Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Wed, 10 Jan 2001 07:40:26 -0500 (EST)
Random Thought: "This is a Place.....," II

Good morning and a happy new year to you all. My knee is acting up. Using that ache and the fact that it's like frigid International Falls, Minn. outside, I decided to stay cozy warm this morning.

I had said that Sara's letter had gotten me into some deep thinking and feelings. Deep? Deep ain't the word for it. I feel like I'm walking on the bottom of the Mariannas Trench. I was thinking about of all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that go along with being the second son that I had endured for the first five decades of my life. I would gladly never have suffered the anguishes and the consequent disabling attitudes. BUT, then again, I could not in anyway truly have gained or appreciate the precious insights I, like Sara, have today. I could not be who I am today, I could not be the father, husband, friend, colleague, and especially the teacher I am today, were it not for the lessons I have been learning since I faced myself, faced up to myself, and began my long, difficult, and unending inner journey in search of myself almost a decade ago.

If I remember my Nietzsche, he said something about what doesn't kill us makes us stronger. I'm not sure I know what he meant and I don't intend to start that kind of discussion. I'll only say that I think what doesn't kill us makes us adds a layer of depth of more caring, loving, compassion, awareness, sensitivity for myself and for each student. That certainly makes me stronger.

And yet, how often we academics unthinkingly use the disconnecting phrase, "out there in the 'real world.'" "Out there in the 'real world'....." I wonder if we realize that those words create the impression that our campuses are some kind of idyllic Eden, an experience of little practicality; that what we're really saying is: " here in this sterilized 'make believe' world, here in this perfect world, here in this dream world, here in this....."

I can see the nifty recruitment brochures replete with images of sunlit, immaculately manicured lawns, smiling faces of impeccably dressed Madison Avenue models, studious faces of stylishly dressed Madison Avenue models, spic-'n-span labs: "Come visit the magical campus, the exotic place of miracles and untouched beauty. Be transported from the sordid outside world to a place of enchantment, a refuge, a sanctuary, an unsoiled intellectual Walden Pond. Pass over the shielding moat and through the guarding gates into a respite from petty wars, selfishness, jealously, avarice, ego,, abusive power, crime, poverty, sickness, ignorance, squalor, hate, crime, jealousy, hunger, and all the slings and arrows to which humankind is heir. Be enthralled by a bug-free, humidity-free, heat-free, cold-free package of wonder. Safely glide along a the paths of a fail-safe culture in deep repose and contemplation, protected by the high, thick, glistening, pure white walls of the Ivory Tower."

Believing that this Valhalla is really real, so many of us look for and demand safe teaching, easy teaching, what I call"low maintenance" teaching; so many of us look for the "low maintenance" student, the self-motivated student, the "belongs," the perfect student, the mini-scholar.

We read books, run experiments, write treatises; we have students walk in our scholarly footsteps; we theorize and intellectualize; we lecture from on high and have students take copious notes in the valleys below; we assign; we test; we grade. And, we think we are preparing students for what life brings while we don't want them to bring their lives into the classroom. And then, sometimes, a lot of times, almost always, to our dismay and grumbling, life, with all of its disruptions and distractions, intrudes into our pristine dream world to obliterate our lesson plans with its own lesson plans. And we painfully discover that the formulas of the lab, axioms of the mind, principles of the brain do not help one wit to deal with the vicissitudes of life and bind the wounds of the heart in a world through which we pass, of which our campus is a part--not apart--and into which we send students from our Shangrilas far too often poorly armed only with their resumes and transcripts and diplomas.

How easy teaching is when all goes well. After all, easy is easy. It never does go that way. How egotistical are those who think they can engage in academic climate control and guarantee that all will go well and easy. Never works. How arrogant are those who think they and others can be objective. None of us are. The truth is, teaching, like life, ain't picture perfect, and our classes aren't floats in the Rose parade. And, so many of us get angry when we're confronted with that truth. As I told Sara and a host of other students, deal with it; get over it; get on with it, use it, learn and grow from it.

We and students are fallible, subjective, incomplete humans; we are not perfect and objective and completed gods. Difficulty and challenge do make ego and arrogance a tad more difficult. I don't think, however, we have to scorn the less than perfect circumstances of the classroom or the less then perfect students. They don't have to frustrate, destroy, and burn out. They can elevate. They can be opportunities for new understandings and deeper connections. Maybe the difficulties and challenges are needed pinpricks to shake us out from the numbing illusions, like a pinch to make sure we're not dreaming. Maybe the difficulties of teaching are essential awakenings from the doldrums of habit. Maybe they are a regrettably necessary road to compassion and sensitivity and awareness. It's like danger keeps us at full alert and on our toes and our guards ever up while prolonged safety lulls us into false security, lowering of our guards, and being flat-footed. After all, if we want only the perfect, how can we really be attuned to the imperfect. If we want the students to leave "their trash" at the classroom door and if we reject that what is within our inner recesses comes out in our actions, how can we truly lead and serve? How can we not feel superior to other people with their deficiencies? How can we not feel distanced and detached from others with their imperfections, with their failures and limitations and sorrows? When things don't go as we wish or expect that is when our commitment and steadfastness is tested.

Blaming is easy. Taking responsibility is not. Tested does not mean we are trapped. As I tell students over and over again, and as Sara reminded me, we have the power to choose how we respond to circumstances. Teaching does put us on trial. We can't decide whether things and people will be challenging or not; we can decide what to do with that gauntlet. I sometimes think test and experience are synonymous. Maybe we should throw experiment in there as well. To deny the value of students and fall into despair and disdain or what is often called resignation and burnout because the worth of teaching and each student isn't immediately evident and is slow of fulfillment, because teaching is tough and its demands demand inordinate time and energy and effort, I think, is anything but passing the test with flying colors.

Maybe the ultimate test is our willingness to give up what is dear, the myth of the pristine Ivory tower with all of its false expectations of perfection. How we cope with the imperfection of students, and ourselves, is the difference between renewal and resignation, construction and destruction, growth and stagnation, joy and unhappiness, dancing and plodding, smiling and sneering, resilience and rigidity, burnout and the eternal flame. Our true commitment is in getting up each day, without a sigh of self-pity, with a determined resilience, eager--yes, eager--to face whatever the day may bring. That enables us to endure all the trials, stand all the tests, and prove ourselves fit and ready for good teaching and teaching to do good. It's all a matter of attitude. It's a spirit. With the right attitude and spirit, these challenges become opportunities for greater understandings and deeper connections. We can use situations as avenues of transformation. We can wrestle with the imperfections and emerge the wiser and better; we can use the challenges for our benefit so it may benefit others.

We are not exempt from travail; we have to concede that we are often "put on trial," that teaching is messy. We can't decide if our classes are going to be perfect as we wish or that students will be perfect as we wish. We can't even control what is going on in the classroom. Here it is the first and second day of class and there are students adding and dropping, wandering in and out. Students are already missing class with good and flimsy excuses and explanations, late because they're unable to find the room, have to resolve financial aid issues, have to see advisers to resolve schedule problems, still in a vacation mode, and so on and on and on. And, that is just the beginning. There will be pernicious gremlins of finances, jobs, family, room mates, bed mates, fraternities, sororities, sports that prey upon students, seek to distract them, try to suck out their energies, want to take up their time. When confronted with those realities, it is our choice to decide. We can victimize ourselves, grumble, cower, be crippled, roll our eyes, and throw up our hands; or, we can be overcomers, go forward with a spirited spirit, an understandable understanding, an enheartened heart spurred to active activity, and find a way.

Now, I'm not saying that we should throw a party for the fact that we face difficulty after difficulty after difficulty day after day after day; nor am I saying that we should discard rules. Neither should we ignore that vicissitudes of life that come across the perimeters of the campus and the threshold of the classroom. It's a delicate balancing act. I don't think we should refuse to deal with and to learn from teaching's challenges. Those challenges, I have discovered and Sara has reminded me are a source of personal and professional growth and emotional depth. I don't think we should go out of our way to find those challenges or deify our difficulties. We don't have to. They'll meet us at every corner. They are part of our professional journey. We can learn and grow from each encounter, derive experience from these difficulties, be strengthened, and give strength to each other. Or, we can be eaten up and wither. The choice is ours and ours alone.

When I think of Sara, I have to recall Niteka; and when I think of Niteka, I must think of Sara. Sweet and bitter, bitter and sweet. Teaching flavored with a spice. In moments of joy and accomplishment, we should recall anguish; in moments of disappointment, we draw consolation from the likes of Sara. Nothing works all the time for everyone; nothing and no one is perfect. Everything and everyone is incomplete. There is no Ivory Tower. The real world "out there" is "right here" and "in here." Teaching is tinged with difficulty. "Tinged with difficulty," that's a definition of teaching that is alive.

         Make it a good day.


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

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