Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.
Date: Sun 12/8/2002 7:03 AM
Brrrrrrr! It was in the very low 30's this morning. Even the cockroaches were wearing mukluks on all their feet. My body was saved only because it was wrapped like a mummy by my thermals.
As I walked the my icy six mile course, I started thinking about events inside and outside the classroom that happened in the course of this past week, a lot of which, in the spirit of Tom Paine, tried my soul. The week, however, had a last minute reprieve by a conversation I had with Henry (not his real name) late Friday afternoon.
It was close to 5 p.m. I normally am not on campus at that time of FGIF. I came out of the building tight and achy from sitting unergonomically at the computer during the hours I was putting the finishing touches to a report from a working group of a University strategic planning committee of which I am co-chair. I was stretching every which way to loosen up as I headed towards the house (I live only a block and a half from campus) for some wine and cheese, and, of course, Susan's soothing arms.
As I was walking and contorting my body, I started thinking about something that was really on my mind which working on the report had put aside: a long, candid talk with a couple of difficult students and some frank discussions about some difficult colleagues. I hadn't gone a couple of hundred feet when Henry and I saw each other. I hadn't seen him in a bunch of Sundays.
He snidely commented that I was walking like I already had one glass of wine too many. I told him that it was a hard day's end to a hard week and was trying to be my own chiropractor. Then he asked with a bragging swagger, "Gonna see me graduate next week?"
"I'll be there. You worked hard to get there."
"Do I get a graduation gift? One teacher to a future teacher?" he asked with an impish smile.
"A diploma," returning his impishness.
"That's from the University. What about from you?"
I was about to say, "a handshake." Then, I said something that broke into my line of thought without my permission. It was as if Mark Rosen, who wrote "Thank You For Being A Pain," which I had finished a few days earlier, screamed in my ear, "Excuse me?".
Instead I said, "If I could."
"What do you mean 'if you could'? Ain't I worth a few bucks?"
"I can't buy the gift I would give you, but you'll get it sooner or later."
"What's the gift?" he asked with a hesitation and a wrinkled face as if he really didn't want me to answer.
Then, I blurted it out. "I think I would give you the gift of a 'difficult student'--nicely wrapped with a big, red bow!"
"A difficult student? That's a gift? Thanks a lot. That would drive make crazy."
"Why you wishing a 'pain in the neck' on me? Henry then asked. "You must have had a rough day today with some 'difficult students.'"
I hoping he would ask. "Well, until I saw you, I thought I had. You hit me at a time I had some stuff come down, but coming to think of it, I'm not wishing any get even 'pain in the neck' on you."
"Then, what are you wishing on me?"
"A possible 'gain in the heart.'"
"How can you say that a difficult student is a gift?"
"Well, you know what they say: 'No pain, no gain.'"
I asked Henry just what is a difficult student? We went over to a near-by bench and sat down. After a conversation, we decided a difficult student--or anyone for that matter-- is one who doesn't do what we want, who doesn't do what we expect, who challenges our authority and control, who doesn't fit our image, who is negative. We agreed that difficult students are bedeviling people who supposedly drain our energy, make us edgy, sap our patience, distract us, stir our anger, drive us to proverbial drink, and just give us the blues.
"Sound like someone I used to know?" I asked.
"Yeah," he said softly.
"And, to be honest, there were times I wanted to strangle you. Now I want to hug you."
"Because you were a 'difficult student.' Seeing you now just made me realized once again that I was not troubled by you, but by my opinion of you. And, if I wanted to help you help yourself, if I wanted to help you change your opinion of yourself, I first had to change my opinion of you."
I asked him some questions when I was really giving myself a tutorial: What if these supposed toxic students are anti-toxins for us? What if the frustration we experience with certain students is just as important for our personal and professional growth as enjoying other students. What if we need things to go wrong no less than we need things to go right? What if difficult students and colleagues are sent to us to push our buttons in order teach us lessons about ourselves, to see just how much we're willing to put our money where our mouth is, to find out what we truly believe, to gauge the depth of our commitment to those belief, to test the strength of our vision, and check the clarity of that vision? What if difficult students are offerings for us to fine tune our character, open our hearts even more, help us be more understanding and compassionate, sharpen our self-awareness, and heighten our sensitivity. What if they gave us lessons we probably couldn't and wouldn't learn on our own.
"I'll ask again," I emphasised. "What if they were in the long run 'gains in the heart' even if in the short run they were 'pains in the ass?' Wouldn't they be a gift?"
"'Buts' are not allowed. "Remember?'"
"Yeah. I guess I was one of them. You took some risk for me when you......"
"Listen to what you just said: 'for me.'"
I told him that I am both a better person and teacher because he drove me nuts. I kept going nuts until I realized that it was really me who was driving me nuts. I found out that you can't think that a student is a jerk without being one yourself, and you can't be annoyed without being annoying yourself. Then, I started meditating on that "why me" with a humble and receptive curiosity rather than a disdainful and unreceptive sneer. I stepped back and looked at myself and my reactions to learn about me.
"I've got to that again this weekend."
And we talked some more. I told him that I knew those difficult students don't mean to be this significant. But, they are. And, since strangling isn't an option, maybe we can find reasons to hug them. After all, they surely pose some tough questions for us: why is this student acting the way he or she does? Do I look with compassion at the problems or issues or even suffering that lie at the root of his or her behavior? What exactly is this person doing that upsets me? And why is this such a big deal for me? Why am I so bothered? What can I do about it? Do I have to look first at myself? Do these difficult students mean anything to me? Am I open to new approaches to help them change themselves? Do I care to do that, that is, am I willing to lose them or win them over? Am I willing to put my ego aside to help them? Can I learn anything? Can I use this students to gain insight into myself?
I told Henry that I have found that there are several keys to relating to difficult students: first, most are are acting up because they are acting out and revealing their own issues; second, the difficulty is all in our head. Maybe we're at fault and have to be big enough to admit it; third, we have to work on ourselves, stop thinking things will work themselves out, face the music, drop some baggage, clear our heads and hearts, laugh at ourselves, see from different perspectives. Finally, we have to change our words and actions with the hope it will effect theirs.
"How do you do it all the time?"
"I don't. This week, today, was a kick in the ass reminder of that. I both made it and fell short. I stupidly blew some raspberries and also tasted some delicious fruit. You just reminded me, I will always have to work my heart out to work it out in my heart. But, even if I do not or cannot or don't expect to practice perfectly what I say, the classroom is a tad less difficult and a lot more loving each time I make the sincere effort."
We got up, hugged, whispered some things, and went our ways. I walked home for that wine, cheese, and Susan with a feeling of less pain and more gain, with a feeling that Henry had helped me untie both my spiritual and physical knots, or, at least, had helped me loosen them.
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" - \____