4:10 a.m. Can’t sleep. Too churned up. Got the go-ahead yesterday from the doctor to at least fast walk as far as I wish. I’ve already done a fast, but not to fast, walk. Susan and I am getting ready, antsy is a better word, to hop a plane for San Francisco where we’ll spend the next two weeks engaged in cheerful holiday grand-kid spoiling. My fingers are numb from wrapping eight days worth of Chanukah presents for each of the girls. So, it may seem a little weird at this time of joyous celebration and holiday cheer to talk of heresy. But, it’s heresy that’s on my mind. No, I’m not going to advocate teaching intelligent design in biology classes, although I think we need some intelligent design for the configuration of our academic classrooms. This is why.

I went to a friend’s house under construction a couple of days ago. There I bumped into a student from last year, working with his brother, installing high-end cabinets designed and fashioned at his brother’s cabinet shop. I watched him. He was skilled. He was intense. He was precise. He was engaged. He was enjoying what he was doing. He had avidly learned his crafts. I know personally. He and his brother had built the oak island in my kitchen. He triggered thoughts of another student whom I’ll call Joe. Joe didn’t like 8 am classes. He was always sleepy from nights with little sleep. Why didn’t he sleep? Studying? Writing research papers? Working on class projects? No. He was up all hours of the night with his guitar practicing with the other member of his combo for gigs they had around the local waterholes. I thought of another student, Bill, who always complained about how tough it was to get up to make his morning classes. But, during my walks I would catch him out there in the parking lot in the wee hours of the morning hupping 1-2-3 with his ROTC unit. I thought of still another student whom I’ll call Sara, who was more involved in her cheerleading than she was in her classes. She got “sick.” She never let it stop her from practicing. She can’t say that about attending her classes. There was June who would forego classes when they conflicted with theater rehearsals, but never the reverse. There was Harry who couldn’t understand why it was acceptable to skip a class or two to attend an organizational convention. There was John for whom the pressures of rushing his fraternity took precedent over the demands of classes. There Samantha who seldom arrived to class on time, but was punctually when it came to her job. And, there was Bob, a football player, whose dedication and work ethic on the field wasn’t brought into the classroom. I can’t tell you the number of times I talked with them and others like them, called them from class on cell phones when they didn’t appear to work on or present a project, conspired with their coaches and directors and commanders. Teresa explained it all when she said she “had” to work on a sorority parade float rather than on a school assignment because “I can’t let my sisters down.” Need I say more? Once again, I thought about why didn’t those skills and capabilities and that enthusiasm and reliability and responsibility show up more often in the classroom? It’s not a new thought, but after watching and talking with my cabinet-maker student, I began to think thoughts of heresy.

Colleges and universities are supposed to be places of higher learning. But, where does memorable and deep learning really take place. We academics assume and proclaim it should be in the classroom. But, is it? Well, a weak maybe at the graduate level, but I’m not all that sure it occurs at the first year level or as much at the upper classman level as so many suppose. I know that when I reminisce about my high school days Southside, my college days at Adelphi, and my graduate days at St. John’s University, and The Hill, when I start telling the stories, when I recall the memorable events that are today as vivid as when they occurred 38 to 51 years ago, when I think of the life shaping experiences, not one–I repeat, not one–is about academics.

What do I mean? Ever walk down the halls and peer into classrooms? What do you see? Really see, not what do you want to see? You don’t see many “turned-on” classes. What you see is mostly boredom, not learning. I see an overwhelming majority of students day dreaming, looking at their watches as they feel the minutes are turning into hours, peering out the windows, doodling, slouching, whispering to see other, reading assignments or looking over notes for other classes, tuning out, staring, apathetic, disinterested, disengaged, mechanically taking mindless notes. We all know students will find every excuse and reason and rationale not to attend class: a lack of parking, traffic, a late campus bus, a sister performing in a play, a doctor’s appointment, a family illness, a flat tire, a lame alarm clock, a family affair, a sniffle, a rehearsal, a game, a convention, most anything. I see teachers orating. Well, to be honest , most of us aren’t paragons of Demosthenes. We more often than not drone in monotones or read from books, looking over students or into books, indifferent to the glazed stares and blank gazes of the students as if filled or empty seats made no difference. I see teachers, backs to the students, talking to the blackboard or heads turned down while scribbling on overheads or punching computer keys or faces turned away reciting some droll powerpoint presentation.

So what do we do professors do. We defend ourselves. We attack, lash out, blame. We immediately label the students lazy, unworthy, unprepared, lame, air-headed, undisciplined, irresponsible, slack, immature, uninterested. To cure these debilitating diseases, we chastise them more, blame them more, control them more, penalize them more, and coerce them more. That is, we make the classroom less appealing and more-prison like. Doesn’t work, does it. It’s little wonder that we then get resigned, annoyed, frustrated, angry, and burnt out.

But, if you hang around these same students outside of class, if you’re a fly on the wall in their residences, if you just watch them around campus and off-campus, if you read their journals, guess what you’ll find. These lifeless classroom zombies come alive. Their trods transform into dance steps, their slow pace quickens, their juices get going, their blood flows, their blank eyes twinkle, their sullen faces smile, their mournful sighs turn into rowdy laughs. Students who are emotionally absent in the classroom exude emotions outside the classroom. The ugly worm of their apathy metamorphoses into a beautiful butterfly of excitement and interest. They’ll eagerly go to their jobs; they’ll concentrate as they play computer games. The closed, shy ones open their hearts to others. These classroom slackers have a lot of outside interests that excite them. They’re doing things they loved to do. They’re putting themselves wholeheartedly into their jobs, teams, clubs, fraternities, sororities, troupes, units, friends, lovers, and ensembles. They are doggone good at these things; they’re a bunch of skilled people; they’re a bunch of neat people.

Again, I’ll ask that question. Why don’t those skills and capabilities and enthusiasms and commitments show up more often in what we academics proclaimed is the more important classroom? Well, acting the heretic, what would happen if I turn that question up on its end and ask three questions? First, what if I ask what is it about woodworking, cheerleading, playing in a combo, playing on a team, acting in a troupe, throwing a pot, which they obviously love, that is worthy of their best effort. Second, what if I ask what it is about classes that tend to make them unworthy, or less worthy and important, of that kind of engagement. And finally, what if I asked are we really interested in the answers, of looking at places of joy, places where students lose track of how hard they’re working because they’re so involved in what they’re doing, places where students lose track of time, places where they stop counting minutes, places where hours are turned into minutes, places where students voluntarily learn a difficult skill, where they work and work and work over and over and over again at a thing until they know how to do it, places that might hold some important lessons for us and demand that we change the configuration of our classes.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I haven’t done any formal study, just intensely observed and noted for nearly forty years as a professor and teacher. I’ve been reading an average of 160 student journal entries each day of a term for something like ten years. Let me give you my baker’s dozen of answers why students are tuned into teams, troupes, units, fraternities, sororities, clubs, ensembles, combos; why these are a turn-on for students while they’re generally turned off and tuned-out in the classroom; why the outside activities are indelibly tattooed onto their souls while the inside the classroom activities are seldom more than temporary ink:

First, in these activities they’re active participants and contributors rather than passive recipients. They feel useful. They feel needed. They’re using their imaginative and creative powers. They’re focusing on the strengths of an empowering “this is what I can do” rather than on a weakening, submissive, fearful “what do you want.” They’re not empty heads to be filled in a time, manner, and method determined by others.

Second, they’re believed in. Someone has faith in them. They’re actively encouraged, supported, and prodded to go beyond their best. There’s no such thing as “good enough.” They’re pushed and pushed and pushed. They’re congratulated and then are asked to do more and more and more, to stretch their limits, to expand their horizons. It isn’t an environment of distant lecture or controlled discussion, test, go on, and never to come back to that stuff again.

Third, they’re looked up to. They’re important. They’re noticed. They’re valued. They get extraordinary amount of applause, recognition, appreciation, approval from the institutions, audiences, and from peers. That doesn’t happen to members in a first year math class.

Fourth, in the band, ensemble, team, sorority, fraternity, squad, club, etc they’re acknowledged and treated as unique individuals with the ability to make contributions to the whole. They’re not as just another unnoticed, faceless, shadowy number sitting anonymously in a crowd or herd of classroom seats. They’re a community of mutually supporting, trusting, and respecting friends and family; there’s always an understanding shoulder and a listening ear; they learn that alone each is weaker, by far, than if all are together, that shared confidence is stronger than individual confidence,

Fifth, they can’t let others down. They don’t want to let others down. They’re intertwined with each other. There are webs of mutually reliant connections. There’s mutual commitment. There’s something larger than them at stake. They’re team mates, sisters, brothers, buddies, comrades, partners, members, fellow thises or thats. No isolation here. No stranger here. No aloneness here. No separateness here. Personal achievement is linked directly with responsibility of the achievement of others, as well as the improvement of others. Mutual commitment, support, and encouragement help overcome fears of risk-taking and failure that curtail achievement. They’re “openers,” not “shut downers.”

Sixth, repetition is honorable and acceptable and understood–and meaningful. You go over and over and over the same stuff. You learn your lines; you learn the playbook; you learn the score; you learn the steps; you learn the maneuvers; you learn to work with others. It’s called drills and rehearsals and practice.

Seventh, they’re encouraged to take the initiative and act on their own. They’re always on their toes, always alert to the unexpected. No time to coast. The practice field is different from the “real thing” of the playing field. Rehearsing is different from the show going on. The audience is always different. The opponent won’t cooperate and do as it’s supposed to due during a competition Drop line, bust a play, miss a note, and you have to improvise. Little is erected that might limit potential, stifle creativity, shackle innovation, or prevent taking the initiative. It’s not an iron-clad class precisely scripted by the professor whose idea of a good class is when things go as he or she planned, when predictions come true, when the expected and prepared for occur, and when there is little or no interruption or disruption or diversion or distraction–or regrettably questions.

Eighth, spirit, heart, emotion, adrenalin are all part of the mix. A musician has to play with heart; a player has to have his or her heart into it; an actor has to be emotionally involved with his or her part. When a musician does well, he’s on a high and ready to go at it again. When a football player misses a tackle, he’s angry and ready to go at it again. When an actor misses a cue, he or she curses him/herself and goes at it again. High or low, members of the theater troupe, band, squad, team talk with each other, support each other, encourage each other, and assist each other. But in the classroom we dismiss or disallow or ignore emotion. We don’t care about flowing juices. We worship the cold, disconnecting god of objectivity. We generally prohibit communication except for the most restricted exchanges. When we bring 30 to 1000 students together and ask them not to communicate, eyes front, not to cooperate, not to use one another as resources or exhort one another to go further, then we make it clear to them that their being together is simply a matter of efficiency and cost-effectiveness.

Ninth, students follow their hearts, pick their position, choose their roles, and select their instruments. But, with academics, students are seldom empowered. We give them a list of specific classes they have to take–some euphemistically called “guided electives,” we enter the classroom as talking heads, we decide the discussion-of-the-day and control it, we give them assignments within those classes that they have to do, we tell them they have to do things our way, we test them, we grade, and we don’t offer many class alternatives that are exciting to them or class activities that are interesting to them.

Tenth, students help each other. That is, the more skilled assist the less skilled because the entire troupe, combo, squad, team, fraternity, sorority is dependent upon each and every member. They inspire each other, model for each other, set examples for others. In the class room, sadly more often than not, the “better” students aren’t allowed to stand out per se during the class except to be used as a put down of others.

Eleventh, there’s a lot of personal contact, a lot of one-on-one instruction and conscious encouraging “good job” from authority figures. The director, coach, leader, commander gives time for relationships to form, gets a good sense of who each student is, finds out what drives each of them, gauges their feelings, finds their confidence levels, understands what each of them can do or not do. The players, actors, whomever will see the coach, director, whomever in a more human and less formal frame, although no less authoritative. There are no more important words than honesty, trust, and respect. Students can ask questions without being put down or without feeling weird.

Twelfth, the coaches and directors and commanders and whomever are genuinely interested. They love what they do; they want to be where they are; they want to be there on the field, in the theater, on the court, on the stage. More importantly, they love each student. They say it in words; they say it in body language; they say it in action. How many of us academics can honestly say all that? How many professors will say they love to be in the classroom most of all, they love teaching, they’re more dedicated to each student than to the discipline, and they love each student? I wonder how many give the appearance of not caring so that they won’t be hurt when the students haven’t as yet learned to care and for fear of being chastised and branded as unprofessional or non-professional or touchy-feely? But it is only in those few classrooms where the teachers say, both in word and in action, that they absolutely loved what they were doing and love each student that the students were engaged. We academics forget that we didn’t come out of the womb with a love for a discipline. I bet if we thought about it, we’d say someone got them interested, that they followed someone they respected into an activity that that person loved, and they discovered it from there.

Thirteenth and last, they emphasize character values: “give it your all, accept nothing less,” “do whatever it takes,” “get your ass in gear,” “no ‘pain’ no gain,” “get your heart into it,” “stop feeling sorry for yourself,” “be mentally tough,” “put your heart into it,” “don’t be selfish,” “success is spelled t-e-a-m,” “it is hard,” “talk to each other, ” “there is no ‘I’ in ‘team,'” “take pride in what you do,” “together you’re unbeatable,” “you can be the difference.” It’s a hand with five separate, but coordinating fingers that can be clenched into an all-powerful fist: connection, trust, responsibility, caring, and respect. They learn that discipline is simply doing what you’re supposed to do as well as you can when you’re supposed to do it.

There’s a baker’s dozen for you. Is each of these taken separately a magic pill? No, of course not, not in themselves. But, look at the pattern. Look at the mutually supportive and encouraging and loving and dedicated and committed social or community model as a vehicle for motivation, inspiration, and learning that is more often than not better than the classroom. Like it or not, it’s a model for learning that appears on the field and courts and stage, in clubs, fraternal organizations, and jobs. They’re a model for the infectious classroom that transmits the joy of learning from a professor to a student and from student to student.

Maybe we academics can learn a lot from them. They’re not an escape from the real world as they often are described. They are closer to that real world than is the academic world of the classroom. Students don’t want to be isolated; they don’t want to be strangers; they want to be on a team, in a troupe, part of a combo, etc. They want to be part of something bigger than themselves. They want to be in a situation where they feel that they are doing something for the greater good, even if they don’t consciously realize it and have been trained to think otherwise. Maybe we academics and our classroom configuration are the escape from the real world and are not the preparations for entry into that real world that we think we are. Enough heresy.

Once again, Susan and I wish each and everyone a Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Happy Kwansaa, and best for the coming new year.

Make it a good day.


Divine Sparks

The envelope was plain gray. It had the dimensions of a greeting card, but it was obvious that it didn’t house a card. It was weightless and pliable. It had no return address. It had arrived about a week ago, a few days after my surgery. It lay around unopened for a few days as I lay around. Then, a few days ago, I casually opened it. Unfolded what looked like an ordinary piece of legal paper. There was no ordinary about it. It was an unsigned gift for which I was not prepared. It was a poem, handwritten:


You really cared enough to care about me, didn’t you?
You really cared enough to believe in me, didn’t you?
You really cared and believed enough to see me,
to listen to me,
to help me build me up, didn’t you?

Lots of people around here say they cared
But, they never dared
“I care” is easy to say,
It’s in the doing of caring that saves the day.

You cared about me when it wasn’t easy
You cared about me when you were busy
You believed in me
when I didn’t care to do what
you knew I could be.

You cared about me when I wasn’t perfect.
You believed in me when I was disrespectful.
You cared about me when I was a handful
You believed in me when I screwed up.
You cared about me when I faltered.
You believed in me when I made it tough for you.
You cared about me when I demanded time from you.
You believed in me when I did not like you.
You cared about me so you saw I am capable.
You believed in me enough
to see past my weaknesses to see my strengths
to see past my ugliness to see my beauties

You cared about me when. I hadn’t done anything
to deserve your caring.
You believe in me even when I didn’t yet believe
You cared about me even when I didn’t care

You saw in me a divine spark
When all I saw was dark and stark
And thought I was just a lark
I bet you don’t remember
When I told you I was just a spent ember.

Didn’t matter
You just kept on caring in a caring way
no conditions
You just kept on believing in a believing way
You just kept on coming at me
day after day after day
Nothing I could do or say
Would make you go away
As a student I was an F
As a person you saw me as an A
That’s what made me stay
Day after day after day

You cared
That made me scared
I didn’t know why
That made me cry
My anger made it worse
My mouth spewed out every curse

Whenever I deliberately slowed my pace
There you were in my face
You kept on me to seek my rightful place
And now I know I am full of grace

I know that it is too late for today
That I am beginning to see the light of day
And chase away my dismal gray
I know that it is not too late for tomorrow’s day
To see in me a whole new way
To see that in all I can be I can be an A

I’ve started caring about me,
and believing in me, too
I’ve started seeing what I could be and what I can do
I’ve joined you in caring and believing,
in me
That makes me so full of joyous glee
I want you to know that I’m so full of so much vim
Because I know I’m gonna be another Kim.

The color on your pinky is true
Whatever the week’s color it is a loving hue
Please keep doing it for others, I beg of you.
Help them set themselves on the right and true
So they can say as I do
A quiet and grateful, “Thank you”

Of all the accolades and awards and recognitions one could earn in academia, this poem is as good as it gets. What an honor to have earned a poem like this. I can’t think of a better Chanukah present.

For the life of me, I don’t know who wrote this poem. I can’t find any clues with its lines. I’m not sure that it really matters. Anyway, when whoever wrote the poem talked of her inner divine spark, it sparked a memory of a Kabbalah story I had read a couple of months ago. The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Jewish Hasidism, explained that when God finished creating the heavens and the earth, God returned to heaven. Overflowing with joy, God celebrated, taking radiant sparks of light, throwing them up into the air, and watching them fall to the earth. For a moment, the earth radiated with glorious light as the sparks of God poured down from heaven. As they landed, however, the sparks became embedded in everything they touched. Eventually, the earth darkened, the divine sparks smoldering deep within every rock, and tree, and within every human heart as well disappeared from view. Realizing that we could no longer see the bright sparks, God gave us tools with which to uncover them, to stir the embers in ourselves and each other into a blazing fire, and once again illuminate and warm our world.

So maybe we as teachers should be “spark hunters” and “ember stirrers” with such tools as a soul of hope, a spirit of love, a heart of faith and belief and respect, a mind of empowerment and confidence, and a set of sharpened senses open to hints of the sacred in each student as well as in ourselves.

Well, there are no maybes about it. If you want to stir the embers, if you want the sparks to fly, if you want the inner fires to blaze, if you want to help students to be more caring of themselves and more believing in themselves and more accomplished, believe in them; caringly care about them; and, keep at it even when they don’t believe or care. Open yourself to each and every student each day as if you were a curious child seeing things for the first time.

Think you have to go to Tibet seeking someone draped in saffron robes to find a sacred place? You don’t. The place is right here inside you inside the classroom. You need only know how to make the classroom mystical whisperings of your soul and how to become a prayer yourself. Treat each student as sacred, believe the divine spark is hidden in each of them to be stirred into a blazing fire, and you will make your routine anything but routine. Then, as Martin Buber would have said, each new day will become purer and more beautiful, and more satisfying and fulfilling, and more profound than the one before.

Let me and Susan take this opportunity to wish each and every one of you and your family a very Merry Christmas, a Happy Chanukah, a Happy Kwansaa, a Happy New Year, and a joyous holiday season. And to my friends of the Islamic faith, a much belated but no less sincere “Eid Mubarak.”

Make it a good day.


Just Think About It

It’s a crisp dawn. A new day is being born. Each ray of the rising sun is a magic wand waving today alive. All possibilities are opening up. There’s something of a sacredness to this new day. It’s like watching a reenactment of “in the beginning.” And yet, so many people sleep through it, both literally and figuratively. It never dawns on them–pun intended–to offer it a thankful, tip-of-the-hat “hi there.” For me, there is no overlooking, no taking for granted, no ho-hum, no “just another,” no “nothing much,” and speeding by. No, each dawn is for me an invitation, an inspiration, a consecration, a witnessing, a revelation, a thanking, a privilege, a hallowing, a freshness, a beginning, an opening, a newness, and a command to “go forth.” Having had cancer will do that.

Well, I was “hello-ing” this only day I have on the front stoop. No walking for me for a while. Can’t do much else either. I’m under virtual house arrest for a month! Just resting and recuperating. I had a hernia operation last week that was the result of my prostatectomy in January. They had to do it, as my surgeon smirked, “the old fashioned ‘cut and slash’ way” because of the scar tissue inside. To get even with his humor, I drew a smilely on my groin before the operation. So, now, with a 4 inch line of surgical stapes, my right groin has the look of a puffed-up zippered pocket. My angelic Susan has become something of a combined hovering mother hen, loving and caring wife, and inflexible drill instructor. Achy. Stiff. Bored. When I can do something, it’ll take me months to get back into physical shape. No complaints. I’ve discovered there are a whole lot of worse things than receiving proper and needed medical care.

As I leaned against the cold bricks, on the chilling tiles, sipping some freshly brewed coffice, and thinking about enveloping darkness and sparks of light, I found myself going back to a conversation I had with someone a few weeks ago at the Lilly conference. I was hosting a luncheon “presenter round table.” One of those professors who had signed up to sit and chat with me professed how much he cared about students and how he wanted to do so much for them, but was restricted at his institution’s policies. I had met him last year. He is thoughtful, generous, well-intentioned, and caring. Yet, he, for all his verbiage, like so many others still served his own self-interest while his serving interests in students had their limits. I was listening to him defend his decisions and explain why he couldn’t or wouldn’t do this or that. “I’d love to, but….” “I really want to, but….” “I agree with you, but….” “I’d rather teach and put all my energies into helping students, but….” “I feel a need to, but….” His “buts” sounded as if he was taking his “butt” out from harm’s way in the battle zones on his campus. “It’s too risky to be different. I wouldn’t get tenure. Then, I’d lose my job. I’m no saint. It’s purely a practical decision.”

I appreciated his position. But, just think about it, the decision isn’t so pure, is it? Think about what he said. Think about the broken connection between his value system and his actions. Think about the disconnect between him and others around him. Think about how alone he feels in a too often haughty and unforgiving and inflexible academic world. Think about how joylessly tinny his words sound. Think about how he feels his actions are losing their sacramental possibilities. Think about his depth of distrust and the breadth of his fear and width of his resignation. Think about how he is literally ”being lived’ and is acting out scripts written by others. Think about how he’s unwittingly focusing on himself and putting the students out of focus. Think about all that draining energy he is using to constantly convince himself he’s in the right, that he can’t change the system, and that he can only swallow whatever it handed to him. Think about how his own feelings and fears quickly became the issue. Think about how quickly he made his feelings seem so altruistic, how those feelings had eaten at his reserves of hope, how they had depleted the wellsprings of his commitment, how they had disoriented his heart and soul, how they had become a civilized distraction, and how they had drowned out the hard question.

Just think about, then, how this extraordinary person has allowed himself to be cowered into a going-along-to-get-along dance of “ordinarianism.” Think about how self-interest has a powerful tendency to disable our objectivity and befuddle our ability to live up to moral principles. And when we think our financial or physical or professional security is at stake, the best of us are vulnerable to reason-crippling self-rationalization and self-delusion and self-righteousness. The greater the threat to our self-interest, the more likely it is that we will slam our minds shut to other perspectives and defend our positions with ferocity, as if the intensity of our convictions makes them more valid.

Just think about how he reflects the extent to which our educational culture has imprisioned the vast majority of its adherents. And, just think about how that may be the real dumbing down of contemporary education.

Make it a good day.


“The Question”

It is Sunday. What little is left of November 20. Tallahassee airport. Close to midnight. Raining. Chilly. Waiting for the buses. I probably won’t get into my Susan’s arms until about 3 a.m. I was supposed to have left Cincinnati at 4 p.m. and arrive in Valdosta three and a half hours later. It wasn’t to be. I am tired, physically tired, intensely tired. It’s a good tired. It’s reasons are of the kind that you inscribe on tombstones. This was my twelfth or thirteenth Lilly, but this time the normal intensity was more intense than usual. I was more mindful, more keenly aware, more conscious of the moment. My senses were sharper. I was more appreciative. I was more mindful of a deep and profound connection with the people around me. Lilly had a more spiritual meaning. This was my the first Lilly since I discovered I had cancer. I was celebrating Lilly more with my heart than usual, and not just because of successful treatment that has made me cancer-free. It also because here at Lilly, you’ll find a form of the “beloved community.” Lilly’s originator, Milt Cox, is an alchemist who for twenty-five years has been mystically transmuting the lead of hard-shelled, self-centered, competitive “I” into the soulful, loving gold of “we.” At Lilly, Milt’s vision and purpose was for us to experience the exciting joy of serving others, sharing with others, openly learning from others, and being part of a mutually supportive and encouraging community. So, Lilly is about more than passing the food for thought around until your head is filled; it’s more than passing the food and drink for the tummy around until your stomach was filled; it’s also about passing the soul food of respect and love around until your heart is filled. This Lilly I was especially conscious of all that. Not just because we were celebrating it’s 25th silver anniversary, but because I was giving thanks. And though I didn’t physically bow my head in thanks when I first arrived Wednesday afternoon, as soon as I saw and hugged Melodie Barton, Martha Webber, Gregg Wenzel, and Milt Cox, I said a thankful prayer. And the prayers kept coming as friends whom I hadn’t seen in a year kept coming in. At these moments when we hugged and talked, I knew why I make the Herculean effort each year to go to Lilly. Always stuffed into the third Thursday through Sunday before the official Thanksgiving the following Thursday, it’s the first of my two Thanksgiving. It has a feeling of being a home away from home among friends and family. Like Thanksgiving a week later, it is that time that endows me with a keen sense of gratitude. It is a gratitude for what on the other 364 days seem so normal and ordinary: the bounty of closeness I feel to so many at this gathering, “newbies and old timers alike.” It is soul nurturing time for me to pause to fill my cup with gratitude for all those neat people who call me and allow me to call them friend and colleague. I am by nature a romantic, but in the course of the year I learned even more that there is nothing too old fashioned or out of fashion with sustaining gratitude, consciously and deliberately and intensely sustaining gratitude, for more than one day in a year.

Fellow passengers around me are milling around, annoyed and complaining as we wait for the buses that will take us back to Valdosta to arrive. Once you’ve had and have beaten cancer, things like mechanical problems, delays, Atlanta’s airport trains not running, racing from A to D concourses in six minutes to make connections, not very nice and considerate ASA personnel, more delays, bad weather, still more delays, diversions, and yet still more delays, and long bus rides in the scheme of things really don’t get to me. So, here I am, sitting on the carpeted floor that’s as soft as fuzzy concrete, leaning against a wall, waiting for the buses to arrive, and thinking of this year’s Lilly conference. And there is so much to think about.

One of an ongoing conversation I had with a “newbie” that began at breakfast Friday morning. He told me that he had been reading my Random Thoughts for about a year and had wanted to meet me to see if I was a real person.

I smiled. “Here I am in the flesh.”

“I’ve been wanting to ask you a simple question,” he said.

“Fire away,” I smiled between sips of coffee.

He asked, “What do you think is the most important question to ask in education?”

I put down my cup. It was 7:30 a.m. “I’ll tell you what. That’s anything but simple. I’ve got to set up for my session at 8. How about if we meet about 10:30 when I’m finished?”

He agreed. We met. It wasn’t until about noon that we ended the first of what was to prove many conversations throughout the conference. Let me give you the pertinent snippets of our conversation. I told him that I could think of a bunch of questions that would answer his question. I had to admit to him that I really didn’t have “the answer.” I had, at least, my answer. Or, better still, one of my answers. Here’s what I told him: “What are you caringly doing each and every day in the interest of each and every student so that each leaves as a better person?”

“Each and every student? That’s impossible,” he shot back.

“Well, if you think it is, if you accept that it is, you won’t go for it…..But you have an impact on each and every student anyway, one way or another. While you’re getting your teaching done, you just don’t realize that you’re in students’ lives or how significant each moment can be. That being the case, do you know what the three questions are that we should always ask ourselves in order to be awake to what is going on around us?”

“I don’t think so. No.”

“Think about it for a second.”

He paused. Then, with a hesitation rooted in a fear of being wrong, he whispered, “Well, if I’m in the students’ lives as you say I am, one question to always ask is will I be or am I a positive or negative influence?”

“Okay. And the second?”

After thinking for a long while, he offered, “Do I know who the students really are whom I’m influencing.”

“Good. You always have to keep thinking about who it is you’re helping. And the third?”

“How do I want to influence them? Do I know where I want them to go with me?”

“See, you didn’t need me. That’s your ‘why’ question. I’d only put it in a different way: Do I know where I want to help them take themselves?”

“But, how do you do all that with each student?”

“Care! Care unconditionally! And, remember that the words ‘I care about students’ are cheap. You’ve got to live them. You got to treat each and every student unconditionally with respect all the time, believe in each of them unconditionally, welcome each one of them unconditionally into your presence, love each one of them unconditionally, and extend an unconditional caring hand to each of them. No preconceptions. No biases. No prejudices. No perceptions. No assumptions. Only a tabula rasa each day.”

“Well, how do you do that?”

“It’s not so much how you do that as it is who you are. Who you are will determine how you’ll do that. I’ll ask you one more question that I don’t want you to answer: what lurks in your heart? That is, do you feel empowered to make a difference in the lives of each and every student who crosses your path?”

“That’s two questions,” he smiled at me. I’ll answer that right now. I feel I am empowered to make a difference in a few lives, but in the lives of each and every student? No.”

“Ah, as Yoda might say, ‘so certain are you….then impossible it is.’ You know, I’m giving a plenary presentation at Lilly-South in February. The theme of the conference is “Learning So Everyone Teaches.” You know what that means to me?” Before he could answer, I said, “It means that the theme is only half of the equation.”

“What’s the other half?”

“‘Teaching So Everyone Learns.’ I’m not sure that the true teacher should have a fixed plan and be intent on arriving. Sure, there has to be a structure, but within it there has to be a readiness and willingness for flexibility, improvisation, spontaneity, dis-controlling, and even dead reckoning. My secret to always being interested in and impassioned about each and every student is this: don’t set limits on what I can or cannot do or on who is or is not worthy of your time. It’s the simple feeling of possibility that hums like a dynamo inside me…….”

“…..But, where’s the time to do all that? You do have to cover the material and see to it that students have a mastery of the subject, don’t you?”

“Ah, to quote Maxwell Smart, ‘the old “cover the material” and “mastery of the subject trick.”‘ We make ourselves so time-poor, schedule-obsessive, and material possessive…..It’s like being a tourist wanting to hit all the sights, squeezing everything in, following a strict list of ‘things to do,’ and being able to brag, ‘I’ve been there and seen everything.’ Ever read Steinbeck’s TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY?”

“A long time ago, but I don’t remember any of it. I read it in a senior English class. Or, I was supposed to. I used a ‘pony’ instead to pass the test,” he chuckled.

“Well, somewhere in there Steinbeck talks in a way about preparing for a journey that’s applicable to teaching and the classroom. He wrote that once you’ve designed, equipped, prepared for, and go off on a journey, new factors appear for which you haven’t prepared that take over the journey. He said all plans for the trip are useless. No two trips to the same place are alike….See the parallel? Steinbeck’s new factors for us are the students. We plan our classes in any given term or from term to term as if they are identical merely because they may have the same number or title. Once we’ve draw up our syllabus, written our lectures, and prepared our tests, the students appear. And most of us have few clues of what each student is like and are at best vaguely aware of the world that surrounds us in the classroom. And while we may have the same syllabus, lectures, and tests from class to class that are numbered the same, the real life students from class to class and day to day and term to term are different. They each have the audacity to come with unexpected surprises and imperfections and paradoxes and contradictions. They’re inconsiderate and disruptive for they clutter up our pristine landscape with the fallen leaves of their real lives…….You see, they learn who they are no less than we teach who we are……They’re a bane. So, what do we do? We resist that truth and treat them as disrupters, sometimes almost the enemy. When we aren’t relaxed about having to significantly adjust or abandon our plans, when we figuratively grapple with the students for control, when we hold tight to OUR plans and perceptions and conceptions as if our personhood or professionalism is at stake, we get upset to say the least only with the students, and our blame of them for messing things up jades our attitude towards them–and our influence wanes…….What should we do? I told him that we ought to write and live by an educational version of Matthew 5:43-48 or the Oath of Maimonides.”

We talked about those two passages for a while. “You know, it’s like coming to Lilly,” I explained. “We can read everything about it and hear a bunch of stuff about it, but there’s no substitute for smelling it. So, too, we seldom sniff the air and savor the aroma in our classrooms. ”

“Then, what’s teaching all about if not about our disciplines.”

“People! Ordinary people, none of whom is ordinary! Offering and receiving an education is as much, if not far more, about people than it is training for a profession,” I replied. I went on to explain that an education is as much about if not more about personal growth. It’s not about reaching your destiny. It’s not about getting a grade, a GPA, or a diploma. It’s about unending commencements. It’s about constant beginnings, always going on, always knowing you never get it or have gotten there, and always knowing how much there is yet to go, know, and live. It’s about opening eyes, ears, minds, and hearts. It’s about a life-long dining on all that food for thought and soul food.

“Teaching is a both very public and very private mission,” I emphasized. “It’s all about connections.” On one hand, I explained, it’s about “them,” each student, and connecting with them, helping them connect with themselves, and helping them connect with each other; at the same time, it’s about “us” and connecting with ourselves And, one the third hand, it’s about connecting us and them to knowledge. That is, the purpose of us as teachers is not just to educate someone else; it’s also to educate ourselves; its not just a matter to make a difference in a student’s life, to help that student improve the relationship between life and his or her life, and to help that student become a better person; it’s also to make a difference in our own lives, to improve our lives in relation to ourselves, and to help us help ourselves to become better persons. “In the course of my forty years with my angelic Susan, I’ve learned that a kiss isn’t much good if either one of us is so hurried, so pressed for time, that it doesn’t have any mindful love in it, if one of us isn’t present, intensely and consciously present, in that moment. It’s no different in education. If we are so pressed for time and so hurried to cover the material, we won’t be genuinely and personally connected; we won’t be mindful of the individuals in that classroom with us. An educational kiss is really all about loving the disbelief away and calling up the developing spirit into the present. That goes for us as well as for them. It’s about being genuinely and personally connected. It’s about being more mindful, aware, and present in THE moment.”

We talked about it’s in our thoughts and feelings that our actions are determined and our future is decided. We agreed that our thoughts and feelings can either be jailors of our actions, imprisoning and limiting us, preventing us from achieving what’s in our hearts, or they can be liberators, releasing us from our confining perceptions, freeing us to achieve our unique potential. “So,” I suggested, “going back to your original question: don’t wait around making excuses; don’t think the magic wand exists; unlearn what you have learned; alter habits; cultivate new fascinations with each student; face fears and hesitations; believe in the unbelievable; have an unattainable ideal that you do not accept is unattainable; just have a healthy disregard for the impossible and go after doing whatever it takes to make it possible.”

I explained that I read somewhere that we are each made of desire. And as our desire is, so is our faith. As our faith is, so are our works. As our works are, so we are and become. So, I twisted Yoda’s words, “So certain are you. Always with you it can be done.” I asked him to be a believer rather than a dreamer, to feel the force of that belief, to use its power to look for adventure in each ordinary day and make adventure part of an ordinary day, and to see that beauty is more than what is on the surface or more than the obvious. It’s all attitude, I explained, a personal act, a loving and intense interest in people that makes you an adventurer, discoverer, and difference-maker in the truest and most vivid sense of the words. For me, I told him, the world of teaching and learning shouldn’t be an ordinary or routine one; for me, education is about the search for the unique. It’s about opening new days each day. Do that, I assured him, and he’ll be surprised how much he’ll deepen his faith, how much more he’ll widen his embrace, how much more he’ll increase his acceptance, how much more he’ll increase his efforts, how much more he will give of his time, how much farther he’ll reach out, and how many more ‘few lives’ really will add up to.

We both realized that time had gotten away from us. It was lunch time and we had missed the plenary presentation by Parker Palmer I so wanted to attend. As we got up, I ended my part by reminding him, “But, remember, all this isn’t something you buy into; it’s something you give yourself to”

We kept on talking on and off throughout the next two days of the conference.

Make it a good day.