I realized how tightly my present life is tied to its past; that life is not a bunch of separated and isolated way stations; that it’s really a process that is at times obvious and not so obvious.  Events of days gone by are intimately connected with events of today and with those which will be bye and bye.

I also came to realize that merely asking questions has a motivating, generating, maybe even inspirational, power.  You see, I don’t stop thinking, don’t stop wondering, don’t stop being grateful, don’t stop going deeper inside, don’t stop seeing keener outside, don’t take anything for granted, don’t stop living.  I don’t stop realizing that the view from that edge is so much clearer than the view that most of us have.  It creates new realities.  It puts so much in better perspective.  It sharpens what seems so indistinct; it brings up close what seems to be so afar; it makes reachable what seems to be so inaccessible; it makes simple what seems so complicated; it makes extraordinary what seems so ordinary; it makes beautiful what seems so otherwise.   It brings into focus what is really important.

What was G.E.’s slogan? “Better living through science?”   Sure, it was a week of science in neuro-icu at the University of Florida’s Shands Hospital that kept me here, and the months of science at home to avoid brain seizures, to deal with recurring headaches, and to endure chemical spinal meningitis as I healed also kept me here.   But, to live well, not just to live better, much less just to live, takes more than that; it needs more than just being here.  It’s the intense questions beyond information and skill:  ”Now what?”  ”What are you going to do with your ‘here’ and ‘now?’”  ”How do I celebrate living and just having survived?”  ”How do I make sure I won’t die before I die?”

Like a Roc, out from the ashes of catastrophe arose a significant mobilizing and strengthening of my already strong value system with which to live a good life. The cerebral hemorrhage has caused me to see more intensely.  It has more keenly sharpened my eye for Robert Frost’s road less traveled.  It has made me more aware of Linda Ellis’ dash.  It has mades me more mindful of meaning and purpose, especially in those classrooms.  By all this, I mean what you’re leaving behind in the hearts and minds of other people such as Sam and those two students I met Monday at the Student Union is far more important than whatever title, position, authority, renown, and stuff you may have accumulated.  On a personal level, so many of have been told that when you get that salary increase or get that promotion or secure that tenure, or present that conference paper or receive that grant or publish that research, you will be fulfilled, satisfied, and especially happy.  So many know, but won’t admit, that it is not true.
Let me tell you something about the soul of education.  It is the sense of meaning, purpose, and service through human relationships.  The validation of the human agenda in education has the power to make a difference.  It’s the power of presence, of human relationship and connection, of simply being there, of listening and seeing, of hospitably welcoming, of totally embracing, of sincerely caring, of being in the service of another person.
A teacher is one of those serving people who realizes that everyone is a vital thread in the fabric of the future; everyone has a unique potential; everyone has dreams; everyone hopes; everyone has grace; everyone has a too often a hidden, ignored, and forgotten sacredness and nobility; everyone is beloved.  A teacher is an unconditional believer, a befriender, a listener, a healer, an accompaniment, a companion, a seeker, an uncoverer, a gift giver, a retriever, a helper, a transformer, a supporter, an encourager, an empathic, a nurturer, a recoverer, a reminder, and a lover. And, letting that matter above all else both to you and each of them.  I’ll repeat that:  and, letting that matter above all else both to you and each of them.
I’ll repeat something I just said in the previous Random Thought:   my TEACHER’S OATH, whose emergence is directly connected to my survival, is about remembering, bringing out of hiding, recapturing, and restoring the soul of education.  You’ll find it’s not about pedagogical qualities or technological qualities.  It’s about qualities of human relationship.  Your unconditional belief in, hope for, faith in, and love of each student is important to each student, but most professors don’t know or want to know that; that unconditional belief in, hope for, faith in, and  love of each student is important to each professor, but most professors don’t know or want to know that.
Education is one of those endeavors that is as close to love as you can get.   To build a trained, caring, spiritual, serving educational system that is worthy of students and us all, that’s my integrity; it’s my truth; it’s the place in me from whence comes my greatest truth.  And, my cerebral hemorrhage placed me more entrenched in that place.

Louis

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BELIEVING IS SEEING, III

How does that saying go?  In the strangest places at the strangest times in the strangest manner.  Yesterday I had a luncheon coffee clutch with my friend James Martinez from the College of Education.  It was the first time in over a year that I stepped on campus other than going to a gallery opening, concert, or play.  And, as luck would have it, I met the new Provost and invited him to join us. While we were talking, a student came up to me who had been in first year class that last semester before I reluctantly retired.  Fall, 2012.  She was one of those people who wasn’t inclined to take risks, who claimed she wasn’t creative.  Now, she a junior ed major who wants to help others “like you did for me.”  I gave her my website to read my RTs.  I hope she does as she said she would.  And, as we were leaving, another student, who had been sitting at the table behind us, saw me, jumped up, and yelled, “Dr. Schmier,” and rushed over.  After she came over and introduced herself, I remembered her unhappiness.  She, too, was now a junior who had been in one of those last semester classes with me.  As I recollect, vaguely to be sure, she and her parents were a bit at odds.  They wanted her to major in something she “could use.”  She wanted to be an art major.
“What are you doing now?” I asked, expecting her to tell me she was majoring in something like accounting.
“I’m an art major!” she told me with a beaming smile.
“What’s your medium?” I asked.
“Metal work,” she replied as she proudly stuck out her hand to show me the ring she had made.  ”The sculpture project we did in class did it for me and gave me the courage to get my parents to come around.  I’m so happy and excited now.  Thanks for helping me believe in myself.”
“You know my email address.,” I said quietly.  ”Email me.  I want to see your work.  That’s not just a courtesy ‘ya’ll come see us, ya hear.’  I mean it.”  I hope she does.

Damn, I miss that.  Anyway, I have a question.  Why is it that so many of us forget that every master was once a novice, that every professional was once an amateur, that every professor was once a student, that every one of us–every one of us–needed and had someone believing in us, seeing us, and helping us get where we are and who we presently are?   My helping hand was Birdsal Viault.  Who was yours?

One of my way-out-on-a-limb answer to that question is that virtually all of the classroom bemoaning, pity-party, “ah me” with having in class “don’t belong” students, “they won’t” students, “in my day” students, “they’re letting anybody in” students, “need to be weeded out” students, “don’t have time for” students are a result of blinded and deafened–and unkind–mindlessness.  Even blanket, GPA induced, adoration of “good” and “honors” students is the consequence of mindlessness.  Mindless presumption.  Mindless perception.  Mindless assumption.  Mindless manipulation.  Mindless expectation.  Supericial.  Shallow. Manipulated.  Self-serving. One way or another. Directly or indirectly.  Consciously or subconsciously.   Obviously or implicitly.  And, you won’t give it your soul; you won’t give all you’ve got.  No reason to do so.  Student and professor.
We really don’t know who is the person, the human being, in that class with us beyond maybe a name.  We don’t now each student’s story, a story which, as Rachel Naomi Reman would say, tell us about each of them, that helps us make sense of them.  We haven’t read it.  We don’t walk in their shoes.  We don’t understand the resignations, frustrations, angers, even apathies in this context.  It’s their stories that tell what each student is made of, not the transcript or SAT score.  To get a peek at the meanings hidden in each chapter of those stories, is why I had students journal me confidentially each day.
Most of us, however, don’t approach the unkind feelings in that way. Instead, we conger flattened images of them.  We let the real person fall by the wayside.  We draw up all sorts of attributions about them, and usually fall into the abyss of what the psychologist call “attritubiton error” that causes us to lose sight of the student’s humanity.  Nevertheless, supposing they’re this or that kind of person, we sew a label on them.  We look at them and hear them and respond to them according to the label.  They read that label, accept it, act it out, and live up to it.  It’s almost impossible for anyone to tear off the label.
You know, if you go back and read my TEACHER’S OATH, it’s about recapturing the soul of education.  You’ll find it’s not about pedagogical qualities or technological qualities.  It’s about qualities of human relationship–and profound spiritual qualities.  When we currently educate, we only educate a very small fraction of the whole person.  We practice segregated education, not integrative education as we should.  When we recognize that and treat everyone as a sacred, noble, and unique individual each is, when we feel sacred, noble, and unique, we feel a deep happiness.  When you have people going to class with this real feeling that goes beneath the skin and transcript, when they really feel good about themselves, the work becomes exciting, fun, meaningful, and nurturing for them.  And, you have a better chance that they’re going to do more work, accomplish more, and learn more.  That is true for students; it’s true for faculty; it’s true for anyone.
Yeah, I know what some of you are going cynically and defensively think and say: “new agey,” “flighty,” “touchy-feely,” “soft,” “fluffy,” “tosh,” “cheesy.”  But, when you don’t love, you don’t respect; when you don’t respect, you don’t love; when you don’t love and respect, you don’t see and listen to; and when you don’t see and listen to, as Ellen Langer would say, you’re mindless–blind and deaf–of what is going on around you–and inside you; and, consequently you don’t respond in a meaningful way to what is truly going on, only to a distorting label.  Love, respect, see, listen:  conjoined quadruplets.
This  has gotten me to think about a theme for a series of linked conference presentation I always wanted to give, but never did.  It would have consisted of three integrated sessions.  But, that’s the rest of the story.  Later.

Louis

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BELIEVING IS SEEING, II

We aren’t really the very rational, objective creatures so many of us academics profess to be.  You think only subjective emotions lead us astray?  You think we don’t have what I’ll call “cognitive biases?”  Think again.  Those biases are called “labels,” “stereotypes,” “generalizations,” “perceptions,” “presumptions,” “expectations.”  And, those cognitive biases routinely impose barriers and imprison.  Those cognitive biases continually steer us wrong.  Don’t believe me?  Read some of the stuff by Harvard’s Ellen Langer.  In a recent NY Times article, as well as in many of her other publication, this preeminent psychologist argued that people are trained not to think and are thus extremely vulnerable to right-sounding, emotionally satisfying, but actually wrong notions.  “They’re just not there,” as she puts it.  The bottom line is that when you’re not there, Langer reasoned, you’re very likely to end up wherever you’re “mindlessly led by the label.”   And so, she went on to say, people, academics included, are also spectacularly inattentive to what’s going on around them.  It’s an inattentiveness that makes them mindless; and that mindlessness, in turn, makes us indifferent.  And, that indifference doesn’t allow us to see much, listen much, reach out much, touch much, much less welcome and embrace.  We’re indifferent to those in whom we don’t believe can make a positive difference, and blame them for our ineffectiveness.  They’re those “don’t belongs,” those “they’re letting anyone in.”

But, that probably scares a lot of us academics who put themselves above the sordid fray of the “real world.”  We don’t like being called “biased.”  We don’t like being placed among the “mindless.”  After all, we’re intellectuals; we tout ourselves as objective, apart from the brutishness outside the Ivory Tower .  But, we’re not as clear sighted and sure sighted as we make ourselves out to be.  Those sorting out labels give us a predisposition of believing who are the academic brahmins we see, who is worthy of  our efforts, for whom we have the time, who we want in our classes, and on whom we lay doting wreaths of praise.  Those caste-creating categories make us susceptible to the beliefs of who is an untouchable “waste of our valuable time,” who should go unseen, whom we should ignore, to whom we should be indifferent, and whom we should weed out.  But, as Ellen Langer said, “the observer affects the observed.”  Let me put it this way, what you believe about yourself and others you will see; what you believe and see, you will feel; and what you feel, you will live; and what you live, you will do.  Think about how we have an easy time of carving our assumptions about students and ourselves into stone.  Think about the fact that you can only ignore someone you don’t believe is worthy, valuable, sacred, and noble; but, you can’t ever take your mind and heart off, even for a second, those of whom you’re mindful, from the ones you see, from the ones you value and deem worthy of your time and effort.  

I know personally what Maya Angelou meant when she said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”  I was once among Adelphi College’s academic untouchables until Dr. Birdsal Viault took me under his wing and treated me feel like an academic brahmin.  As he did, it scared me.  I initially recoiled.  The shadows were far more friendly where no one would see my weakened self-confidence and low self-esteem.  I saw no reason why he believed in me.  Certainly, not from my dismal GPA by which all others professors judged me.  There were times he got disappointed, frustrated, even angry, but in spite of my resistance and reluctance, he wouldn’t throw up his hands and let go.  To this day, I remember a gnawing with in me, of being forced to ask myself fearfully over and over and over again, almost every day, “Why does he believe in me?  I don’t?  What does he see in me that I don’t?”  And, as he and I discussed answers to those questions almost every day in his office, I slowly began to move from disbelieve to belief, and then I began to see.  From academic untouchable to academic brahmin: “The observer affects the observed.”    Ultimately, I would say each day I walked into class, “If me, why not others.”  I repeat:  what you believe about yourself and others, you will see; what you believe and see, you will feel; and what you feel, you will live; and what you live, you will do.
The real challenge is opening our eyes to the good news:  ”Thar’s gold in them that hills,” and seeing the possibilities within us and others.  So, let me pose a question or two or three.  If the science has proven changes in the ways which we view ourselves and the world around us–what we believe and therefore see, feel, live, and do–in fact, alters our lives and our experiences dramatically, what would happen if we have the courage and strength to change our beliefs and see differently?  What would happen if we supported and encouraged, instead of fearing and castigating, those who are struggling to make those changes?  What would happen if we discarded these biases of limiting, demeaning, belittling, caste-creating labels and presumptions?  What would happen if we changed our language?  What would happen if the most important words in our new vocabulary were “sacred,” “noble,” “unique,” “respect,” “invaluable,” “faith,” “hope,” “human being,” and, above all, “love?”
Louis

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THE REAL MOTHER LODE OF TEACHING

Still thinking of Sam, the “Reverend Sam.”  In the course of our conversation, he said something like, “you saw us beyond the label ‘student’ as individual human beings”  This has gotten me thinking over the last few days.  We let so many labels reduce or even block human contact:  average, mediocre, poor.  When we do that, we strip away someone’s humanity; and, when we strip away humanity, there is a tendency to stop thinking about a student  as a person with a life and feelings.

You want to assess?  Fine.  The truest assessment of a teacher is how she or he cares about the fate of the “average,” “mediocre,” and “poor” student, feels the duty to act on their behalf, and sees an obligation to help them help themselves become the persons they are capable of becoming.  It is easy to admire the “good” student and scoff at the “poor” student.  It is easy to parade out the “honor” student and bemoan the “mediocre” student.  But, you know, we haven’t done a thing when students come into our classes already as “good” and “honors.”  But, those others?  Those “average,” “mediocre,” and “poor” such as Sam was?  That’s another story. Abe Lincoln would have said, “god must have loved the average student.  He made so many of them.”  Do you love them?
From my experience, “thar’s gold in them thar hills.”  They’re hard to teach only because you don’t know each of them and understand each of them   But, take the time, make the effort to find ways to connect, to overcome loneliness, aloneness, and distrust.  Work tirelessly to get them to believe as you believe, to see as you see.  Trust me, as you do, you’ll realize they each have so much potential, more often than not than they themselves dare realize. Compassion will replace resignation and anger, your heart will open up, your arms will extend, you’ll embrace, and you’ll role up your sleeves.   As you do, you will offer them a shot at achieving because they have a caring teacher supporting and encouraging them through their daily struggles.
Prospect for those deep, rich, veins lying untouched beneath those unappealing, supposedly barren lands!  Mine them!  The caring for, the nurturing of, the passionate compassion for, and the affection for the students who need help the most–in no uncertain terms, with nothing left out, with no caveats or reservations, with no hesitations, with no equivocations–those are the true barometers of a teacher.  And, from my experience, let me tell you a secret; like the Reverend Sams of this world, they are the mother lodes of a teacher.
Louis

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WHAT ACADEMICA NEEDS

What is this?  Are they standing in line?   Well, yesterday morning, I bumped into another past student, whom I’ll call Sam, at the  DIY store.  When I told Susie, she giggled, “Another experience, huh?”  She wasn’t kidding.  Do you know what Sam and talked about, mostly Sam?   Love!  These are bits and pieces of our conversation as I scribbled them down later in the car.

“….When you told us about your epiphany during your ‘what do you want to know about me’ session in class and that because of it you loved each us, that what we were going to do in class was because you had faith in us and believe in us, that each of us can be more than ‘average,’ that there wasn’t any reason any of us couldn’t be ‘honors,’ I thought of what I did–or didn’t do–in high school and rolled my eyes……Remember how I fought you?  But, you fought back….Remember, you said you were a ‘man of many second chances’….Your actions matched your words….You fought back for each of us. You were a encouraging pit bull.  You never tired….You just wouldn’t let go….I never told you that I soon learned that I needed that love, your love for me to see my love for myself…I didn’t have your courage to tell you that I needed you to believe in me when I didn’t.  I needed you to have faith in me when I was scared to….I needed you to help me ask and answer, ‘what does he see that I don’t?’ …. Everyone I knew in that class needed all that….You saw each of us as who we could be and not as who we were….You know, you may not like to hear this, but what I remember most from our class is how you helped me pull myself out from my ‘I can’t’ beliefs with those projects and our small talks, and made me feel like a winner…I wish I had heard that in other classes, but I didn’t.  Not in one.  I had to see and listen to you in my head with a reassuring ‘you can do it’ smile to keep me going.  Still do at times.”
I have to admit that when he said those last words my eyes started to water and my breathing got a bit heavy. ”I’ll let you in on a secret,” I said, “In those other classes, and now, you were and are really hearing yourself, not me;  and you’re still doing it yourself, I’m not.”
“Yes, you’re right.  You’re still teaching me even after all these years.  Wish you hadn’t retired.  Others need that unconditional love.  Our schools need it…Everyone needs it….”
“What are you doing now?” I got around to ask, not expecting his answer.
 
“I’m a minster….Can you believe it?  Me!  Sometimes I can’t.  But, I’m struggling to do for others what you did for me.  I want them to see and to believe as you did and help me to do….You’ve given me my sermon topic for next week.”

“No, I didn’t.  You just gave it to yourself.  What’s the topic going to be?”

“You!”
“Me?”
“I’m won’t refer to you by name.  I’m going to call my sermon ‘Believing is Seeing.’  ’Believing’ gives you a set of penetrating ‘heart’s eyes.’  If you believe, you do more than look at.  You see; you have faith in, have hope for, and love, you would see how much more a person ought to be and could be.  ’Seeing’ is wonderment.  ’Seeing’ goes beneath the skin…It reveals extraordinary qualities within that mere the ‘looking at’ of the mind’s eyes do not…With those ‘heart’s eyes,’ you would act on each person’s potential rather than how they appear and act this moment.  Just like you did with me and others.  Looking at myself I thought you were wasting your time.  Seeing me, you didn’t.  You helped me stop looking and start seeing.  That was the beginning of believing–and loving….”
I was stunned.  ”You’re stealing my thunder, taking words out of my mouth.  I just shared part of a reflection on the internet by that very title that says that very thing.” I said with more than a surprised tone, “and because it was a long one, I split it in half.  But, I haven’t yet put up the second half on the internet…..”
We talked some more about the community building exercises, “Words For the Day,” journaling, the projects, and what Sam, the Reverend Sam, called “all that transforming from ‘looking to seeing,’ challenging, serious fun.”
I tell you this vignette because Sam put his finger on what I unswervingly know academia needs.  It’s implementing in the classroom what Rabbi Joshua Herschel called “radical amazement.”  You can only ignore someone you don’t think is worthy, valuable, sacred, and noble.  But, you can’t ever take off your mind  and heartf, even for a second, from the ones you respect, have unconditional faith in, have hope for, believe in.  To do that, like the Beatles sang,  ”all you need is love.”
Louis

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PEACEFULNESS

Well, I bumped into another past student in my favorite DIY store.  It seems to be happening every day. Then, again, after having taught at the University for over 46 years, it seems at times that the entire town had gone through class with me.  Anyway, this past student, whom I’ll call James, and I had a brief conversation.  ”You always kept cool and were calmly positive no matter what anyone did or said, or whatever happened.  It was something to watch.  You calmed things down and let a peace come over the class at the beginning of class by having us close our eyes and silently listen to music for a minute or two.  You know why you made a difference?  It wasn’t just because you were different; it was because you made that difference into something peaceful and caring, and that always caught our eyes and kept our attention.  The class was always busy, but it was a peaceful busy.  Sometimes I could swear that peacefulness was a core teaching strategy of yours.”

“It was,” I answered, “for class, and for life.”
 

So, still feeling a lingering Yom Kippur hangover of quiet and peaceful self-reflection, there I was, peacefully sitting by the koi pond this “cool” morning as the sun’s dawning rays  pushed away night’s darkness, slowly sipping a freshly brewed cup of coffee, starting to put on a game face for a presentation I’m giving next week in Montgomery, thinking about “peacefulness.”   It was a silent but attentive listening to the pond’s three waterfalls, the sounds of dripping water from my newly built patio water fountain in the background adding to the soothing, quieting music.
“Peacefulness.”  Actually, I’ve been especially thinking about it a lot these past four months as Susie struggled to regain the sight in her left eye and to deal with the ravages of withdrawing from untold large doses of prednisone.  My caring for her and worry about her have been assaults on my inner peacefulness.  To fend off that attack, I had to find a respite, a place far away from the fears and tears while gladly being close-by and close at hand to be there for Susie at the drop of a hat whenever she needed me.  So, over the past few months, with a deliberate slowness, I used a strategy of peacefulness.  I would meditate on my walks; I would sit quietly by the pond; and, I would lose myself in imagination and creativity by designing, building, and landscaping a water fountain complex on and over the stump of the large pine tree we had to take down in the middle of our patio.  And, then, came the introspective times of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
You know, the opposite of activity is not peacefulness.  Peacefulness is not withdrawal; it is not stagnation; it is not disconnection; it is not disengagement.  It is a way of putting everything in its proper place.  That is, as the Talmud asks, did you ask questions about your life experience that led you to insight?  Did they lead you to understanding? Did you use them to make good choices?   Were those choices based on the right priorities? Did you understand what mattered and did you lead a life that mattered?
And so, Talmudic tradition says that “peacefulness” is the noblest leg of the tripod upon which the world rests.  Peacefulness helps us with the confrontation of questions of how to really live, and not merely exist.   It’s like peacefulness is a place where the unique and beautiful and sacred “now” is deliberately lived.  Peacefulness is the glue that offers the opportunity to fasten the purposeful “why” to give meaning to the “how” and the “what.”
Peacefulness is not just a time set aside for reflection, meditation, or introspection.  It’s an always.  It’s a way of living, a song to be constantly sung, dance to be consistently danced, painting to be forever painted.  Peacefulness is a conscious disconnection from what is going on to find a deeper connection with the meaning and purpose to what is going on.  Peacefulness is a mindfulness that takes the mindless and uncaring bull out from the china shop. It’s like holding our lives up to the light like a multifaceted jewel, that catches the light at thousands of different angles:  the more we examine it, the more it reveals, and the more we value its beauty.
Peacefulness is powerful breaking system that has the strength to relax the tense, calm the anxiety, slow the racing, and sharpen the blurriness.
Peacefulness is eco-friendly.  It conserves energy; it increases your mileage.  It is the doing of anything without conflict or friction.  You don’t have to waste time fighting against yourself; you don’t tire yourself out running up against negativities; you don’t sap yourself by constantly having to shore up your guard against naysayers; you don’t have a debilitating fear of being broken by the forces of “what will they think.”  It is your shock absorbers that smoothens the rides in spite of potentially jostling bumps and ruts in the road.  When the world about you becomes cold, it gives off a protective warmth.  It provides a light that shines the way through the darkness.  It allows you to focus when life seems aimless.  It provides a clarity when everything appears to be confused.  It offers encouragement and hope in desperate situations.  It provides a calmness and patience when things and people around you are hectic, frantic, and frenzied.
Yeah, I know I’m being poetic, but in that poetry is a reality and practicality.  For when all is said and done,  peacefulness gives you a relaxation, flexibility, and, above all, a resiliency with which you can take blow after blow after blow coming from any and all directions, handle all challenges hurled at you by anyone or anything, overcome all barriers erected to block your way, continue to feel good when things aren’t going well, be adaptable in what you do while remaining true to your values, and recharging the batteries that allow you to spring back to go on.
You know somewhere I read that the question of why we live, how we create our lives, what we do with our lives is not a story of something made from nothing; it is a bunch of somethings that come from all the other bunches of somethings.  We never throw out our memories and experiences; the love, the loss, the gain, the accomplishment, the failure, the laughter, the crying, the joy, the sorrow, the victories, the defeats, births, the deaths, the celebrations, the achievements, the very all of our lives are all there within us.  We examine them, reshape them, rebuild them, and tell about them so that they can be meaningful in the long run.  Like it or not, consciously or otherwise, we all make our way through our lives, and chance and growth happens because we learn consciously from past experiences, from our constant inquiry into where we have fallen short, what weakness we must shore up, what accomplishments we must strengthen, and what might we do better.  Peacefulness offers the chance for us to make new somethings, to see and understand the real joys, meaning, and purpose of whatever we do.  It affords the opportunity to ask the right questions  and examine the life we live.  And, lets us understand how we can choose to live our lives this day, this hour, this moment.  That is what Socrates meant when he said that the unexamined life is not really living.  Same goes for that part of life we call “teaching.”  Yeah, there is more than a lot to be said about constantly and calmly stepping back so we each can clearly see where we have stepped, where we’re about to step, and that we can step forward.
Louis

 

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BELIEVING IS SEEING

Well, I’m still in a introspective mood that I find myself getting into during the reflective times of Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur.  In this instance, a few days ago I was talking with a colleague here at my university who was lamenting that “students are getting in my way” of his potential promotion and tenuring because of the increasingly imposing research and publication requirement that he says currently are being put into place.

“Getting in the way.”  That’s a sad way to put your belief about students and how you see them.  And, what is sadder is that belief, that view, that perception,that expectation, whatever you want to call “that,” is far more prevalent than most of us want to admit.  Classroom teaching is being forced farther and farther back into the background by these “what really matter” scholarship demands, lip service to classroom teaching the contrary notwithstanding.

I warned him, “You’re at a dangerous crossroad….You’ve got to be careful….You’ve heard that adage, ‘seeing is believing.’  Don’t believe it.  It should be ‘believing is seeing.’  I mean you have to realize that what you believe is not just going to influence, but is going to determine what you see and then how you’re going to act?”
“I know that,” he answered with a saddened “I really don’t want to know that” tone.  It was as if he knew his dreams were turning into nightmares, and his excitement into something else.
I continued, “You have to be careful you aren’t changing your empathy for students into a frustration.”  In the course of our brief conversation, he waved me off verbally with a weak, unconvincing, and fearful sounding guarantee, “I won’t.”
I truly hope he’s right, but he has every right to be afraid of keeping his promise to himself.  The problem is, as a Hindu saying goes, a person is made of beliefs about her- or himself and others.  That means every moment we each paint a portrait of our own lives and of the landscape from a palette of those beliefs in a way that our beliefs are very believable to us;  every moment we are convincing ourselves of the validity of our held beliefs; every moment we do everything we can not to challenge our beliefs.  The ultimate tragedy, then, is if his belief about students is involuntarily changing, especially if he consciously feels under duress and is being forced to do so, well, then?
So, I ask:  Can you admit to yourself what you honestly believe–honestly believe?  What are you convincing yourself to believe about yourself? How are you convincing yourself to be? What and whom do you see because of those beliefs?  What do you do, then, because of those beliefs?  To paraphrase Martin Buber, do you believe unconditionally in every person we label “student?”  Do you believe unconditionally that every person we label “student” represents something sacred, noble, and new, something that has never existed before, something original, something unique, something that is a piece of the future?  Do you believe it is your mission to help each and every person reach for her or his unique, unprecedented and never-recurring potentialities?    Or, as this faculty member, do you believe “students get in the way,” especially the so-called lesser ones, in your quest for promotion, tenure, renown?
I have a lot more to say, but for now, I’ll leave it at these questions, crossroad questions I felt forced to consciously answer in 1975, crossroads questions to which I started radically changing my answers in 1991.
Louis

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HEAR MY VOICE

Days of Awe, of Fear and Trembling, of the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) and Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), are upon we of the Jewish faith. As I sat in synagogue Thursday, listening to the supplications of the soulful prayer, “Avenu Malkenu,” asking “hear our voice.”   I asked myself, “who should really hear my voice?”  As I got lost in that question, I thought of the words of that past student I had met on my walk while waiting for the train to pass and I thought of a couple of e-colleagues with whom I was talking.  And, two stories popped into my mind.  I had read them long ago in the Midrash.  I didn’t understand them until I had my epiphany in the early 1990s and they’ve been among my guiding tales.  The first story says that during creation, God had decided to instill His divinity into human beings.  The angels were outraged. How can something so pure, so precious, and so powerful be entrusted to an imperfect as human beings?  If they had the Divine image, they reasoned, they will think like God thinks, and feel what God feels; they will create as God creates, and they will grasp eternity and live forever, as God lives forever. “We cannot let this happen!” they exclaimed.   So they conspired, and the stole the Divine Image, and they decided to hide it., to hide it somewhere humankind would never find it. But where.  ”Let us put it at the top of the highest mountain!” one angel suggested. “No,” responded a second angel.  They will one day climb the mountain and find it.”  ”Well, then, let us put it at the bottom of the sea!” another offered. “No, a fourth angel countered, ” they will dive to those depths one day and will find it.”  ”I know,” a fifth angel said.  ”We’ll put in the most inhospitable of deserts.”  ”No,” rejected the angels, “they will bring fruit to the barrenness, dwell there, and find it.”  Suggestion after suggestion was offer, but each was rejected because of man’s creativity, imagination, and ability would .  Then,  the cleverest of the angels stepped forward. “No, not at the top of the mountains, or at the bottom of the seas, or in the dry deserts, or hot jungles, or cold arctic.  I know of a place they will never go to look for it.  Let us place it in each of them, within their hearts, and within their souls. They’ll never think to search there; they’ll find it there; and so, they’ll never hear that sacred voice.  And so, teaches the Midrash, the angels hid the precious Divine Image within the heart and soul of humankind where so often for most people it lies hidden to this day.

It is said that these HIgh Holiday are called Days of Awe because we’re asked to do something, difficult, fearful, and frightening:  face our mortality and inevitable death.  But, having faced death and having faced it down by surviving cancer and a massive cerebral hemorrhage, I think we confront something far more challenging:  life.  Most of us, academics included, do not like to confront ourselves with a reflective and articulated “who am I,” especially our “afraids.”  They’re taken as chinks in our armor that would make us vulnerable.  So, many of us are afraid to fail, afraid to look foolish, afraid to stand out, afraid to stand up, afraid to lose, afraid of what others will think, afraid to try and to risk, afraid all this will undermine both our inflated sense of self and our self-centered academic and scholarly pursuits. We have convinced ourselves that: failure is not an option.  The “others” will not be empathetic, will not forgive mistakes, will not forget exposed limitations; the others will not appeciate your changing, challenging, attempts, experiments, adventures, and explorations; the others will not accept different priorities.  And, the “others” will make sure it will cost in terms of that promotion and that job-for-life guarantee called “tenure.”  And maybe, what is worse is that we fear losing faith in ourselves, in our own abilities, and our own worth.

So, in the classroom, for which so few of us were intensely trained, most of us won’t take chances; we subtly cower with “it won’t work” or “you can’t get to them all;”  we imprison ourselves with “I don’t have the time,” “I can’t,” “It’s not me,” “I don’t know how.”  At best we engage in “Little Jack Horner” tinkering at the edges in our quest for the quick and easy guarantee.  At worst, we refuse to even consider change, casting aside finding of latest research on learning with such defenses as “I’ve been in the classroom for years,” or “I know how to teach.”   We shirk responsibility with blames of “they’re ‘don’t belongs” and “they’re letting everyone in” and “students today….” and “the administration wants…”  We attack with a hurl of arrows tipped with poisons of “soft,” “fluffy,” “touchy-feely,” “new ‘agey,’”  We sit paralyzed, unable or unwilling to do the good that’s within our power because we have convinced ourselves that what we do in the classroom is really of lesser worth and is not in our interest to give all we have.  We find solace outside the classroom, in the lab or field or archive for which we were intensely trained.  In those places, we find the time and our reassuring “can’s.” We find self worth in our degrees, titles, grants, research, conference papers, and “peer reviewed” publications.
That brings me to the second story, which I will “modernize.”  The story tells of a questionnaire everyone had to fill out when they arrived at the gates of heaven.  Everyone thought the questionaire had to do with what God will think of you.  But, in really it is designed to reveal their our perspective on their lifetimes.  The questions asked what did they believe their life amounted to.  What was important?  What mattered?  What counted?  What was their purpose?  To what and whom did they devote themselves?  In what and whom do they invest themselves.  Everyone thought, as the story goes, these questions focused on “what did you do” when in truth they were concerned with the essential question of “who are you,”  What was their essences.  Of what were they made.
As an academic, in my study, in my den, over my breakfast table, by the koi pond, on my meditative walks, in my deepest thoughts, I can be the most moral of heroes. It’s easy to be a verbal moral hero by proclaiming “I care,” “I give,” and “I serve.”  Everyone of us, deep in our hearts, thinks of ourselves as good, sincere, well-meaning persons. The real question is what happens when the proverbial chips are down, when you’ve got to put your money where your mouth is, in the real world of the academic rat race, in the self-serving pursuit of degree and position and promotion and tenure, in the pursuit of grants and research and publication, in the pursuit of resume lengthening and renown.  What do we do to ourselves?  What do we allow this rat race do to us?  Do we compromise our integrity?  Does it deafen and blind us to those in the classroom.  Does it allow us to run the race at their expense?  How many do we allow to go unnoticed in order for us to be seen?  Do we display care, emit love, demonstrate support and encouragement, live caring?  Are we the unconditional embodiment of belief, faith, hope, and love?  Do we preserve them, protect them, defend them, nurture them in the service of ourselves and others?  Do keep them alive, warm, glowing, and growing?  Do we recognize and appreciate the miracles that are in our daily lives in general and in the classroom specifically?  Do we consciously renew them each day?  As I told an e-colleague, self-motivation and self-inspiration are like shaving:  you have to do it every day.
Then something else popped into my mind as a guide to the answer of my original question.   The psychologist, Victor Frankel, himself a survivor of Auschwitz, studied those who survived and those who did not. “The last, and greatest human freedom,” he wrote, “is the freedom to choose your attitude.”   So, as the “Avenu Malkenu” came to an end, I imperceptibly shook my head.  The answer to my question of “who should hear my voice” is none other than:  me.
Louis

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THE ONLY WAY TO TEACH….

It’s was about 3:45 a.m. yesterday.  Couldn’t sleep.  Mind racing.  Adrenaline flooding.  I haven’t felt this way since a did a webinar for an LSU education class last Spring.  Focusing.  Getting in the groove.  Putting on my game face.  Going deep.  I was preparing myself to go to the local Lowndes High School for an early morning 75 minute round table on teaching with my friend Amy Carter  and 17 students who are interested in becoming teachers.   I was racking my brain on how to “grab” them almost as soon as they sat down.  Then, I thought of my own acronyms, HI (Hospitality Intelligence), LED (Love Every Day) and KISSED (Keep It Small and Significant Every Day).  I came up with this:   The only way to teach is to accept unconditionally each minute as an unrepeatable miracle of opportunities and possibilities;  the only way to teach is to accept each student unconditionally as an unrepeatable miracle of opportunities and possibilities.

And, as you learn to live daily those acceptances with unshakable and boundless belief, faith, hope and love, miracles will occur.

Louis

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Ner Tamid

So, there I was Thursday morning.  Out a bit late.  Standing patiently at a railroad crossing, waiting, my walk interrupted by a long, long, slow freight train.  Waiting, red lights flashing, waiting, warning bells ringing, waiting for that interminable train to pass, waiting to continue my walk.  I notice a gorgeous luxury car idling in line next to me.

“Nice car,” I commented.  What followed was one of those “you just don’t ask” moments.
The driver turns his head towards me. Looked intently.  ”Dr. Schmier, is that you?”
“Yep, that’s me.”
“I’m….  We were in class together back in 1997 when you were changing your ways with your trust falls, triads, journaling, biographical interviews, projects, and a bunch of other stuff, throwing out lecturing and testing.  I see you’re in good shape and still smiling.  Figures.  You still at the college?
“No, I reluctantly had to retire back in December of 2012.
“Their loss, the students, that is.  Hey, while we’re waiting and I’ve got you here, I want to tell you something.”  He leaned towards me as I walked over to the car.  ”You know what I liked best about your class and that I still use?”
“No, what?”
To a emphasizing cadence of taping the steering wheel with his hand, he said, “There was something new and interesting every day.  Every day!  I mean we came into class not knowing what to expect.  Nothing was routine.  It wasn’t a place for boredom to set in.  And, you came into class every day interested.  Every day!  Interested.  In each of us.  Us!  Each of us!  Who we were and was going on with us! Us!  Each of us!   You appreciated, noticed, respected, and as you said so much, loved each of us.  Laughed and smiled and had fun.  And, we learned.  Most of us did more, more than we thought we could or wanted to do because of that.  Lordy, I do remember our talks to this day.  You may not, but I sure do.   Man, you ‘out-interested’ all the other professors I had at that college put together.”
I smiled as he went on.  ”Yes, sir.  ’Out-interested them all.’  I never forgot that.  I used that in college; use it now in my job, with my family; and, I am teaching it to my kids.  It’s a light that’s been there guiding me for my whole life since that class:  every day be a learner; make every day a first.  It’s the only way to stay young and on your toes.   It’s the only way to stay out of ruts and not get stale.  It’s the only way to learn, change, and grow.  It’s the only way my best gets better every day.  Every day I always look for that one new interesting thing and reason not to be bored.”  He turned to the lifting railroad gates,  Then, turned back to me before he hit the gas pedal, “You’re my ‘interesting thing’ today.  I guess this is where I say ‘thanks.’”
With a tear in my eye and a choke in my throat, I barely got out a “And, this is where I say ‘thanks.’”
He drove off with a wave.
I tell you, teaching is not confined to a course, by the walls of a classroom, to a term.  As I’ve recently said, it is forever.  It’s a “ner tamid”: an eternal light.
As I finished the last 2 1/2 miles of my route, I thought about what he said:  ”out-interested.”  ”Ineresting,” I said to myself over and over.  My daily “interesting thing,” too, that day.   More on that later.

Louis

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