Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Tue, 02 Apr 2002 08:51:28 -0500 (EST)
Random Thought: My Painted Right Pinky Nail

I want to talk this morning about miracles, miracles of life, large miracles, great miracles, profound miracles, mysterious miracles. It was a miraculous week last week, wasn't it. Two great religions last week each celebrated holidays of great miracles of life that are at their cornerstone: the Passover and Easter. Last week, my angelic Susan and I celebrated a third miracle of life that though more common than the parting of the Red Sea is no less worthy of trumpeting celebration. For an entire week, we cradled in our arms our first grandchild: one week old Natalie Virginia.

I didn't want to tear myself away from her and return to campus. When I did return and poured though a heap of piled up e-messages, I noticed something strange. Scattered through the three hundred or so messages, and for reasons unknown to me, as if there was a secret conspiracy, a much of people independently asked me virtually the same question: "When do we hear about the polish on your pinky nail?" I haven't mention my pinky nail is quite a while. I don't know what prompted these peole to ask. Maybe it's time. That nail, too, is a story of the miracle of life. It is a story of the resurrection of a valuable life. And, I am not embarrassed to say that I get up tight everytime I think about it or tell it.

You know, as teachers, though we may be powerless to stop life from unfolding the way it does, we are not powerless to help each other go through whatever happens and provide a listening ear, a timely touch, a gentle hug, a soothing word or a kind and thoughtful act. And, we are not powerless to choose how to react to life's whims. Maybe, in the long run that's the lesson of "my story," of the story of my painted pinky nail.

But, I am getting ahead of my story. I suppose I better start at the beginning. The beginning is January 6th, 1995, the first day of the winter quarter. We were in my 9:00 a.m. first year American history class. I was beginning to experiment with techniques to forge classroom community. The first exercise I had at that time was to group the students into clusters of five or six and have them engage in a biographical interview. The interview was the first step of a then week-long process of breaking barriers among students, building bridge among them, and forging a classroom community. It was what I called "getting to know ya." Believing that the process included shattering the wall that often existed between me, the professor, and them, the students, I had to be a part of the class rather than stand apart from it. As the interviews began, I sat down with one cluster, and began interviewing and being interviewed. This group of students decided to pair off. I was paired with Kim. She was an eighteen year old, first-year, African-American, "developmental studies," student.

In those day, "Developmental Studies" was a nice way, a jargon way, a politically correct way, of saying "remedial." At that time, in spite of my many protestations, it really meant that no one truly gave a damn about students like Kim, that we had no confidence that they were woven of college material, that we were bowing to the political pressures that demanded every student have access to a college education, that we really didn't take any responsibility for their success, that we'd go through the motions of overcoming their deficiencies by putting them in a remedial math or English course or two while we threw them to the academic wolves in other courses, that we'd take their checks for a year, that we would then suspend them, and that we'd then blame them for the failure of our self-proclaimed "herculean effort."

So, there was Kim and I asking each other usually conversation provoking questions. I asked her, "If you were a plant, which one would you say you are and why?" She answered, "A weed because I can't never be a pretty flower." I asked her, "If you were a material, what would you say you are and why?" She shot back, "Rough sandpaper, real rough, because I always rub people the wrong way. I asked her, "What's your most memorable childhood experience." She replied, "Ain't got none." I asked her, "What is your biggest regret?" And she sadly answered, "Bein' a mistake." With each heavy answer to these light questions, my antennae shot up higher and higher, and my detector went on full alert. Then, we came to the next question.

At the time, I didn't know it was THE question:, "What is something you would like to stop doing." Kim hesitated. Then, in a near whisper, she leaned over and said, "I'd like to stop drinking."

This time I struck up a conversation, "Why do you drink?"

"To have friends....and to get rid of the stress. But, I'm no alcoholic. It just started in high school."

"How long you been doing it?"

"About three years. Started in when I was in ninth grade. No one knew because no one in my family cottons to drinkin', but no one would really have cared if they knowd no how.."

"Will you take a drink today?"

"Already did. I'm stressin' about being here in college. I'm the first one in my family. Everyone is so supposedly proud of me. First, time anyone has really noticed me. I can't let anyone down."

"Going to take any more drinks?"


"Well, don't," I said, not knowing at the time I was doing an Al-anon approach with a tone that I didn't at the time realize was smart-aleckly. "Don't take another drink today. Don't worry about yesterday; don't think about tomorrow; just think about today. Tomorrow, when you come to class, I'll quietly ask you if you're clean. Just take it one day at a time."

She looked at me. Her surprised stared was quickly followed by a giggle as you giggle when you feel a combination of fear, hope and embarrassment. Then, it came her turn to ask me the same question.

"Dr. Schmier, what is something you would like to stop doing."

Without thinking, for no reason I can to this day offer--sometimes you just don't ask a why-- I blurted out, "I'd like to stop biting my nails!" And, I stretched out my hands, palms down, fingers stiffly spread apart.

Now to understand what I was saying, you have to understand that unlike Kim, I admit I was an addict. I wasn't just a ferocious nail biter. I was a nail-oholic. I was like a hyaena gnawing on a dead carcass! When the nails were gone, I went after the cuticles. My fingers looked like a war zone, so ravaged they would have qualified for Marshall Plan aid. Without exaggeration, I couldn't remember a day in my life of fifty-five years that I hadn't bitten my nails. A day never had passed that I could remember when one or usually more of my fingers wasn't hurting, bleeding, or infected.

"Why do you bite your nails," Kim asked.

"I don't know, but there must be a reason. Just a bad habit, I guess" I quietly answered.

"You gonna bite your nails some more today?"


"Well," Kim went on with a seriousness I didn't really hear. "Why don't you just not do it. Don't worry about all them years before you bit you nails and don't think about that you'll bite them tomorrow. Just don't bite your nails today. And tomorrow, when we come to class, I'll asked you if you're clean. Just take it one day at a time."

I put my hand to my face, squeezed my cheeks together and covered my mouth so I wouldn't utter the not so nice thoughts about Kim and her proposal that flashed through my mind. Now it was my turn to giggle as you giggle when you feel a combination of fear, hope and embarrassment.

I thought at that moment that neither one of us thought much of our mutual challenge or offer of assistance. I thought neither one of us thought the other serious. I knew I didn't. As was my practice, after another interviewing question or two, I excused myself and moved on to another cluster.

In those days we had bells to announce the end of the class period. Kim's cluster was by the doorway. I was on the other side of the room in the far corner. My back was to the door. The bell rang. The students jumped up to rush out of the classroom. Kim was among the first to the door. She stopped dead in her tracks, causing a thirty-five student piled up, turned, and yelled so loud you could have heard her over the din in Atlanta.

"Dr. Schmier. Dr. Schmier."

I turned. She looked right at me with a desperate seriousness.

"If you stop biting your nails, I'll stop drinking."

Thirty-five pairs of eyes turned towards me. I could feel the heat of their laser stared. Damn! Trapped! I could feel the sweat oozing from my palms. My lips tightened. My stomach went into a sudden spasm of my stomach muscles. A wave of nausea. It was "one of those put your money where your mouth is" times. I answered a quieter and nervous, "Okay."

Kim smiled. No, she beamed. Her eyes lit up. "Good, we're clean." With that affirmation, she turned and rush out the door.

That night I learned what withdrawal is. I went through the DTs There were stubble marks on the bathroom walls. They would have been claw marks if I had nails. I took so many cold showers, I looked like a bleached prune. I had not so nice thoughts of Kim. I dug my finger stubbles deep into my cold, sweaty palms. I bit my lower lip until I almost drew blood. I grimaced with achy desires to nibble at the stubble. How many packs of gum I went through I don't know. I paced. I cursed Kim. I went to the computer to distract myself, but I was up and down like a proverbial yo-yo. I went to bed wearing gloves. I tossed and turned and sweated. I had not so nice thoughts of Kim. I only hoped she was having the same agonies. It would be sweet revenge and justice, I thought to myself. Through the entire night my angelic Susan lovingly held me, talked with me, stayed up and played backgammon with me. I got through the night--barely.

The next morning, Kim walked into class with a "You clean Dr. Schmier?"

"I had a sleepless night, but I'm clean," I proudly answered through my tired fog. "You clean?"

"Sure 'nuf. I didn't sleep much either," Kim replied with equal pride.

Both Kim and I went cold turkey that day. For six weeks, day after day after day, we asked each other at the beginning of the class, "You clean?" For six weeks, day after day after day, we each answered with an increasing sense of accomplishment, "Yep." For six weeks, day after day after day, we exchanged stories of our agonies, challenges, near-slip ups, need to support each other. Sometimes I called Kim; sometimes she called me.

Heck, I couldn't cheat even if I wanted. The entire class knew. Kim had spies everywhere. Students in others classes somehow found out and they'd ask if I was clean as I walked the hall or entered the classroom. I couldn't walk campus without hearing a "You clean, Dr. Schmier?" coming from somewhere uttered by a strange voice. I'd be munching on a sinful doughnut in the Student Union and a student, a stranger whom I had never seen, would pass me with a warning, "Only the doughnut, Dr. Schmier, not the nails." I'd be in a store or walking in the mall and someone would come up to me with a warning, "Don't cheat on Kim." Even my Susan would check up on me nightly like some warden.

My nails were so thin they'd flap in the wind like wings and nearly lift me off the ground. Not being accustomed to any length or to hanging in free space, they'd droop over the tips of my fingers. They'd break, crack, crumble under the slightest pressure. They were always ragged. The temptation to sin, to nibble, to rationalize that I could use my teeth like an emery board to smooth out the jaggered edge, to break my promise to Kin was always there. But, the constant image of Kim with her struggle not to secret a nip meant I had to take an emery board to the ever- ragged nails rather than my incisors.

After four weeks of being cold turkey clean, after four weeks of agony, I decided to give myself a present. I went to my wife's manicurist. Christa took one look at my war-torn, scarred fingers, and nearly fainted. Out came the heavy duty stuff. I think she would have used a jackhammer if she had one. The Himalayas were nothing compared to height and granite-hard scar tissue. As she worked on my cuticle scar tissue, she commented she felt she was carving a marble statue. With every sweep of her file on my nails, she said it was like working with wet tissue paper. After about an hour and a half, she surrendered and said, "That's all I can do for now. It'll take six months to get your nails decent."

Then an impish impulse overcame me. "Paint my right pinky with that 'whoreish- looking' purple polish."


"I have my reasons."

"I know why," Christa slyly smiled. "Susan told me yesterday you guys argued about you wanting a tatoo and she not letting you get one. Now you're getting even."

"I don't know what you're talking about," I smiled back. She was right. That evening, in spite of my Susan's obvious displeasure at the sight of my pinky, I felt so proud of myself. Then, just before I hit the bed I heard a devilish voice in my ear. "Why don't you celebrate, Louis. You deserve it. What will one little nibble do? No one will know. You really deserve a reward for all that you've gone through. It won't hurt." I resisted that tempting voice for about an hour. Then, I surrendered to that satanic whisper. I raised my right hand to my mouth.

Now, before I go farther in this story let me stop so you'll understand was immediately happened. I am totally right-brained. I am total left-handed. I would gladly give you my right hand. If I did, contrary to biblical implication, I wouldn't be making any great sacrifice because I'd never miss it. Everything I do begins and ends with my left hand, and that included biting my nails. I always, I always, I ALWAYS first bit the nails on my left hand. This time, however, for whatever reason--I don't ask--I first went to my right hand. Just as I was about to sin, I saw that pinky painted in that "whoreish" color, thought of Kim, thought of how I would feel betrayed if she was doing the same sort of celebration. I hesitated. And, I put my hand down. That night was a night of cold showers, gloves, sweat, nails digging into my palms, tossing and turning, and of more backgammon.

The next day Kim came into class, grabbed my hands, looked and said, "Dr. Schmier, you....." She interrupted herself, leaned over almost putting her nose to my pinky, quickly asked in amazement, "what's that shit on your nail?"

I told her the story. Her eyes filled with tears. "You need me, don't you."

"I guess I do. We need each other to do this."

"Nobody has ever needed me before."

And so it went until the end of the quarter. Kim's confidence grew. So did her self- esteem. So did her performance. She slowly became a leader in her "triad." She slowly came out from her shadows. She slowly silenced her silence. She slowly dared to go to the heart of her heart. A faint glow appeared and slowly brightened. A few of the students appeared in class with painted pinky's, asking Kim and me to help them break their habits, some were very bad habits.

On the last day of class, we do closure. It is the day each of us, myself included, in every class reflect and share on where each of us has been, how far we've come, and, hopefully, where we're going. We share what the class meant and what we are taking from it. As it turned out, the last person to stand up was Kim. She arose, tears streaming down her cheeks, and silently held up an empty shot glass in one hand and a bottle of nail polish in the other. The class went wild. There wasn't a dry eye in the room. We all applauded, cheered, hugged.

On April 6th, three months to the day, since I last had my fingers in my mouth, I found a simple handwritten letter lying matter-of-factly -- almost camouflaged -- amidst the cluttered landfill of my desk. I almost didn't notice it. That would have been tragic. I picked it up nonchalantly and started reading it. With every passing word, I realized that this was a letter not to be read casually. It was from Kim. I slowed down. I stopped halfway through, took a deep breath, wiped away a tear or two, unwrapped a Tootsie Pop, and finished reading, grabbing at every word through the haze of my glassy eyes.

In my wallet is a typed copy of that letter. Actually, it's about the twentieth copy. The original is in the safety deposit box at the bank. I always carry it with me. It is not a letter that I read casually. I read it frequently to myself and to others. I usually read the letter as the coda to my story of Kim and me when students and other people invariably ask me about the nail polish on my right pinky nail.

I saw Kim a few days a week during the spring quarter. We'd always greet each other with a "You clean?" And, we'd both answer with a proud, "Yes!" Contrary to expectations, Kim "hung around" the college after that semester. We saw less and less of each other as the quarters passed. She left the remedial program, became an ed major, and graduated with a high GPA. I like to think I had something to do with that.

Since that term, my pinky is always painted. I change the color every week or so. It has become a symbol of "my story." It has become more than a bond between Kim and me. It has become a symbol of my commitment to be that person who is there to help each student help him/ herself to become the person he or she is capable of becoming. And when I falter, I look at that painted pinky nail and think of Kim. That nail, every day is my "maintenance check-up."

         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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