Someone asked me why I “waste valuable class time with such childish nonsense.” He was referring to what I call my introductory “stuff” exercises. Well, my answer is a question. Have you ever noticed the metamorphosis students experience as they enter a class room? Take a few minutes, get to class early, and watch. They become different people. In the halls, they’re noisy, laughing, smiling, and talking with each other. In the class room they are muted, staring Easter Island statues. It seems that as they pass through the portals they leave themselves outside. It’s is as if they have an out of body experience, leave their persona at the threshold, and bring only their “shadow selves” with them into class. Their smiles fade away into tight lips. The brightness in their eyes dims. Their neck muscles stiffen. Their faces tighten. Their tongues are paralyzed. Their cheeriness decays into a melancholy. Their body language proclaims a wish for both anonymity and invisibility. Their eyes either stared straight ahead at the hairs of the nape of the neck in front of them or downward at their desk top. There is a silent, foreboding, tenseness in the air.
I think I know why. Look at your roll sheets. All the names of the people in the class room are listed on them–except for one. He doesn’t pay tuition or even audit fees, so he is not registered. But, he attends every class. His name is not on your official roll. But, he’s there. You never call his name when you take attendance. You never place him on a seating chart. You never memorize his name. But, he’s there. You can’t see him or hear him, but you can see and feel his presence. He is not even a student. He is an unwanted, ugly, mean-spirited intruder. He greets each student at the door with his silent cackling, loathsome sneer, impish grin, diabolic gaze. In mock friendship, he seductively wraps his spiny arms around each of the students’ shoulders saying, “You can’t have fun. It’s torture in here. It’s a cold, harsh place. But, let me tell you how to make it through this class. To survive, all you have to do is….”
In class, he never sits in one seat. He moves at the speed of light, jumping, row to row, from seat to seat seeking to annoy, distract, debilitate, and incapacitate the students into silence and inactivity. He thrives on the physically organized class room that fosters isolation and loneliness. He flourishes in the asocial or even anti-social way we line the students up in isolating rows, place them apart from each other in lonely seats, and put them in cut-throat competition for recognition. He spotlights human brokenness and extinguishes human joy. He quietly taps their shoulder with his bony finger, sticks his hooked, pimpled nose neck to their ears, and insidiously whispers with feigned concern reminders of their vulnerability, of their powerlessness, of their limitations, and of their ignorance: “Don’t forget that you’re at that guy’s mercy.” “Do you really want to look dumb by asking a question.” “You know what happens if you disagree?” “Do you want them to make fun of you.” “Careful, that may be wrong.” “No one here cares about you.” “You’re alone.” “They’ll ridicule you.” “You’re different.” “You not going to get any sympathy.” “No one will understand.” “They’re waiting to jump on you and make points.” “You can’t depend on anyone.” “You’re better than they are.” “It’s a dog eat dog world in here.” “Don’t trust them.” “Do you really think you belong in here?” “Maybe he won’t notice you if you don’t do or say anything.” “No one is going to help you.” “You can’t tell anyone you don’t understand. What will they think.” “Don’t screw it up.” “You’re only mediocre.”
The students know him well. They have heard to him for so many years and in so many classes. He seems to be right so often. They listen to him. They believe him.
Who is this person? He goes by many names: stress, anxiety, hurt, confusion, fear, insecurity. But, whatever alias he uses, his MO is the same.
The only way I have discovered to wrestle with this interloper is through caring about the students, respecting them, trusting them, creating a classroom ecology that proclaims to each student “you are a part of us. I, we, want you in here. We need you as much as you need us. You belong here. And, we give a damn.” To defend ourselves against his scheming we have to join forces with each other–me and the students–find a relatedness, create community, develop a support system, and make connections among each other. As an antidote to his poison, we have to weave a web, into which we–the professors, the students and the subject of study–are drawn and woven together. We have to denounce as blasphemy everything that allows us to stand apart from others in the classroom. We have to praise whatever encourages us to be a part of each other. We have to contest anything that distances us from each other and keeps everyone at a hand’s length from each other. We have to applaud everything that establishes a ecological mutuality between everyone in the class room, that creates supportive feelings for each other, and validates a linking among each other. We have to say, “It’s OK to reach out. We’re here for you.”
I believe that when a class room becomes a social arena no less than it is an academic one that intruder has no place. That’s why I introduce every class with my bonding and trust exercises. As it happened, the best answer I could have for my detractor occurred dramatically the second day of class.
It had been a riotous, fun-packed, laughing opening days in class, of introducing strangers to each other, of strangers slowly becoming acquaintances, getting accustomed to each other, making connections with each other, breaking through the isolating walls of aloneness. The students and I were sitting around in groups talking about what they had done during the break, interviewing each other with a “Getting to Know Ya” exercise when, on the second day, what I call “A Tootise Pop” moment happened. But, I think I should take you back to where I think it all began, on the first day.
Day One, Thursday: I got to class a few minutes early, my boom box playing, a tootsie pop sticking out of my mouth. I greeted the students as they came into the class room. They returned my welcome with strange “who is this guy” looks and nervous “what’s going on” chuckles. I started to feel self- conscious. Is my zipper open? Is my hair unkept? Should I have worn socks? Maybe, they don’t like my Grateful Dead Shirt. Is Pink Floyd not to their taste? Surely, they must like Tootsie Pops. Anyway, I continued to introduce myself to each them, extending my hand: “Hello, I’m Louis Schmier. What’s your name? Glad to have you in the class…John this is Lashandra. Lashandra John. Sit down and talk to each other a while.” If I miss them at the door, I roamed around the room, squeezing between or climbing over chairs, introducing myself and them to each other. “Who are you…..welcome to the class….what’s your name….Joe meet Luchresha, Luchresha Joe. Luchresha turn your chair around and tell each other about what you did during break…” More strange looks, but the serious faces now had smiles. The silence of the lambs was now broken by the cacophony of chit-chat as strangers sat looking at each other’s faces, learning each other’s names, and finding out something about each other.
Then I asked them to get up, walk around the room, introduce themselves to ten people whom they haven’t met by telling them their name, something about themselves, shaking hands, and hugging each other.
After I called the roll, I proclaimed, “Let’s have a scavenger hunt. The people with the most finds get a tootsie pop.” They had to find fellow classmates who had pets, played a musical instrument and what kind of instrument, and who had a tatoo, where the tatoo is located and why they got a tatoo.
“You have to introduce yourself before you ask any questions and write anything down.” For the next fifteen minutes, the room was bedlam with students–and me–moving about, hurling our obnoxious visitor out of the way, jostling each other, screaming across the room, “who has…”, going up to each other asking, “I’m so and so. Who are you? Do you have….” They were laughing, smiling, and talking. No was listening to him.
After we settled down and I threw the prizes at the winners, sitting on a chair in the middle of the room, I “checked in” with them and asked them what they wanted to know about me. I wanted them to know that I was a part of the class, not apart from it. The questions came slowly. Our visitor was working hard to spread his toxin. The students slowly asked only the usual safe biographical questions: when were you born, how did you get to Valdosta, are you married, where did you go to school, how long had I been teaching. Then, one student, ignoring the whispers in her ear, asked what was my most embarrassing moment. I told them without a flinch of the time when, in the early 70′s, a bunch of us professors and wives were nearly being caught by the police while we were skinning dipping in an apartment complex pool as the climax to a finger paint party. They laughed. Their tenseness eased.
Another asked if I had any children. I told the class that I had two sons. The conversation went something like this:
“How old are they?”
“25 and 18″
“Where do they live?”
I told them that my older son, was enrolled in the MBA program at Stanford.
“He must be smart like you,” a student interrupted.
That sneaky monster! I sensed a distance, a separation, a chasm, forming between the students and me in that question that I quickly had to close. “Heck, he puts me to shame. He was ‘all everything’ in high school and at Chapel Hill. I was ‘all nothin’.’ My high school teachers voted me the least likely when I graduated high school. But, I was elected the class clown. I barely got out of college with a high C.” I could see some students starting to wave off our unwanted guest.
“And your other boy?”
“He’s living at home.” I told them that Robby had dropped out of high school and works on a construction site.
“Doesn’t that hurt,” one student asked about Robby.
I talked about fear for him when he was kicked out of school, and how I fight not to let it control me. I answered after a moment of hesitation. “I’m disappointed only if he is. It took me a long while to realize that I would hurt him more if I didn’t let him walk his own road and live his own life. But, it’s tough, very tough because I know what he is capable of doing. But, he has to find that out for himself.”
“Are you embarrassed by your younger son, being a professor and all.”
Talk about asking me to bare my soul. “No,” was my sincere reply. “Never have. I wouldn’t talk about him with you if I was. And, if I was, it wouldn’t matter. That would be my problem. My approval of what he did isn’t necessary. Only his honest approval of his own actions is needed. I suppose all I want is for him to be truly happy. If he is, I am. He is struggling to find himself. He is slowly facing himself and changing. In some ways, he may be more honest with himself than many students who come to college and don’t know why they are here.”
“Do you love him as much as your older boy?”
“Sure, I wouldn’t trade either one of them in. My love for both of them is unconditional and equal.”
I could see they were listening intently. A respectful, quiet silence filled the room as the period came to an end. No teacher had ever shared with them like that before. I didn’t know it then, but the ice was broken and we were less afraid of each other. An atmosphere of respect, trust, and compassion had started filling the room. Our agent of despair was starting to have trouble breathing. I could see it and hear it, but I didn’t really know it until the following day.
Day Two–Friday: As soon as things settled down, we went on another scavenger hunt to find classmates who liked to cook, who slept in the nude, and is an only child. The place was pandemonium. We–me as well– were on the move, climbing over chairs, laughing, giggling, and asking, “Hi, I am so and so. Do you like…..”, “Who are you? I am so and so. Do you…..” They could handle that I liked to cook, but laughed when I unabashedly said that I slept in the nude- -even at times cooked in the nude.
After I threw the rewards about the class, we circled into groups to interview each other with a “getting to know ya” series of biographical questions. One of the questions asked, “Can you tolerate ambiguity?”
Then it came. One student, with a question on her face, screamed out, “Dr. Schmier.”
I could feel our unwanted promoter of human brokenness warn, “Don’t ask.” I quickly climbed over a few desks before she heard him. She asked me, “what does ‘ambiguity’ mean? No one here knows.”
I looked at her with an impish grin. I thought to myself, “I suppose I could answer the question. But, I there’s too much dependent one-way “education” and not enough independent educational ecology. I’m going to be quiet and see what happens. She has to decide to whom to listen.” I shook my shoulders and replied, “Ask someone.”
“Oh, I couldn’t do that. It’s such a dumb question. What will they think?”
That damn s.o.b. was spreading his venom. I didn’t say a word. I raised my eyebrows, nodded my head, shook my shoulders in a “your choice” gesture, and slowly walked away to a corner of the room to suck on my tootsie pop and watch. I saw the others in the group poke her, prod her as she shook her head. They laughed and talked. God, I wanted to motion for her to do it, but I held back. Then it happened. I read her lips sighing, “oh, well.”
She slowly rose from her chair, raised her hand for quiet and loudly said, “I’m Heather. Who can knows what ‘ambiguity’ means?”
Everyone stopped talking. All heads turned towards her. I could see a slight grimace form on her face and her eyes wince slightly as she waited for the pain of the sarcastic comment or the ridiculing snicker. That miserable creature was whispering, “I told you so. You wouldn’t listen to me.” But, the barbs were not hurled.
“Vagueness,” “Unclear”, “Not precise” came the answers from all parts of the room.
She sat down with a Chesshire grin and a threw back a grateful “thank you.”
I got goose bumps. “This room is sacred,” I thought to myself. “A miracle just happened.” The students didn’t realize it, but they were beginning to share successes and achievements and to share fears, to draw on the strength of each other. Everyone went back to interviewing each other and discussing each searching biographical question. But, it was a teaching moment I could not let pass. I jumped over a chair into the middle of the classroom, raised my hand skyward, and the class quieted down.
“What just happened?” I asked with an excitement in my voice. “I want you to quietly think about it for a few minutes what Heather had done, what you had done, and what it all means.” The tumult died down. After about five silent minutes, came a series of answers: “She didn’t know something and asked us for help.” “There was bonding.” “Heather trusted us enough to think we wouldn’t make fun of her.” “She trusted us so that we would think she was dumb for asking a simple question like what a word means.” “She had the courage to admit to us that she needed help.” “She felt safe because she knew us.”
“So,” I asked, “what lesson has Heather taught us?” Think about it for a few minutes.
More silence. Then came: “We’re responsible for each other.” “We can teach each other.” “No one gets ridiculed for trying to learn.” “A good way to learn is to ask questions.” “There are no such things as dumb questions.”
I turned to Heather and gave her both a “thank you” and an orange tootsie pop.
When I came into class Monday, after mourning UNC’s loss to Arkansas, there on the blackboard someone had written: “Remember, there are no dumb questions in this class.” I got goose bumps. Dare I hope that they were struggling to say to this scraggled face intruder, “Get the hell out of my face. Get outta here, now! ” I know he will not go quietly into the night. He will kick and scream as he resists being thrown out, but maybe they are aware that he’s lurking around and may have second thoughts about listening to him. It was, indeed, a teaching moment, a tootsie pop moment. Only two days into the class, we haven’t sung solo to each other or fallen backward off the desk top into each other’s arms yet. Wow!
Make it a good day.