Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Fri 6/11/2004 6:12 AM
Random Thought: Touch: A Word In My Dictionary of Good Teaching

Yesterday, I was walking the mall "messing around" with my angelic Susan like the "experienced teenager" that I am when a student I hadn't seen in a year or so approached me. She was with a friend. "Hi, Dr. Schmier." Before I could give her a return "hi," she came up to me, put her arms around me, and gave me a big hug accompanied by an equally huge "thanks." She turned to his friend and said, "This is Dr. Schmier. He was my teacher. He's made all the difference. If you haven't had history yet, you should. You learn so much more than history. You really learn about yourself. He's why I don't do stuff any more." Then, after a few sentences, with a wave and a smile--and a departing hug--they disappeared into the crowd.

Then, this morning there was an e-mail waiting for me from another student who was in class a while back.

At these two moments, I felt I had just rolled a string of sevens that would have broken the bank at any Las Vegas casino. You know, everyone honors the number seven. It's a cultural inheritance from the Mesopotamians that has been passed on to us by the Hebrews, Greeks, Romans, Egyptians. It is a mystical number, a magical number, and religious number, a mythical number, a winning number. It's a wondrous number. That's why there are seven days in a week, seven deadly sins, seven blessings, and seven wonders of the world.

I want to talk about one of what I think are the real seven wonders of the world. No, I'm not thinking about pyramids or hanging gardens or collossian statues or lighthouses. The seven wonders are those of my teaching world. They have such often underestimated and lasting power: a soft smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an encouraging gesture, a small act of caring, a gentle touch, and above all, lots of love. If we want to have a truly meaningful life of teaching, as Leo Buscaglia would always say, we need to teach with these wonders as often as possible for something greater than and beyond ourselves

At one time or another, I've talked and written about each one of these great magic and miraculous wonders with one exception: touch. Why? I guess cowardice is the better part of discretion. Touch is as touchy a word as you can find nowadays.

That's too bad. Scientific research has long since proven what each of us knows in our hearts: touching, and being touched by others is necessary for health and happiness. We need each other. We are meant to be in connection physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. We're social entities. We're hardwired to connect. It's been found that even a brief touch, as in a financial transaction where just fingers meet, the actual touching is comforting and lifts the mood. Remember, the skin is our largest and most sensitive organ. There is a consoling power in touch; there is a healing power in touch; there is a detoxifying power in touch; there is an assuring power in touch; there is an "I notice you" power in touch; there is a connecting power in touch; there is a loving power in touch; there is a strengthening power in touch. Touch is a form of hospitality, and hospitality is a lively, courageous, and convivial way of association that challenges our compulsion either to turn away or to turn inward and disconnect ourselves from others. A touch expands the "I" into a "we."

Nearly from the beginning of time, the human touch has been acknowledged by most cultures throughout time for its power. A touch provides warming comfort in a freezing night. It makes us feel secure because it unites us with another affectionate, loving, and feeling human being. The warmth it brings is better than the warmth a fireplace can provide. A touch shields us from the worries of today because of the confidence it brings. Like the internet, it allows high-speed access to another soul.

I have been wanting to use this word, "touch," in my Dictionary of Good Teaching for Kenny for a long time. I just didn't have the guts to do it. There seems to be an unspoken, but universally known social taboo against closeness and touching of others. The less you know someone, the further away you must be. The irony of this social behavior is that it is contradictory to one of our most fundamental needs: the need for closeness and contact with others!

Nevertheless, in today's litigation-gone-mad society "touch" is a dangerous word, a suspect word. I can see the words, "grab," "taking advantage," "fondle" and "grope" pop up in some politically correct mind. I can see derisive "touchy feely" appear in some A-Type mind. Nevertheless, for me "touch" is a partner with loving. I'll say it again: we all need each other. Without open arms, we only hug ourselves. As my friend, Anne Pemberton, once said, " and then, at just the right time, a gentle caring touch is priceless to a student." I couldn't agree more. So, looking at the lines of the poem "Anyway" I think it's time I sucked it in and touched upon touch, anyway. Here goes.

I feel my fingers tightening up and resisting. My palms are beginning exude a cold dampness. I can just hear the nay sayers inhaling air for their exhaling screams. So, let's get this out of the way. I realize that I am about to get into real trouble with some of you. I realize that some of you will only see the word, "touch," and go off the deep end. With issues of clerics being pedofiles, teachers engaging in sexual relations with students, I am going to talk about "touch?" I must be nuts or a masochist! I'm not neither. I'm not because I'm not talking about exploitation or abusiveness or oppressiveness. I am talking about connection, relationship, and respect. I have found that there is extraordinary power in a sincere, genuine, believe in, welcoming, hope for, faith in, trust in touch. We do it everyday. We call it a handshake, a back slap, a shoulder clasp. Let me repeat that. SINCERE, GENUINE, BELIEVE IN, HOPE FOR, FAITH IN, TRUST IN. I think we've too often gone to the extremes of isolation and disconnection to banish touch in the misguided, but understood, effort to abolish patterns of abuse, suppression, and oppression. The fact that I feel I have to repeat myself in upper case lettering shows how up tight we've become about touching. We've hung a cloud over our heads. We've become hostage to a fear of acting with reasonable judgment. We've become paralyzed by that legal fear. We walk around off balance. We walk on proverbial eggshells. We have lost the art of drawing the line. We've lost the good sense of being sensible.

Fear of touch is a big-time thief. It steals our peace of mind. It hijacks relationships. It robs us of our balance and puts us on edge. It turns us inward. It throws us into a dark corner by ourselves. It makes us uncomfortable. It turns us into nervous lurkers. It prevents us from being ourselves. It doesn't allow us to show our emotion. It disconnects us from others. It closes our heart with suspicion. It shuts doors and doesn't let us entertain in an open house. It puts up no trespassing signs. It sets the alarms. It whispers of possible calamities looming on the horizon. It doesn't let us be present for others. It erects barriers to keep others away. It makes us paranoid when all those strangers on campus approach. It keeps us hermetically sealed up in a self-centered plastic world with a fragile and false sense of security. It isolates, isolates, and isolates.

And yet, the human touch is something that people need on a regular basis, and so many of us are so skin deprived. I always talk about reaching out and touching a life. Sometimes, that is literal. Everyone has the ability and opportunity to transform someone's life by giving and it can be done by something as simple as a loving tap on the head. It closes distances, de-toxifies relationship, it bonds together. Touch says, in the words of Ghandi, "I offer you peace. I offer you love. I offer you friendship. I see your beauty. I hear your need. I feel your feelings."

Touch is a formidable teaching tool. Do you know what the greatest "disease" a student suffers in most classrooms? Being lonely, being alone, feeling unnoticed, feeling unloved, having no one, especially feeling unwanted. We live in a very small world. Everything we do effect someone for better or worse. I prefer the better stuff. When we care less about our feelings, our rights, our happiness, our needs, our security, our fears, and begin to be concerned with the feelings, rights, needs, happiness, and security of others, we will have found the true power. Like the flowers in my garden, few people can truly grow in the shade, and growth is the real result of learning. I think that people need to feel good about themselves and I see my role as offering caring support to them. Caring always creates because it always promises. It has the magic of helping students discover their own magic, of starting to transform their capacity and potential into ability. So, listening to Ghandi and Buscaglia, beginning on the first day of class, I offer. I offer one curing treatment for students' isolation and aloneness. I offer my warmth and humanity. I am touching. No, I'm not Leo Buscaglia, always hugging. I'm not there, yet. However, I am standing at the door, greeting each student with a smile, an extended hand, and "Hi, I'm Louis. Who are you... Welcome...Glad to have you in the class. Do you know...." I grab someone else's hand, have them shake hands. We're all three or four touching. "Why don't you sit together and talk..." I shake their hands. Touching. I'm smiling and laughing. Maybe, holding an elbow. Touching and laughing. Draping a hand over my shoulder as I drag a student to meet another. Touching and smiling and laughing. Grabbing hands of two students and putting them together. Touching. Gently pushing students together. Touching. Asking them to shake hands. Touching.

I am convinced that touch is a very integral part of wholeness, for to touch is to risk living and teaching fully. There's an incredible feeling that comes with respectful touch. There's an incredible feeling of community that comes with respectful touch. We human beings were not meant to go around in disaasociation and isolation. We were not meant to be disconnected in a classroom while we're meant to be connected outside the classroom. Maybe that's why the classroom feels so unnatural, so uncomfortable. In there, we're out of touch.

Understand that in the classroom or anywhere for that matter, there are two underlaying "A's" of touch: appropriate and acceptable. I think I should repeat that. APPROPRIATE AND ACCEPTABLE. Again. APPROPRIATE AND ACCEPTABLE. Still again, APPROPRIATE AND ACCEPTABLE. When we touch with the proper intent--WITH PROPER INTENT--its intention is acceptable and accepted. Yes, touch does require intention. If you're going to go beyond a handshake and you want to hug someone, you should ask permission. There are a lot of people who are real huggy and they just reach out and touch people. There are some who are not huggy and recoil from such attempts. Its really important to ask permission. I'll say it again: it's really important to ask permission. Touch breaks through the barriers that can be hidden in other ways. I have never seen a touch that is intended respectfully to bond result in anything other than a smile.

With that understood, there are the three other "A's" of touch: attention, acknowledgement, and affirmation. I think its something that we have lost in our educational culture. When we touch someone, however so slightly, we give him or her attention. Sometimes not even a spoken word, but just to put a hand gently on someones shoulder, head, or back, they know you're paying attention to them. When we touch someone, we acknowledge him or her. Sometimes an acknowledgement of someone is a pat on the back, its a shake of the hand, its a slight grip on the shoulder, its a hug, and it's a tap on the head. There are many ways to acknowledge people, and touching is one of the ways. When we touch someone, we say "yes" to him or her. It's a great thing to affirm people by saying "You did a great job today." "Good comment." When we touch, we should hope, believe, faith, love. That's important. Within the boundaries of appropriate touch it is good to have that kind of affection between people. I think its something that we have lost in our educational systems.

I once read a poem. I don't know who the author is. I printed it out and it's taped on the wall. I'd like to share with you:

The power of touch is profound.
The power of touch is healing.
Touch brings comfort, concern, and care,
touch conveys nurturing,
touch is instinctive,
touch is love.
The power of touch cannot be overstated or
To be permitted to touch another being
with respect and concern is a great privilege
the softness of a baby, the worn hands of the aged,
the comforting arm around a shoulder,
the embrace of our loved ones.
Touch is crucial to growth and expression
and is as natural as breathing.
Touch is the medium through which we express
our humanity
our attachment to all life around us.
Touch is life.

Maybe one of the reasons for so much lifelessness in the classroom is there's so little lifefulness touch.

Am I in trouble? My fingers think I am. They're are fighting my command to hit the "send" key.

         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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