Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Sun 9/22/2002 5:11 AM
Random Thought: Before The Burning Bush

Here I was walking along in the marshy darkness. The temperature was twice that of Pennsylvania ten days ago. There were no mosquitos in pharonic headress flying about. So, I wasn't worried about West Nile. I was thinking about a conversation I had this past week with a colleague on my campus. In the course of our chit-chat, I mentioned that I had just returned from giving a workshop on exciting the classroom at Clarion University in Pennsylvania. Some of the rest of our chatting went something like this.

"What do you do to turn on the students?"

"It's not so much what I do as who I am. I love each of them and believe in each of them, and struggle to help each of them to love and believe in themselves."

"Be serious."

"I am."

"No, seriously. I'm curious. The students are always talking about how exciting your classes are," he asked in something of an air of disbelief. "The students in my classes are bored. I'm not sure I know why."

"Who's responsible for that?" I asked as I looked directly at him.

He look back with an increduous gaze. "You saying we are responsible for the students being bored or excited?"

"Yes. We're the authority figures. We're in charge. We're responsibile for the climate in there. We can't get students to jump up and down with a yawn. We can't get them to 'rah rah' with a 'bah.' You won't conjure up a smile with a sneer."

"Well, then, from what I hear you apparently don't yawn or sneer. What's your trick? I'd like to know."

"No tricks. I just told you. I love them and believe in them. If you want the students to be excited, be excited about each student. Don't be excited just about the subject. Win their hearts if you want their minds. Love them, each and every one of them. Believe in them, have faith in them, have hope for them, notice them--unconditionally."

When he asked me to describe what I do, I gave him a thumbnail sketch of my classes.

"Remember, it's not one thing it do. It's a total package not just of techniques, but of attitude that creates a mood of trust and respect." I explained.

I told him I have the students from one semester write confidential letters about me and the class to students in the following semester that I hand out first day of class. I told him that on that first day, I meet each student at the door with a welcoming handshake and we all walk around the class shaking hands and introducing ourselves. I described the classroom community building exercises and the exercises I use to lay down the four working themes of the class. I talked of the daily supporting and encouraging "words for the day" I or other students put on the blackboard and how we discuss them for a few minutes. I have them journal daily and read them every week so I can get to know them a bit more and have an inkling how life is getting in their way. I explained why I and each student write what good happened that day on the blackboard at the beginning of each class. There's the small but essential small talk, the looking, the joking, the listening, the noticing, the laughing, the smiling, the encouraging, the supporting, the constant emphasis on the positive.

"The other day I heard a student in the back of the room whisper that the day a project was due was her 21st birthday. To everyone's surprise, I brought in four dozen birthday doughnuts and we all sang 'Happy Birthday' to her. The small stuff isn't small."

And, then, I described some the hands-on, get-into-the-material projects and how I no longer lecture or give tests and exams in my attempt to help students learn to become life-long learners and unlearn being merely short-range grade getters. Telling him that I'm always experimenting, I described how I just tried something new. I had asked these students who had been in class only three weeks to write a confidential letter about their reactions to what we were doing in class to the professors attending that workshop.

"Oh, I could never do any of that," he exclaimed raising his hands like a red light to stop my advance.

"I think you'd surprise yourself," I softly explained. "I know over the years I surprised myself. So would you."

My colleague didn't hear me--or didn't want to hear me. As I offered him encouragement, support, and help, he sadly peppered me with a string of defensive explanations. "Do you know what the others in the department would have to say?" "I would love to but I really couldn't." "What if I try some of it and it doesn't work?" "It's just not me." "I'm not comfortable doing that." "What good would it do?" And he concluded with a resigned, "You know, I'm almost sorry I asked."

"You're sounding like a student," I finally retorted with a soft voice, a friendly chuckle, and an understanding smile. "What would you tell a student if he or she said any of that to you when you gave out an assignment?" I asked.

"Oh, that's different!" was his ready come back.

"Is it? Why?" I asked. "I don't think we professors with our degrees and resumes are all that different from the students as we pretend or suppose we are. If you say that of yourself, how can you ask students to think and to feel and to say and to do otherwise? That 'do as I say, not as I do' never works."

We talked on for a while.

This morning I was thinking that my friend and colleague also sounded just like Moses, not the advertised Cecil B. Demille bearded, gray streaked, dominating figure of Charleston Heston standing on an outcropping of rock hands aloft, dark clouds swirling above him, parting the Red Sea. He could sound that way. I've known him a long time. He has it in him. Instead, his words and body language and facial expressions were that of the cringing, disbelieving Moses of the burning bush.

The curious thing about Moses, he wasn't the same person when he was groveling before the burning bush as he was later at the Red Sea. Well, actually he was. It was his perception of and belief in himself that was to change. And, I sometimes wonder if we all focus more than just a bit on the Moses before the burning bush in us than on the potential Moses at the Red Sea in us.

Now Moses went up the mountain with a curiosity. I don't think he initially expected and liked what he found. Kneeling shoeless before the burning bush he quickly melted into a mass of tenseness, self-denigration, and fear as he heard what God said He had in store for him. God had selected him to "go down to Egypt's land and tell ole Pharoh to let My people go," and Moses fought God tooth and nail. "Who am I that I should...." "No one is going to listen to me." "What influence can I have?" "I'm just a nobody." "Why can't someone else do it." "I'm not a good speaker." Moses wanted back-up and clout. "Who am I going to say sent me?" He wanted assurances and guarantees: "You gonna be there, too?" No wonder God got upset.

Moses wasn't as yet sufficiently wise to avoid or cast off all those thoughts that weakened him. By asking negative questions, he evoked weakening images of himself. His problem was that he didn't have a sense of awe and wonder about himself. The self-effacing Moses at first couldn't bring himself to re-imagine himself so he could see what God saw in him. Like my colleague, he didn't--or couldn't--see the potential in himself. That omission shaped his thinking, his feelings, his words, and his actions. And so, he didn't--or couldn't--reach for and bring out the potential in himself. He couldn't see the positive possibilities and so couldn't see that the best of those possibilities could happen for him. He was getting what he saw, the negatives: problems, obstacles and limitations. He did not see the positives: limitless possibilities and opportunities. His doubt, though nothing but a few self-generated thoughts, was a restricting chain he created and to which he gave the strength of steel. As his conversation with God continued, his doubt grew stronger and more resistant, and so did the size and weight of those chains. God was asking Moses to believe about himself differently and to see himself differently and do different things. God was saying to Moses, "Hey, guy, if you want to motivate and inspire, if you want to energize and mobilize, if you want to lead, you have to focus on your capacities and possibilities of what I'm saying and not on your negatives of what you're saying, and say to yourself what I am saying to you--and take a chance to believe it." And, the disbelieving Moses resisted every inch of the way. He reminds me of something Peter Senge wrote somewhere in THE FIFTH DISCIPLINE. Moses was so focused on throwing problems in his way, he was so distracted by doubt, fear and anxiety, that until he let go he couldn't see what he was really made of. Moses couldn't believe that he could possibly have possibilities within him and that he had potentials he never thought possible.

I guess I'm sounding like a preacher. Oh, well, it's Sunday. Actually, I am being autobiographic, for I was at the burning bush until eleven years ago. Nevertheless, like Moses, like my colleague, once like me, so many of us--faculty and student alike--find every reason, rationale, or explanation to diminish and weaken ourselves with that Mosaic liturgy. We are so disinclined to focus on the exciting, productive, positive possibilities of what might be. Degrees and resumes not withstanding, so many of us are so constrained by our constrained perception of our value and strength, ability and talent, vision and imagination, creativity and activities, possibility and potential. So many of us so often focus on the shadowy valley where we are confused, depressed, intimidated, angry, hesitant, resistant, paralyzed rather than on the majestic, sunlit peaks where we are most effective, affective, connected, and, above all, most alive. And, we are hard pressed to boldly dream and act, and see what we might be like if we did. Like my colleague, as I did for so many years, so many of us cannot untie those "nots" in our "cannots" and kick ourselves in our "can." We don't have Kierkegaard's "passionate eye" for our potential. We will curse ourselves with all kinds of rationales, excuses and reasons and counter-analogies why everyone else should change while we remain unchanged and don't have to change our attitudes and actions.

The Mosaic lesson for each of us is that a lot of us are still cringing in front of the burning bush looking dismally at problems and have yet to look for the possibility and probability that each of us can be that indomitable person standing at the edge of the Red Sea we are capable of becoming. I assure you, with a lot of sweat, day after day after day, rather than depressingly be stopped by "accepting reality," we can choose to see a "reality" created by what we choose to believe, to see, to think, to feel, to listen, to act out and act upon. We have the capacity to create the kind of real future we desire. All Moses did--and it was some kind of an "all"--was to see his inner landscape with new eyes, ears, and heart.

Am I being pollyanic? I don't think so! Sure, I know many academics who would literally astound themselves if they could find the way to turn themselves into a pushing tailwind instead of battling their slowing headwinds, if they could metamorphose their ugly negatives into beautiful positives. At the same time, I can say without hesitation that I have never met one person--not one person--who did not have the ability to be a Moses at the Red Sea. And, as I stand in testimony, it's more a matter of inclination than circumstances. If each of us want to be open to that potential, feels a passionate need to be open to that, are willing to struggle day after day to find our way to be open to that, we can open ourselves to be open to that potential, believe in that, have a hope for that, see that, tap that, and direct that. We don't have to go down into Egypt's land and let the people go; we just have to go down inside our own land and let ourselves go. We can convert the curse into a blessing and make the impossible possible, and the potential actual; we each can part our own sea. Then, at the same time, we can help and support and encourage students make their own arduous, but exciting, journey from their burning bush to their own Red Sea.

         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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