An Unknown Olympian

As I was reading the on-lines newspaper articles about the closing of the winter games at Nagano, I started thinking about a student I had met briefly at the end of last week and whom I really couldn’t since get out of my mind. He is someone whom I think is an Olympian in every sense of the word though he never competed in the games. He doesn’t have a gaggle of camera luggers following his every movement. He won’t appear on a box of Wheaties or a can of Campbell’s soup; and he certainly won’t be sitting down with Larry King or bantering with David Letterman. I don’t much about him beyond what I learned in a five to eight minute conversation. I don’t even know his name. He may be disappointing to some, labeled a unexceptional by others, written off as a failure or a “don’t belong” by still others. He certainly is not an honors “hot ticket” item on campus. But, in my book he is as towering as a Tara Lipinski or the members of the American ladies’ ice hockey team. And I think you should know about him because his is but one of many unnoticed olympian stories unfolding all around us, providing ignored stirring and arresting moments of fortitude, endurance and perseverance that reach into the realm of the gods though not into the headlines of man.

It all began as I was walking between buildings after class last Thursday. I student whom I did not know and had never seen before came up to me. This is how our brief conversation went, although don’t hold me to every word, but how I vividly remember it:

“Hey, you’re Dr. Schmier, aren’t you?”


“Thought so, what with that sucker and boombox and all. You got a minute?”

“Sure, and it’s a Tootsie Pop. Have one. Who are you,” I asked.

“That don’t matter none, but my friend who was in your class said I can talk with you and you can help me.”

I didn’t press him. “Let’s sit over there,” I said as I moved towards a near-by brick bench.”

Ready to hear about problems with he was having with a professor, I said, “I’m listening.” I wasn’t ready for someone to step out from Boys of the Hood. He quickly told ME about having been a bag boy before he hit his teens, having dropped out of school for the riches of the streets, having been caught in literal cross-fires by rival dealers, having been attacked on more than one occasion, quickly lifting and dropping his loose shirt as if signaling with a window shade to show me the scars of stab and gunshot wounds (!!), having done some time “in juvi,” having done some “real hard time,” having gone through rehab, taking care of his little boy because “my woman run out on us,” having given all that up and changed the course of his life, having had to go into hiding because “they thought I had ratted,” setting everything straight, having left his home city “to get away from those times and places and people” and enrolling in the University, and is now feeling “hard” pressure to get back into “the scene” because those around him are drinking and doing drugs.

I hesitated to answer. Had to catch my breath. All I could say at the moment was, “Don’t you think you have to see the director of our anti-drug program or a councilor? Why come to me?”

“I ain’t going to talk to no stranger about my shit,” he agonized as if he thought he had made a mistake.

“But, I am a stranger, too. I don’t know who you are and you sure don’t know me.”

“I don’t know those people,” he explained. My friend told me you give a damn about people. Really care. Don’t just word it. Word on the streets is that you’re a real friend of students and that I can trust you. He said you can tell me what to do.”

“You already know what to do.”

“How’s that?”

“Well, what’s troubling you, really bothering you?”

“I just told you, man. I come to school to straighten out my shit and put that other stuff behind me and forget it. I want to get an education.


He thought a few seconds. “My people went through a lot with me. They hid me when I was being hunted and wouldn’t give me up when they was threatened. I owe them and got to pay them back by becomin’ somebody and doing something. I want to be somebody my people can be proud about. I don’t want to disappoint them.”


He thought a few seconds more. “I want to be something and a somebody. And I don’t want to be pushin’ no drugs or no broom and I should enough don’t want to be pushin’ up no flowers.”


His eyes suddenly got glassy. He took a deep breath. And as he stared into mine eyes to make sure I would be hearing his words,, “I want to be a better person for my boy. I don’t want my boy to grow up to be a piece of drugged-up, scarred-up crap not worth pissin’ on like my father whoever he be or like me. I want my boy to grow right and be somebody.”


“So, I didn’t come here to hang with people to go back to smokin’ and sniffin’and f—– around. I don’t want to get back into that shit no more.. But, they’re sayin’ that I’m dissin’ them because I don’t cool with them. I don’t want to hurt my friends’ feelings by getting them to think I’m dissin’ them.”

“Ever think why they don’t cool with you rather than asking you to cool with them?”

“Never thought about it that way.”

“Sure you do have. Aren’t you talking to me to get me to say what you want to do is okay to do?”

He hesitated as if he really didn’t want the words to come out. “Never thought about that either…..Yeah, you’re right. I just want to get an education and not worry about hurtin’ anyone’s feelings.”

“So, why aren’t you listening yourself?

“I know. But…”

“No buts. Getting an education and walking a straight and narrow path is going to hurt anyone’s feelings? No real friend is going to feel that way. Real friends help you, kick you in the butt. Who should you really be afraid of disappointing? Who are you really ‘dissing?””

“Me, my people….my boy.”

“Go on.”

“I’m proud of me so should they too.”

“So? I don’t I have the solution to your problem.”

“Who does?”

“You do.”

“I did I wouldn’t be talkin’ to you.”

“Think about it.”

“…..Me, I guess.”

“No guess. You have to decide whose life you’re going to lead and who’s going to lead your life. Who you goin’ to diss? Yourself, your people, your ‘friends’—your boy?”

“Don’t know…Yeah, I do….I think….But it’s so damn hard.” He paused for what seemed like an hour. Then, in a tone of near surrender, spoke to the ground, “I dunno know. No one around here seems to really give a damn whether I’m here or not. You have to be one of those high and mighty good students (his emphasis) with the grades and stuff for anyone to take notice of you and kiss ass. But, I’m a good person now, and I’m tryin’ my ass off. Don’t that count for nothin’?” Then, he lowered his head and spoke softer to the ground. “One professor said I didn’t have what it took and didn’t have time for me. Maybe she’s right. I ain’t worth lookin’ at and don’t really belong here.”

“Hey,” I countered with a combined tone of annoyance and encouragement, “You looking for medals? Join the army. Was it easy leaving the streets?”

“No, like to get killed doin’ it.”

“Was it easy in rehab?”

“It was a hell you’ll not see, no.”

“Was it easy getting your equivalency diploma?”


“Is it easy taking care of your son?”‘

“That suckers,” he smilled, “No ways.”

“Was it easy believing in yourself?”

“No. Still ain’t.”

“Is it easy cracking the books?”

“It’s a real struggle. But, I’m not what you would call a good student. I’m barely gettin’ low C’s, very low C’s.”

“Is it easy having a job at the same time?”

“Hell, no.”

“Did saying that any of this stuff was hard stop you?”


“Well, if they weren’t easy, why did you do them?”

“They was important to me?”

“And this stuff coming down with your friends isn’t”

“It’s different.”

“Was getting your high school equivalency diploma different from getting clean?”


“Is taking care of your son different from studying?”

“You ain’t kiddin’. He takes up a lot of my time.”

“But they were all important.”


“So, should you be talking about things being important, hard or different?


“You had the answer all the time.”

“Yeah, But what should I do?”

“Well, being hard hasn’t stopped you. Being really important is what got you to turn your life around and get here. So, if you decide what’s important, being hard or different doesn’t matter.

“Yeah. That’s right….I guess. You gave me lots to think on. Here comes the bus. I got to make class. Thanks for listenin’. You sure helped me a bunch. My friend was right.”

“By the way,” I emphatically and sincerely added and he was getting up to leave, “don’t let those low C’s or that professor kid you. You’re not a piece of crap! You’re already a ‘something’ and a ‘somebody.’ You’re not a crackhead or two-bit hoodlum in some back alley or lying dead in a morgue, are you? You had the courage to leave the streets, face yourself down, come to school and get a new life. That takes guts (not the words I used) in my book. Your boy already has a father to look up to and your people can already be proud of you.”

He grinned, turned, and walked quickly away and got on a bus to go to another part of campus. Strange. That chat took only a few quick minutes. I turned, feeling like that person at the end of an episode of the Lone Ranger who always asks, “Who is that masked man?”

Whoever this young man is, his unfolding story reminds me of Germany’s Hermann Maier, who after what appeared to be a devastating flying and cartwheeling fall on the slops, came back, despite a spain and bad bruises, like some sort of Lazarus to win two gold medals in skiing. I’d like to be around when this reborn young man celebrates his victory lap on the graduation stage.

Make it a good day.


Whom Do You Love?

Well, Valentine’s Day is upon us. I’ve doing my best to ignore all the Cupids and gaudy red and heart-shaped, laced decorations are that draping over every place imaginable. I’m surprised no one had created a red, heart-shape bagel. Or, have they? Anyway, a quote I had received from my good friend John-Mark Stensvaag at Iowa has gotten me thinking about Valentine’s Day this misty morning. “Tell me who you love,” it went as the finale to a Valentine story, “and I’ll tell you who you are.”

Ain’t that the truth. The depth and breadth of love that is outside-shown, is inside-felt. That’s why I’m not wild about doing Valentine’s Day. For me, everyday of the past 31 years has been a Valentine’s Day. Sounds unromantic? It isn’t. Just sincere. There isn’t a morning that I don’t embrace my angelic Susan and tell her I love her and an evening doesn’t end that I don’t first kiss her goodnight and tell her I love her. A day doesn’t pass that I don’t caress her with my eyes and wonder at my luck. No, I don’t feel obligated to do Valentine’s Day. I prefer the daily, spontaneous, and sincere “just because” moments of expression of what we call “just a little bit”–a wisp of air in the ear, a loving soft touch, a whispered word, an enticing tease, a quick romantic telephone call, a quiet gift or card–to an annual, commercialized demonstration-on-demand with flowers or balloons or chocolate.

And, I’m not so sure it is or should be much different in the classroon. So, immobile on this cold, damp stoop, longing for the freedom of walking the streets, and looking at the hazy moon glowing like an irredescent cotton ball, tell us the students whom you notice, welcome into class, worry about, care about, befriend, believe in, value, reach out for, respect, celebrate, struggle with, fight for, and above all, love day after day after day, and you’ll tell us what’s in your heart and who you are.

Gotta remember to order some flowers this morning. I’m not stupid.

Make it a good day.


Is Today The Day?

They tell me that it’s “the ded of winter.” For the past four weeks, I can believe it, for I’ve spent many a waking hour during the last month in my own “dead of winter,” letting myself feel sorry for myself. I’ve been looking at a reno vation that makes a Stephen King novel read like a Mother Goose nursery rhyme, consequent financial difficulties, a broken toe that has kept me off the pre-dawn Valdostan streets since the beginning of December and is refusing to heal, and letting it all get to me while I generally ignore the important stuff in life. As I’m sitting on the front stoop, feeling the sting of the nippy pre-dawn air. It’s about 4:30 a.m. I celebrating my beloved Tarheels great victory–stompin’ is a better word–over Duke (college basketball for tho se who don’t follow these important matters), sipping a cup of freshly brewed coffee, scribbling by the front door light. The unembarassed silence, undiluted darkness, solicited solitude all feels like an incoming tide that lifting me slowly closer to sh ore. Life has too many movmeents to be quieted by cold and wind and supposed absence of color. I haven’t felt such serenity in many a week., and I don’t like it. So, I’ve decided that my own “birth of spring” has just begun. I’m tired of letting myself be out-of-sorts, physically drained, emotionally exhausted by things. And if I can’t mediate on pre-dawn walks for a while, I’ll just mediate on this pre-dawn stoop. Not as good, but it’ll work. I’ve just learned that my spirit has a shelf life, and i t does have to be constantly renewed and revitalized–just like my teaching. And, I’ve decided that while it’s okay to feel down for a little bit, I’m putting a stringent daily time-limit of a few early morning minutes on self-mourning and concentrate on all the good things still in my life, in my profession, in the people I touch and who touch me.

And that decision has got me thinking that we should all do that with our teaching. I have always said in accordance with the Talmud that I should teach–and live–as if today was my last day on earth, that there are no guaranteed rainy days for which to save. My rabbi told me the other day, to kick me out of my doldrums, to revel in this day because this is the day that God has given me. Fine. All that sounds good. But, what does all that that really mean? Let me ramble and focus this question on education. We all know we are going to have a last day, a “today is the day.” But, do really believe it? Do we have someone whispering in our ear with the sobering question, “Is today the day?” Are we ready? Are we doing all we need to do? Are we the teachers w e really want to be? Are we struggling to be as human as we can be? Are we truly at peace with ourselves, satisfied, fulfilled? Are we sharing our heart with others? Are we teaching happily? I don’t think most of us are. If we did, we would ask ques tions we have not yet asked; we would see things to which we have been blinded; we would hear things to which we have been deafened; we would feel things to which we have been numb; we would do things differently; we would be different. I don’t know what spiritual development really means, but I know there is a gross deficiency of it on our campuses.

Most of us walk through the halls of ivy with an unacknowledged meaningless in life; perform in the classroom as if we’re sleepwalking, ev en when we’re busy doing things we think are important. Like the Alice’s hare, we have “no time to say hello, goodbye”: forever running after grants, forever racing to meet a publication deadline; forever traveling on a professional journey for which we let others tell us what to pack; forever thinking about that piece of research; forever worrying–and at times fawning and prancing and groveling–to get that promotion, appointment or tenure; forever on uncomfortable alert to the “threat” of being evaluated and assessed and judged; and forever burying ourselves in accomplishment because we believe we then can control things. And when we are forever pontificating how we care about students, most of us do it from a distance or as if from another dimension or from another world. We don’t experience the individuals in the class fully. We seldom know who they are, where did they come from, what do they need, what can they do well, what are their weaknesses, how we can help them, how they can help each othe r. We don’t reach out to each of those real people as if they were precious pearls in our necklace; we don’t enter a classroom as if we were witnessing a sunrise on wonders great and small; we don’t see natural beauty before us as if we were entering the most magnificant of natural parks; we don’t see the classroom as a showroom Tiffany’s splenerous gems. No, so many of us more often than not fly into the classroom like birds with broken wings.

We get so wrapped up in the millions of things just to keep going and we haven’t developed the the habit of standing back and looking at ourselves and asking, “Is this all?” Is this all I want? Is something missing?” Instead, we’re half-aslpeep, doing things we automatically think we have to do; engaging in things we think others want us to do. We’re so frozen in the trappings of academia that the waters of our spirit can’t flow and engulf. I’m not sure the culture of academia allows us to feel goo d about ourselves. And all too many aren’t strong enough not to buy into it.

I’ll put my neck on the line andsay that having lived the meaningless academic life of material things until seven years ago, I have discovered that the only way you get meaning and purpose out from and into education, as well as life as a whole, is to t urn on your emotional faucet and wash yourself in its waters, devote yourself to loving others, to loving students; to learn how to share that love and how to let it in, to share as an adult and take as a child. I know. That’s being “touchy feely,” too soft, weak, so unacademic, so foolishly naive, so embarrasing, so unintellectual. Isn’t it, though.

Nevertheless, I’d rather put my energies into people than into running after impermanent things, invest my time in people than in the fleeting reputation s. If we could truly be compassionate in the classroom and honestly take responsibility for each student’s success, academia would be so much better a place.It is when you After all, isn’t that what love is: to care about someone’s situation as you care about your own.

I recently told my sons and some “virutal” friends that their voices and messages always brings me back to the real meaningful things in life, the right things to put my values on. Things will not give me purpose or meaning or feeling, I told them, o nly people will. They’re a reminder to me of the need to devote my time and energy to people, not things; to loving people, not things; to focus on needs, not wants; to concentrate on something that provides purpose and meaning. Books don’t hug back, peo ple do; good research won’t provide goodness, people do. Things like kitchens and bathrooms, resumes, grants, publications, titles, positions, recognitions, promotions, tenure and the like don’t make me feel alive, their voices do; things don’t fill my heart, the image of their smile do. Salaries don’t make me feel healthy, making people smile or feel adequate or feel capable or feel that they matter does. So it is, now that I think about it, do the voices and faces of the students.

So, today is the day for me.

Make it a good day.