That Magnificant “Dumb” Question

As I was preparing myself for my 6:30 p.m. first year history class last night, a student came into the office to ask a question about the “Madison Avenue Project” project on which his triad is working for next week’s presentation. He had prefaced his question with the raising of the proverbial shield to deflect any feelings of embarrassment, shame of looking of ignorant, fear of being foolish, or stares of annoyance: “This many be a dumb question, but…..”

How many times have I heard that verbal armor being put on? Before I answered him, I had a quick flashback to the ISETA conference in which I had just participated hearing on more than one instance faculty offering that same apologetic defense as they asked a question.

I told him, “Jeff, first stop saying you’re sorry for asking a question. Let’s understand that there is no such thing as a ‘dumb’ question, a ‘stupid’ question, or a ‘silly’ question. Even if you want to know how to spell ‘the,’ ask the question and learn something. What did I say in the syllabus?” There was a pause. “I said that if you are afraid to ask the question, you’re ashamed to learn.” Then, I slowed down for emphasis. “The only dumb question you can have is the one you don’t ask. And, if anyone is annoyed that you ask a questions or poormouths you for asking a question, that person is the dumb one, not you. Remember this. A real education is not about getting the answers. It’s all about asking the questions, and asking the questions anywhere, at anytime, about anything.”

I answered his “dumb” question. There wasn’t anything dumb about it. No. There is no such thing as a stupid question. I think there is nothing more exciting than looking. It’s more exciting than just sitting around and thinking, and even more exciting than knowing. That supposedly “dumb” question is the beginning of an adventure, of looking for something new. And, that is the magnificance of the “dumb” question.

Make it a good day.


Happy Teaching

Good morning. And, it is a good morning. My walk, that started out as a reluctant trudge ended up as a dance. Let me tell you why. It has meaning for our teaching.

But, I’m going to be a a tad cryptical this morning because the situation is so personal. People often ask me why I am always so happy. My answer is simple, “Because I choose to be happy.” I made a lousy choice yesterday. I chose to be unhappy. It was proof that if I choose to find the awful, as I did, I will be cursed; I will be deafened and blinded and paralyze; I will feel powerless and lesser and hopeless; I will sneer and have an awful day. Happiness is largely MY decision to make, no one else’s. And, this morning I learned as I journied the dark, cool streets of pre-dawn Valdosta, that the journey is long, hard, and slow. I learned that the journey, in fact, is never over, and that yesterday I hesitated on my journey by building constricting barriers made from the floatsam of self-imposed sadness.

This morning, as I walked, I came upon a large crack in the road. I suddenly realized that I was facing a crack that revealed a yet to be healed crack in my soul, and I tripped over it and had momentarily lost my balance. Yesterday, I had forgotten that I am only as happy as those things or persons which I allow to sadden me. No, no one or one thing was really saddening me. I was making myself unhappy. I own my own emotions, and I was hurting myself. I was being as small and disrespectful OF MYSELF. This morning, that realization dawned on me as dawn approached and shook me out of a subtle dusk that had quickly crept up and that I allowed to envelope me in darkness.

I also relearned a simple truth about happiness. How easy it is to be happy in happy situations, but how meaningful it is to be happy and feel alive in spite of unhappy situations. I have to work at happiness. I have to work to see the sun shining on a dismal and rainy day. Anyone can be unhappy. That takes no courage, no effort as I knew yesterday. It just takes energy draining surrendering of enthusiasm and excitement. I don’t think there is anything automatic about happiness. I don’t think it just happens as a result of good things happening to us over which we have no control. I find that there is little relationship between the circumstances of a person’s life and how happy that person is. True happiness lay in struggling to be happy. That is true in all facets of life including my teaching. So, let me shift my thoughts about happiness to my teaching.

To paraphrase Emerson, I don’t believe that any good teaching is achieved without enthusiasm for yourself and people. And enthusiastic teaching doesn’t occur without being happy, without being turned on and lit up and getting a kick out of each person and with yourself in that classroom. I think we owe it to ourselves and every person around us to be a happy educator.

I am now even more aware that happy and unhappy teaching are under my control. I decide what and who I like and don’t like, what and who I love and don’t love. I am a happy teacher because I choose to be happy about each student, no matter what the circumstances. I don’t wait for it; I go looking for it. I fight hard, not always successfully as yesterday’s momentary lapse indicated, not to let mythologies, games, and/or fixations permanently get hold of me.

How do I fight to stay happy? Glad you asked. First, I am now grateful! Grateful for what I have, who I am, where I am, what I do and can do, and who I can be. I don’t think an ungrateful educator, having once been one until eight years ago, can be happy and I don’t think complaining educators are happy either. Second, I far more often than not resist the ravages of the “perfect student” syndrome. Third, I don’t play the comparison game, comparing myself with anyone else’s resume or reputation or salary scale, wondering about a bunch of “could haves” and “would haves” and “should haves.” Fourth, I just won’t my happiness be sabotaged by fixating on students’ imperfections. Fifth, I also realize that happiness is a product of having a purpose. It’s energized by a vision. And finally, I find the positive in virtually every situation and every student. I just don’t stand there lazily on the side of life’s road, idly sticking out my thumb, waiting for happiness to stop and give me a lift.

Sometimes I feel like Long John Silver forever having a nagging parrot on my shoulder as a guiding spirit, an instigator. Yesterday, I temporarily gagged that bird. But, this morning it broke free. That parrot is an internal critic, not a naysayer or a censor, that bullies me along. It’s always saying as it said this morning, “Listen Schmier, I have to have a serious talk with you. You’re getting too close to being smug and complacent. You’re letting things get to you. If you don’t want them to get the better of you, this is what you have to do….” This morning I started listening once again. That parrot always wins in the end. It won’t let me sit or stand in one place. It won’t let me frown for long. It won’t let me succumb to the debilitating ravages of either those “perfect student” or “broken tile” syndrome. There is no fighting that feathered pest. That damn bird keeps me restless and excited, forcing me to take what comes, to just close my eyes and take a deep breath and smile, to go walking on with a comforting whistle or tune to ward away any potential sadness. I use that bird of happiness and attach it to the problem of learning and teaching; it motivates me to seek out a new situation to work on; it sharpens my awareness to each person around me, makes me more sensitive to my surroundings, it gives me an alertness and intensity: eyes searching and ears perked and muscle taut. It guides me to see each student each day in each class as something new and mysterious to wonder about and marvel at, and with which to deal. It won’t let me stuff myself into some confining categorizing box. It keeps me free-floating. It keeps me loose. It urges me go on to the next problem, the next situation, the next person. It makes me unpredictable in an unpredicatable world and changing in a changing world. It never allows me to catch up with my goals because my goals are changing as each person in that class changes. So, I can’t say, “I’ve been there; I’ve done it; I’ve seen it.” Simply because I haven’t. I go into each class and expect to discover new things; and I do. I go into each class expecting to see new people; and I do. I go into each class expecting a miracle to occur, and it does. Even Thoreau left the bliss of Walden Pond for the same reason he went there: he had new lives to live.

So, once again, I know this to be true: if I choose to find the positive in virtually every student, every day, in every classroom; if I choose to have hope, faith, belief, love in every student, every day will be a happy one of discovery. I will be excited and I will be happy. I will be blessed with joy, satisfaction, fulfillment, and days overflowing with “wows.” I will be proud of who I am and what I do. I will not go to bed one night weighted down by one “might have been” or an “if only,” feeling ashamed or disappointed or unhappy or burned out. On the other hand, if I choose to find the awful, the negative, the disappointment, the sadness, discouragement, and days overflowing with “yuks” and “ughs;” if I am fearful; if I see each class as something old hat, something routine, something “here we go again;” if I kvetch about student imperfections; if I do not have hope, belief, and faith I will lose my youthful spring, be cursed with boredom, depression, purposelessness, disappointment, discouragement, that may evolve into an anger. I will get kicked around in the classroom rather that getting a kick out being in the classroom. The classroom will be stormy instead of sunlit. I won’t give it all I have; I will give it just enough to get it over. That choice is mine and mine alone. There is no one or anything else to blame. Nothing and no one makes me decide whether to be happy or unhappy, lit up or burnt out.

Now some of you may say I am idealistic. Maybe. But, after yesterday, I’m glad I am walking this cheery road once again with a smile on my face and an excitement in my spirit. I look at all those people in each class and it is almost like seeing a stain glass in motion, It’s beautiful, uplifing, fulfilling. Believe me it beats the dismay, swampy alternative that I trudged through yesterday.

Make it a good day.


Religion and the Public Schools

There has been a lot of vigorous public discussion recently over religion and education centering around such general matters as prayer in school and recently focusing on the specific issue of the teaching of Creationism versus Evolution in Kansas and the Georgia State Board of Education’s consideration of introducing a Bible course with Christian fundamentalist overtones into the public school curriculum. As an educator, I’d like to offer my quick take on this issue of religion and public education.

I may not be religious in a strict ritualistic or ceremonial or attendance at synagogue sense. But, I personally struggle to live the moral and ethical principles of my faith every day, not just at Temple Israel, but wherever I am, including at the university. Part of my strong faith that I practice is a belief that every person is a sacred creation. Another part of my faith is that I stand puny before the Lord. So puny am I that I just do not have such herculean strength with which I can cast out the Almighty from the public schools or any person’s heart as if the Divine were a mere mortal money changer. On the other hand, I do not see in any Scripture any close-minded Divine commandments that say, “Thou shalt force all others to read the Bible that thou dost” and “Thou shalt have organized prayer in the public schools for every function,” or “Go among the multitude in the schools and force them to believe the Bible as thou dost.” And, I am okay with that.

I feel very comfortable daily practicing the principles of my faith. I don’t remember anyone ever telling me that I shouldn’t or can’t be honest, that I must steal and covet and dishonor, that I can’t have faith and hope, that I can’t be charitable, that I can’t use the golden rule as a standard of living. I am comfortable with any student who wants to practice the morals and ethics of his or her faith, to say a quiet prayer before school, say a silent prayer during school before a test, say a little grace over lunch, read a Bible story, have a discussion about theology, or do a project involving the role religion plays in the American experience.

I am a professional educator. I do not think that any stone should be left unturned as we struggle to find something, anything, to turn a student on to learning. I do not believe in dousing the flame of a student’s interest in anything: Moses, horses, Bible, clothes, Koran, cars, race, Buddha, sports, religion, science, sex, Allah, hunting, Confuscius, drugs, fishing, Siva, the opposite gender, Jesus, anything that encourages a student to read, search, inquire, discuss, discover, write, think, listen, understand, reflect, respect, express. What kind of a teacher would I be if I squandered such opportunities and squashed such excitement.

I have no problem with teachers including religious history, religious music, religious art, religious literature, religious drama, religious philosophy, and even theology in appropriate classes (that doesn’t mean I believe that Christian Creationism has any appropriate place in biology classes. It doesn’t)—as long as no one faith or no one sect of a faith is presented as the one and only true “church.”

Like it or not, believe in it or not, religion has played a significant role in political, social, cultural, scientific, and economic lives world over. It is the cornerstone of our American individual and national character. It’s in our colonial beginnings, our revolution, our founding documents, our great reform movements, even in the reason we are told to eat our corn flakes. Without it where be would our and the world’s literature, art, architecture, music, dance? World over, more good and more harm have been done to people by people, more people have been united and divided, more people have been hated and more have been loved, more people have built and more people have torn down, more has been created and more has been destroyed, more has been elevated and more has been perverted in the name of religion than in the name of anything else. To leave out the role any religion has played and still plays in any individual, local, national and global life would leave a very “holely” story.

I also have no problem with any and all religious clubs being welcomed at any school and having volunteer faculty sponsors, as long as they are not officially sponsored by the school or any public funds are used in their support. It is an unacceptable extreme position to say that just by merely providing space and the insignificant cost of utilities that the school is supporting and promoting such gatherings. These clubs offer needed sense of community, places for making contact, ways of reaching out and connecting for students no less than do sport teams, academic clubs, theatrical productions, sororities, and fraternities.

I have yet to see a legislator’s law, a judge’s decision, or some bureaucrat’s regulation discourage religious belief, prohibit practices of moral and ethical principles, stop the wearing of any religious professing shirt, forbid individual prayer, bar the personal carrying and reading of any religious work. If you think it does, you’re not paying attention. You’re reading and hearing only what you want to read and hear or are told to read and hear, and you’re are being taken for a contribution ride courtesy of the cottage industry in this country that profits from the fiction that God has been banned from the schools, that all religion has been blacklisted in our schools, that children are murdering children and this great country is in moral decline, all because of a lack of practicing the rituals and ceremonies of a particular religious faith in the public schools.

Maybe the situation would be much improved if we each practice religious inclusion rather than exclusion, just follow the ethical and moral principles of each of our faiths regarding human relations without worrying about particular rituals and ceremonies or celebrations of particular holidays, be more respectful (I don’t like the word, toleration), be trusting of others, and be far, far, far less self-righteous and arrogant. I bet we would find that we would have far more in common than supposed and agree more often than not, and feel a presence that has gone unnoticed.

Make it a good day.


The Stars

Good morning. And it is a good morning. The pre-dawn air was crisp, sharp, invigorating. Not a mosquito or gnat in sight. The sky was crystal clear. On one particular stretch of street on the back leg of my six mile route, deeply blackened by the absence of a distracting lamp post, I tooked a quick glance up at the stars. I stopped and stared. Mesmerized for a few seconds, I thought, “There is no way anyone can look at these stars and yawn. It should be the same when we look at students.” After a few deep breaths, I went on, longing for a cup of freshly brewed coffee.

Make it a good day.