An Hello and Thank you

As I walked the dawning streets, I was still thinking of Ella (not her her real name).

It happened unexpectedly late yesterday morning in my front yard. I was on my knees, sweating and suffering the assaults of our foot-long south Georgia mosquitos as if I was reenacting the attack on Pearl Harbor this Memorial Day Weekend. A car stopped and honked. I turned around. It was Ella, waving and yelling a “hi, Dr. Schmier.” A thought passed quickly across my mind that last August she would have been waving a weapon at me rather than her hand. How things change. I waved back and rose. She pulled the car to the curb, turned off the engine, got out, ran over, and hugged me.”

“What’s that for?”

“I was going to write you, but I just saw you. I want to say hello and thanks.”

“For what?”

She quickly said something like, and please don’t hold me to a word for word standard. I’m close enough: “For saying hello to me that first day in class and every day even though I did my best to be rude and show my temper to drive you away like I did with everyone else. It always worked except for you. That made me angrier. I didn’t get you. Actually, it scared the hell out of me. Boy, that first day did I want to hit you. I mean really hit you. There was more than one time I wanted to and went back to the dorm and hit a pillow instead. You really got under my skin when you said hello to me in the hall when you didn’t have to. You kept noticing me when I kept trying not to notice you. I think I started to get that you meant it with all those words for the day stuff and your talks with me. And, to tell the truth it got me more scared and angrier. And, you know, when you guessed………………you didn’t judge me and send me packing off to hell like my preacher and parents. You just offered to help. You don’t know how much I needed that and appreciated it. I didn’t. Not one of my so-called friends, no one in my family for sure, did that. And, when I came back to class you didn’t start lecturing me like I was getting from everyone. You just asked if I was okay and offered again to help and be there for me. It really confused me. You said you’d be there for me, not for you. That never happened to me in all the times I got into trouble. I mean you didn’t throw up your hands. You offered me yours. You didn’t give up on me. You kept fighting for me. It made me wonder why. I was afraid to look, but, boy, it made the difference. More difference than you know. More than I knew then. Probably more than I still know, but it will make a difference for the rest of my life. Just wanted you to know. You helped me say to begin saying hello to a new Ella I’ve never seen and no one but you told me was there inside, and start saying goodbye to the old me. Thanks.”

Again, being caught off-guard by her, “I really appreciate that, thank you” was all I could say. It was enough. Before I could say more, she hugged me again. “Got a lot of searching to do. Will you help me in the fall if I need it.”

“Sure,” I answers.

With a slight sweat stain on her blouse and a “see you next semester,” she the ran to the car and drove off.

I say, “again,” because it wasn’t the first time she caught me off-guard. There was that first day of class.

When I greeted her at the door with a handshake, her hand was taut, hesitant, even resistant–and cold. She sat rigidly in her chair with her spirit folded in an “I dare you” posture. She had absolutely refused to walk around class that first day to meet other students during our “Treasure Hunt” community-building exercise. She just stood in a back corner, staring, motionless, almost crouched defensively. I noticed. Went over to where she was standing and quietly asked, “You okay?”

“Why the hell would you care?” she snapped without a warning.

Her words shook like the tail of a coiled rattlesnake. I dared not take another step and to say another word.

Through community building exercise after exercise, through project after project, day after day, week after week, she was uncooperative, rude, “temperish,” silent. It was the beginning of a war that seemed at times would have no end: Her sneers against my smiles; her anger versus my gentleness; her glares clashing with my sparkle. I meditated a bit more before that class. I struggled, not always successfully, not to so focus on her in class so that the other students were out of focus.

Once a student, an upper class education major, privately asked me, “Why do you take that shit that she’s throwing at you.”

“There’s power in gentleness, not in anger. She’ll have a better chance of listening if I first listen,” I answered. “When you become a teacher remember your mission is to EACH (my emphasis) student, not just the supposed good and easy ones. Your real growth comes from the challenging students. You’re there to help, correct, improve, grow, change each and every student. Your mission is not to punish or surrender Doing your best is not good enough. Trying isn’t good enough. You have to teach with W-I-T: whatever it takes.”

I have to admit there were times that W-I-T was trying. There were times I wanted to throw up my hands with an excusing, “I tried.” There were times I wanted to walk away with a rationalized “I gave it my best.” There were times I moaned and looked to the heavens with a pleading “not again” gaze. What I didn’t tell the student was that my instinct told me that was just what Ella wanted. Her posturing seemed so deliberate and studied. It was as if she had been following a well-planned, well-rehearsed, well-played script. And, I wasn’t going to play the part she wrote for me. Yesterday, I found out I was right.

About ten weeks into the semester, she caught me off-guard a second time. I won’t go into details. I can’t. I will say that one late night I unexpectedly received a cryptic e-mail from her that was easily decipherable. Her message was full of confusion and fear. Not a word of anger. I took the risk and assumed she wanted me to be able to decode it. She did. I guessed right. I offered her understanding and support as well as a shoulder and an ear if she needed them. I had ended my reply with a questioning, “why me?” She immediately replied, “No one else.”

Talk about getting hit with a ton of bricks.

There was a change in her when she returned as if she was ready to risk peeking out, as if she was beginning, ever so slightly, to see that there was more pain in holding on than letting go, as if she was discovering that it took more effort to keep the door closed than to open it, that she was thinking about choosing to whom to listen. I don’t know whether it was the trauma of her crisis, my encouraging message, or both. I do know I was soon watching her ever so slowly, like delicately dipping her proverbial toe to test the waters, struggle to come out from her dark world into a brighter one, to wade into a new and refreshing view of herself, to trust and ask for help.

Over the rest of the semester, it was daunting to watch her first unsteady steps, to witness the stirring of the process of self-respect and self-confidence start unfold, to watch her anger with whom she was at that moment slowly, oh so hesitantly, moving toward a comfort with who she was capable of becoming, to watch her cautiously turn the key to unlock her soul and then her heart and then her mind, and to engage all three. What courage!

As she left, I started thinking about when I once said we should teach hard with a light touch, soft eyes, and a tender heart. Yes, nothing is stronger than gentleness. Nothing is more powerful than that four letter word: love. These last few minutes with Ella make me surer about the truths of that attitude than the rightness of any method or result. If I cannot find the right path by means of faith, belief, gentleness, hope, love, and a smile; if I don’t make the time to find a way, the best and right way, and not just the easy way or to look to have my way; if I stay in a box or merely move from one box to another box rather than constantly fight to stay unboxed, I will forget about teaching to do good. I probably won’t really teach good.

Doggone, I felt good. Still do.

Make it a good day.


A Sacred Trust

I just sent this letter to the editor of our local newspaper. I’ll just say that it was mainly prompted by a message I received yesterday from a student. That letter brought tears to my eyes:

A sacred trust. That’s what teaching is. A heavy responsibility. That’s what teaching is. A privilege not to be taken lightly. That’s what teaching is. A noble mission. That’s what teaching is. An profound opportunity. That’s what teaching is.

Making a life. That’s what teaching is.

Anyone who steps into a classroom or lets someone step into the classroom should understand this. The strength of a teacher lies not in transmitting information and giving a test and assigning a grade. The authority of a teacher does not lies in coercion, threat, or manipulation. The power of a teacher lies in the persuasive ability to change people’s hearts, to motivate them, to inspire them, to show them a direction, to make their own lives better.

The duty of the teacher is to honor the taught and humanize the classroom. The obligation of the teacher is to treat each student as a sacred human being and as an invaluable piece of the future, to help him or her learn how to love to learn, to help shape his or her character, to help instill principles, and above all to be a positive example.

These are not just pretty words merely to be said. They are a heavy obligation to be lived. They are a humbling burden to bear. And so, when anyone enters the classroom, know it or not, like it or not, he or she has accepted this charge. It comes with the territory.

Outside the family, teachers probably have the most powerful influence on a student. This inspiration rests on a chemistry of mutual respect and trust between teacher and student. Teaching is love. It is giving, sharing, understanding, encouraging, supporting, valuing, listening, patience, gentleness, kindness.

The limiting factor in education, then, is something far less tangible than anything most people have discussed much less sloganized. No one should kid themselves thinking that the cure-all answer to education’s woes is simply either class size, salary, methods and techniques, technology, money, curriculum, much less a pack of standardize tests or a horde of certified ninety day wonders.

The answer to what goes on inside the classroom is what goes on inside the heart and soul of the teacher and every member of our community. If we want to improve the performance of each student, we each have to first improve our performance. That may not the simple, easy, and quick solution everyone is looking for. But, it is the right one.

Make it a good day.


Garden Smarts/Teach Smarts

Nice walk. The few silent, alone minutes of this dawning morning felt like Keats’ urn, a still unravished bride of quietness. I’m back up to four eleven minute miles. Two more to go. I glided along, in the groove, knowing I was going to hit that milestone. Thank goodness for glucosamine. Anyway, strange thinking was happening. My focus was not on the walk. I knew I wasn’t getting that sense of satisfaction from the walk itself. I was thinking about the weeks and weeks of slow, patient, hard rebuilding and reconditioning after a painful flare-up in my left leg forced me to ease up and cut back to a mile walk. I was thinking about the tough mornings, of the mornings my amgelic barracks sergeant grounded me, of the mornings I walked through both the darkness and the dark aches when I had an easy excuse to ease off. My joy and satisfaction and sense of accomplishment was rooted in the “what it took” journey, in overcoming the obstacles, usually unseen and unknown to all but me, to get to this point. It didn’t happen by itself.

Curiously, as I cooled off, I had the same feeling as I walked through my blossoming flower garden this morning. It’s an emerging rainbow of color and smells and movements: purple heather, African daisies, trumpeting amaryllis, white Shastas, purple echinecea, lush plantation lilies, day lilies in all size and shapes and colors, wild yellow coreopsis, majestic roses, dainty white beards, varieties of rudebeckia, hordes of caladiums with their leafy collages, pink pineapple geraniums, mountain petunias, veined wandering Jew…..

And yet, in this “birth of spring,” I was thinking of what some might call the ruins of winter. Weird isn’t it. In the midst of clusters of lush green I saw images of regal lilies hanging limp and lifeless appeared. The vibrancy of the amaryllis and day lilies recalled a chilly time when they were shriveled and browned and drooping and saddened. The emerging pallets of glorious color set off dancing images of bare rose spines, denuded tree branches, blackened and colorless vines, bland woody sticks.

I started once again to see some universal smarts at work in both my garden and my teaching. There are lessons are in my garden that I can take into the classroom and from the classroom into the garden. Here are a few that quickly come to mind:

1. In the middle of the “death” of winter, a true gardener, like a teacher, believes in the coming of spring’s and summer’s “birth” and “life.” A true gardener has to know that winter is not, as someone put it, a seasonal shank. It is not a period of death. It is an interlude. It is a time of rest. It is a time of preparation. It is a time of potential. It is a time of dormancy when the inner energy is there waiting to be brought forth in a burst of glory. A true gardener, like a teacher, in the midst of cold has faith in the coming of warmth. In the depth of winter, a true gardener, like a teacher, thinks and feels spring and summer.

2. If my garden is beautiful, it is because I’ve developed techniques, habits, routines–and above all a spirit–necessary to make it beautiful. There really is no such thing as a low or no maintenance flower garden. I can’t just toss out a few seeds, go ahead, and do whatever I want to do, whenever I want to, and then expect to come back to find a beautiful, garden. I have to get “down and dirty.” I have meet each plant on its terms. I have to adapt to each plant’s unique needs. I have to be one person and many gardeners at the same time. I have to plant, nourish, water, cultivate, tend, care, trim, prune, dead-head, clean, protect if I’m going to enjoy the garden. There is no secret about gardening: experiment, lots of hard work, lots of time, lots of effort, lots of preparation, lots of tools, many mistakes, tons of flexibility, much learning from failure, perseverance, care, love, faith, endurance.

3. No beautiful garden can be created without enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is the most powerful force at work in a garden, enthusiasm not so much for my gardening as for the flowers in the garden. When I am enthused about the garden, about each flower in the garden, I garden with all my might. I am energetic, committed, optimistic, hopeful, and even spiritual about it. You see, the blooming flowers are not the key to happy gardening. Happy gardening is the key to a beautiful garden. If I am a happy gardener, I will do whatever it takes to create a beautiful garden.

4. No flower is a mistake. Each is a miraculous creation of nature. Each is unique. That attitude about gardening and towards each flower in the garden is the dictator of the outcome of my gardening. A beautiful garden is a collection of individual flowers. I plant seed. There is no way of knowing when, where, how, and if those seeds will flower. I tend them with a faith each is capable of flowering and will flower. Tending each flower, one at a time, is what makes the garden beautiful. So, if my garden is beautiful it is because I tend each flower with equal devotion, dedication, commitment, and love.

6. My spirit is not just one thing that goes into my gardening. It is everything. It determines what I see and what I ignore. It lets me work at my play and play at my work. I can alter my garden merely by altering my attitude. If I have less than a conscious commitment to my flowers, I have an unconscious commitment to something else and am somewhere else. So, I have to be careful in my garden, for I alter it and it alters me every time I enter. Every flower offers me the choice to expand my vision or smother my dream.

7. The key to a beautiful garden is asking the right questions of myself. Before I garden in the garden, I have to garden within myself. I am the first flower in my garden. I am the hardest to cultivate and to bring to full bloom. You see, how I see the garden, is a confession of my character. What I am works the garden far more than what I say. My inner spirit abducts what I think and feel and do. The definition of a beautiful garden comes, must come, only comes, from deep within. And, the desire to reach those depths must come deep from within as well.

8. Most important: The garden can only become what I dream about. If I want a beautiful garden, I don’t just plant and tend to flowers. If I want a beautiful garden, I have to long for the life-giving spirit of the garden.

Make it a good day.


The Real Problem In Education

As I was on the plane yesterday, a thought struck me that I would like to share with you. There’s a problem in education, and it’s not the information, assessment, technological, or pedagogical problem that everyone is looking at.

There’s a problem in education that is not going to be solved by higher salaries or higher test scores or new technologies or new methods and techniques or new programs or revamped administrations.

I’ll just say that there’s a people problem in education that very few are working on.

I’ll leave it at that.

Make it a good day.



Nice walk this balmy morning. Not nice thoughts. I was thinking about a brief but sad conversation I had last week with a colleague from another department in front of the library. I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind and heart. And, I been hesitant to share my feeling and thoughts for fear it will get me into trouble. Here goes.

“Hey, Louis, are you doing to the festivities?” he asked

“No. Are you?”

“Yes. I have to.”

“Have to? Why do you have to? Did someone tell you that you had to?”

“No, but I haven’t got tenure like you.”

“Someone taking role? Taking off points for absences?”

“No. But, I can’t take a chance. I’m a piece of shit around here until I get tenure. I can’t just do anything I want. I’ve got to be seen there.”

“Tell me how it goes.”

Do you hear it? The swoosh of that mythical Greek sword. Do you hear it? The quiet rush to get the guarantee of a job? Do you hear it? The silent going-about-our business, the hesitancy to rock the boat, the reluctance to disturb the calm, the worry about what others will think, the refusal to be out of step. Do you hear it? The fearful stillness not to jeopardize the prospect of be able to fill out that guarantee card.

If there is any noticeable sound, it is the thud of rubber-stamping that so often stamps out any inclination to take a stand or get involved or speak out.

Conformity. Uniformity. Caged. Tamed. So boxed in that you won’t or can’t step out of the box. So often treated as and allowing ourselves to be treated as hirelings, you would think the Thirteenth Amendment was repealled. An so many of us thought that such treatment ended when we left graduate school.

Disturb, discomfort, question, endanger, risk, challenge, voice, provoke are not in the vocabulary of most of those in quest of the golden fleece of that union card we call tenure.

So many of us look over their shoulder, strain to hear the slightest noise, see figures lurking in the shadows, are preoccupied with what they imagine others think. Far too many of us academics pride ourselves on being free and independent and professional, and in truth act so sheepishly, jump through perceived hoops at the crack of whips. They are so well-behaved. So immpeccably dressed. Too many place ourselves under imaginary thumbs, hanging on to our excuses rather than hanging them up. We are not honest enough–or maybe strong enough–to reveal ourselves. We hide behind fear of exposure and rejection. We don’t allow ourselves to spend our profession our own way.

Alas, most of us academics just aren’t Jasons. As a consequence, in the quest of the golden fleece of tenure most of us fleece ourselves or allow ourselves to get fleeced. We fill our hearts and minds with constricting and destructive anxiety, negativity, and worry. We control ourselves, bowing with hat in hand, and let other control us.

“Oh, wait until we get tenure,” so many proclaim in their defense, “and then you’ll hear from us.” That may be reasonable. Each of us has to decide how much we are willing to pay to maintain our integrity. Certainly, the number of plates on the table we have to fill make that decision commensurately more difficult. Play the game to get in the game no matter whomever or whatever has to be compromised or sacrificed. So many of us allow ourselves to be treated as or treat ourselves as anything but as the professionals we are. The problem is that once we’re in the habit of living under someone else’s thumb, it’s hard to give someone the thumb or any other finger. Once you’re tamed, it’s hard to live on your own. What is unreasonable is that we still don’t hear from them. They still go about a business-as-usual. The game playing continues, but they never get in the game. They’re still boxed in, still conforming. The silence and invisibility continues with so many, sanctified by a host of other explanations, rationalizations, and excuses: evaluations, pay raises, leaves, course assignments, etc. And, as a consequence too many campuses too often seethe with rest and are deafened by that sad stillness and dangerous, monotonous rhythmic rubber-stamping.

Tenure was never meant to be simply union card it has become. It was never meant to be a commitment to getting a permanent job; it is not dedication to keeping a job. It was never meant to be a weapon in campus politics. Yes, tenure is designed to provide a safe haven, but for what and from whom? Many loudly proclaim that it protects academic freedom. Yet, except for the few undaunted, they usually don’t feel free and don’t freely exercise that freedom, unless its safe to do so.

Doesn’t tenure come with responsibilities? It doesn’t seem so for most academics. The number of educators who speak out on even small issues seems so small either because they fear offending someone, they’re buried in their own world of research and publication, they still fear for their position, just as when they were pursuing that golden fleece.

To paraphrase a bumper sticker one of my colleagues has on her door: well-behaved faculty don’t make history. They don’t affect change. They don’t leave a legacy. They only reinforce, support, and encourage a submissive, passive, fearful and/or disinterested, controlling culture of going along to get along, of catering to what they think others in and out of academia want and think.

In silence and calm academia is at its worse. It is at its best when it is provocative. Academia is least inspiring when it patronizingly puffs up cushions to make people comfortable. Academia is most inspiring when it makes people shift uncomfortably in their seats. Academia earns least respect when it clothes the emperor. Academia earns most respect, however begrudgingly, when it sheds the emperor of his clothes.

Maybe success in academia should be defined not so much as acquiring tenure as a scorn of tenure as it is presently misused and abused by those seeking it and by those granting it. Then, maybe we will dare to make mistakes and never make the mistake of not daring.

Am I exaggerating? Maybe. Then again, I can. I have tenure.

Make it a good day.