The Second Word in My Dictionary of Teaching

It’s dawn and I am thinking about Dawn. Strange how things happen. It’s sometimes so mysterious. I just don’t ask.

Anyway, yesterday morning I had just come out of class and was heading for the office when there she was, Dawn. It’s not her real name, but it’s the right pseudonym. You’ll quickly see why.

“Dr. Schmier,” she exploded.

I hadn’t seen her since the end of last semester, about ten weeks. I had asked around about her to see if she had returned to campus and how she was doing. I didn’t have to ask how she was doing. If she hadn’t said a word, I knew.

“Dawn,” I reciprocated with an equal burst.

We held each other’s extended hands. The movements of her body, the tones of her voice, the looks in her eyes, the expressions on her face, the feel of grip, each was like a stroke in her calligraphy that expressed her awareness, her mind and spirit, who she was at that moment. All those strokes had brushed a character, revealing Dawn’s changing character. The hesitant, dark, uneven, graceless, weak, timid, awkward, heavy, unsure, imbalanced marks when she first came into class last semester had been replaced by composed, almost bold yet thin and delicate, excited, confident, airy, joyful, sweeping strokes.

With a second eruption and a statacco of short bursts that followed, she answered, “I’m doing great! I’m doing great in school! I actually like school! I really feel happy! Its the first time in five years I feel happy!

“Why do you think you’re so happy?” I asked with a growing inner joy, knowing the answer.

“Because I love being alive,” she spurted out.

“Why do you love being alive?”

“Because I am happy about myself. I love myself now.”

“Yeah,” I softly and triumphantly replied as I gave her a smiling and congratulatory wink.

She went on, “I never thanked you. You helped me see that having this muscle disease doesn’t make me less of a person. It finally got that into my head the night we did closure last semester.”

“I think it also got into your heart and soul.”

“Yeah, especially there. I love you for that.”

We hugged and parted. As I slowly continued to my office, I stopped thinking of the low level, ever so imbalancing mini-war that my flu antibodies been waging inside me for about a week. I lost myself in thoughts of that magical, courageous early December night. It was the end of the semester. It was a night class. But, it was a beginning for Dawn, of her own inner dawning. When it was Dawn’s turn to show the closure object to symbolize what she was taking from the class, she got up and said something I have often recalled in the past weeks. This is darn close, almost verbatim:

“I brought myself as my object. When this class started I was ashamed and embarrassed. I felt self-conscious. I didn’t feel I was as good as anyone else. I didn’t think I belonged here. I didn’t like being here. I ran away from Atlanta to hide. When I got here, I wanted to hide and was afraid someone would see me. I didn’t care about my work. I….have… a….muscular….disease….that is hard to say. But, I said it. I have to fight it every day, and I was losing. I thought I was the only one like that. Then we talked about racism, homosexuality, poverty, feminism, and other stuff for tidbits. And, I realized I wasn’t alone in my battles. In those projects I read about people who were worse off than me and people who believe we all are just as good as each other. Then, we did the scavenger hunt and one of mine was Dorethea Dix. She wouldn’t have thought that just because my body was diseased my soul was. Dr, Schmier somehow read me like a book from the very beginning. He wouldn’t let me think the way I did about myself. He talked with me a lot, and was on me a lot, and wouldn’t let me give up. He dragged me to meet other people who have supposed disabilities. Because of this class, him, and them, I know now I have a problem only if I let my disease be a problem.”

“Read like a book,” Dawn had said.

So, my second “different” word in my dictionary of good teaching which I am going to initially confound Kenny is: Read.

But, not read just a book or an article or a document in preparation for class although that is extremely important. And certainly not a lecture, nose buried, eyes glued to paper.

No. When I give Kenny READ as my second word in my dictionary of good teaching, I particularly mean paying attention to the important little things about individual people in our classes because the little things are not really little any more than is each person there little. Those little thing reveal a great deal. By “little things” I mean tiny wrinkles that form because of those smiles or frowns, comforts or discomforts of known territory or excitement or fear of something new, the yawn, drifting eye, the hollow stare, turning head. I mean to scan, pour over, study, decipher the stories and poems and essays and sentences each student, like Dawn, is writing with his or her life. I mean read the calligraphy of students’ movements: their bold steps, their rushed steps, their heavy steps, their wispy movements, their sedated gestures, their composed prancing, their quiet speech, their…. Well, you get the point. Train your eyes, your mind, your spirit in reading these strokes and you will see them writing each day, like Dawn, a page in their story. And, we learn best when we read the stories of others. Read the fine print of their lives; those things are rich; don’t read them because someone told you to do. Read them because you want to, because you realize you must.

It’s reading those details that gives the good teacher the clues to what action needs to be take and whether he or she is doing what needs to be done. It’s those details that lend focus on each person in that classroom, that allow us to notice how we feel about doing it. Reading the details brings the good teacher joy and laughter; It also brings pain and sorrow. It is a reality check. They make even our most impossible situations seem less imposing. We do need to pay attention; notice what we do and don’t like; take action, to change , to understand, to discover, to know all that we can about now, to understand that by tomorrow we will have a new set of variables with which to work.

I recently shared a firm belief of mine that the truly good teacher never walks into a classroom as if she or he has lost his or her wonder at life; he or she never has learned never to take the classroom world for granted and stare blankly at it from an unnoticed distance. The true teacher savors details as a sure way to learn to appreciate life, his or hers, others.

But, to read each person in the classroom, you have to scream to yourself, “whoa horsey,” and pull hard on your reins. If you really want to see each brush stroke and hear each note, slow down; if you really want to see each detail clearly, slow down; if you want to notice and get to know each student, take it easy; if you don’t want to miss anything or anyone, slow down. “Slow” is an associate word to READ.

And, so is “Alert.” Teaching can be a dream, but you have to be awake to live it and appreciate it. Did you hear that? Did you see it? Did you feel that brushing touch? Don’t miss anything. Unless you want to be among the living dead, it’s reading the enriching and enliving individual details that fracture routine, break habit, shut off automatic pilot, make the ordinary unique, turn the mundane into something and someone awesome. make the familiar strange.

Take notice. Read those details. Be a glue to the sights and sounds and touches around you; look hard and long and sharp; decide not to miss it anymore; engage everything and everyone around you with a refreshed awareness and sensitivity. Details enrich the classroom underlining, boldfacing, italicizing, animating, and humanizing individual lives.

Yeah, some may say that the devil is in the details. I think it’s the angels who are really there.

Make it a good day.

–Louis–

Comments are closed.