Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.
Date: Sun, 27 May 2001 12:22:32 -0400 (EDT)
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."
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. --Louis-- Louis Schmier firstname.lastname@example.org Department of History www.therandomthoughts.com Valdosta State University www.halcyon.com/arborhts/louis.html Valdosta, GA 31698 /~\ /\ /\ 912-333-5947 /^\ / \ / /~\ \ /~\__/\ / \__/ \/ / /\ /~\/ \ /\/\-/ /^\_____\____________/__/_______/^\ -_~ / "If you want to climb mountains, \ /^\ _ _ / don't practice on mole hills" - \____