Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Fri, 23 Jun 2000 08:02:02 -0400 (EDT)
Random Thought: Strangers in the Classroom

A very early good morning to ya'll. The rising sun is nestling in the branches of the trees. I was just out sitting by the fish pond, in the delightfully heavy, clammy air, so much water dripping off my body you would think I was an added fourth waterfall in the pond, sipping a cup of freshly brewed coffee, continuing to meditate on some thoughts that poked at me as I plodded through the air so wonderfully thick with humidity that I felt as if I was slogging through a waist-high swamp.

It was noisy walk this quiet, dark, soggy, pre-dawn morning. Outside, it was pandimonium. For six miles and an hour, I was nearly deafened by the joyous racket of drought-wracked plants, without regard to proper manners, loudly slurping up the nourishing waters of the last few days of heavy rain. There was a cacaphony of joyous moans and groans as they straightened and stretched, taking out the kinks from their sagging stems, drooping branches, and curled leaves with loud and satisfying "oohs" and "aaaahs," Inside, I heard and deeply listened to an even louder clamoring of words from a poignant letter I had received yesterday from a student. At the fish pond, the meditative sounds of the waterfalls and the hypnotic swaying of the koi triggered thoughts about my angelic Susan, this student, and the classroom.

You know, I will have been lying next to that beautiful angel for 34 years this August. We have loved together, hurt together, argued together, healed together, played together, climb mountains together, been in valleys together, laughed together, cried together, evolved together. In good Dickensian fashion, we have celebrated together the best of times and have weathered together the worst of times. She is not just my lover, but my soul mate, my best friend, my confidant. When we are at our respective workplaces, separated by only a few miles, or I am out-of-town doing my stuff, I feel something in me is missing; I feel incomplete; my thoughts of her are never far away; and, I have to call her, interrupt her at times, to whisper a "sweet nothing" and a cryptic "just a little bit."

I always say that I can read her mind, that I know what she is going to say or do, that I know her like that proverbial book. But the truth is that there are so many more pages to read in that gorgeous, sacred tome. There are so many pages being written and yet to be written. There are at times I almost want to say, "I don't know who you are," when I don't understand her, when she does something unexpected, when I am surprised.

We both have changed in the course of our more than three decade honeymoon since we met on that chance, reluctant blind date at Chapel Hill. Each day I see her in a different way; each day I see that I can't fully know her because she is a different person from the person of yesterday. She is growing and changing. Yesterday she was a student, a reluctant blind date, a teenager, nearly a teenage bride, a student, then a wife, then a mother, then a part-time librarian, then a legal assistant, then an office manager, and now struggling to start an e-commerce business. All the time, I see different things, her language changes, her ways of thinking change, her gorgeous body language changes. There is always something of an intriguing, mysterious, alluring stranger about her. There is always something of an unknown land about her. There is always an adventurous discovery to be made that prevents me from taking her for granted.

Now you're saying, "what does all this mushy stuff have to do with the classroom?" Curiously, I think, a lot. We seldom transfer what we experience and learn in one setting to another--or teach students the need and how of doing it.

Yet, we are on campus and in that classroom with strangers most of whom we barely know beyond a name on a class roll or an occasional exchange over an assignment or presentation. We see them through the stereotyping lens of our expectations and their roles. We are relatively quick to map the outer terrain of their "what" and "do," but so, so reluctant to survey the connecting inner landscape of their "who." Some of us are so quick to say the proper words likes "we care about you." But, do we really know who "you" is? Do we really see each of them as they really are? Are our atlases of them composed of grossly incomplete and poorly drawn maps?

We sometimes make like we know who the students are. We don't see beyond a momentary gaze without sticking eye contact. More often than not, especially in the monstrously large classes, we treat students like a school of reef fish. That does not, however, stop us from making those sweeping proclamations about students as if we know all there is to know about each of them and about them as a group. Oh, we will cite study after study after study. We will use an anecdote here and there to vindicate what we are currently doing. With a "written in stone" attitude, we will even resort to an "I believe" or a "In my humble opinion." But, we don't really know them. Sometimes I get the feeling when we talk about education and students, we are in the abstract, talking and writing as if students are mere debate topics without a name, a story, a face. They, each and every one of these students, are altogether different when these matters are connected with real, alive, flesh-and-blood individual human beings, when we make reflective eye contact, when we listen loudly.

So often the ways an academic thinks about students can be convoluted. You would think that the more educated people become in general, rising out from the ranks of the untrained and uneducated, the easier it is for them to share with those aspiring to be educated, students. But, the more professional academics become the more they seem to be afflicted with I call the "lofty summit" syndrome. It seems the less they naturally stay in touch with the realities of those who have yet to become like them and like whom they were once. There is a bout of amnesia in which is blanked out the memories of being an adult in training, of preferring to crack a keg rather than a book, of cutting a corner, of doing just enough to do an assignment, of being more concerned with getting a grade than learning, having difficulties with study habits and organization, of being distracted by personal problems and family issues, of having to work through college, of waiting to the last minute, of cramming, of even opening a fraternity or sorority file. And the more they prefer to be excited about their own professional activities rather than be concerned about a student's.

All aspects of those convolutions impact our educational culture that create an imaginative separation between academic and student. It's like invisibility or being among a crowd of intimate strangers which block students from the hearing and viewing of academics. Most academics are not hostile, disappointed, yes. But, students are often treated as the people in Somalia. We feel bad for them, but they live someplace else. We just don't want to hear and watch their "limps." And if we do mix with students, it is usually with those whom we believe consciously or unconsciously are either mirror images of ourselves or with those who conform to our expectations, even though very few students are going to become academics.

It's almost an emotional detaching cocooning in which we are oblivious to the role students play in our profession. Within the cocoon so many see only the inside wall of the cocoon. They have almost an insulated and insular view of why they are what they are--and why others aren't. It is almost like living with a stranger.

I find that it's not enough to love each of those students or merely reach out to them any more than it is enough to love and reach out to my Susan. Love and caring are "inside-minded," coming from the inside and penetrating to the inside. It's not enough to swim in either their or my shallows. I have to struggle to understand each of them, to sound out my own depths, and get rid of my self-deceptions if I am sound out their depths. Authenticity touches authenticity; inside reaches inside, deep speaks to deep; living is embraced by living. And, I have to dance with that process of change, always learning new steps if I want to be in step. It opens up pathways of discovery, opportunities for creativity. Some days it's a headache. Other days it is a joy. But, always I am forced to be alert and sensitive, to adapt and change and grow myself. It can be difficult and challenging, but I am talking about human enrichment, development, fulfillment, and striving for that untapped potential--each of their's and mine.

If I can do that each day, then each day I can be more than a mere talker of care, a meer hearer of care, a mere see-er of care. Then, each day I can be a doer of care.

Make it a good day. 


Louis Schmier           
Department of History    
Valdosta State University
Valdosta, GA  31698                        /~\    /\ /\
912-333-5947                       /^\    /   \  /  /~ \     /~\__/\
                                  /   \__/     \/  /     /\ /~      \
                            /\/\-/ /^\___\______\_______/__/_______/^\
                          -_~     /  "If you want to climb mountains, \ /^\
                             _ _ /      don't practice on mole hills" -\____

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