Copyright © Louis Schmier

Date: Mon 12/5/2005 3:55 AM
Random Thought: "The Question"

It is Sunday. What little is left of November 20. Tallahassee airport. Close to midnight. Raining. Chilly. Waiting for the buses. I probably won't get into my Susan's arms until about 3 a.m. I was supposed to have left Cincinnati at 4 p.m. and arrive in Valdosta three and a half hours later. It wasn't to be. I am tired, physically tired, intensely tired. It's a good tired. It's reasons are of the kind that you inscribe on tombstones. This was my twelfth or thirteenth Lilly, but this time the normal intensity was more intense than usual. I was more mindful, more keenly aware, more conscious of the moment. My senses were sharper. I was more appreciative. I was more mindful of a deep and profound connection with the people around me. Lilly had a more spiritual meaning. This was my the first Lilly since I discovered I had cancer. I was celebrating Lilly more with my heart than usual, and not just because of successful treatment that has made me cancer-free. It also because here at Lilly, you'll find a form of the "beloved community." Lilly's originator, Milt Cox, is an alchemist who for twenty-five years has been mystically transmuting the lead of hard-shelled, self-centered, competitive "I" into the soulful, loving gold of "we." At Lilly, Milt's vision and purpose was for us to experience the exciting joy of serving others, sharing with others, openly learning from others, and being part of a mutually supportive and encouraging community. So, Lilly is about more than passing the food for thought around until your head is filled; it's more than passing the food and drink for the tummy around until your stomach was filled; it's also about passing the soul food of respect and love around until your heart is filled. This Lilly I was especially conscious of all that. Not just because we were celebrating it's 25th silver anniversary, but because I was giving thanks. And though I didn't physically bow my head in thanks when I first arrived Wednesday afternoon, as soon as I saw and hugged Melodie Barton, Martha Webber, Gregg Wenzel, and Milt Cox, I said a thankful prayer. And the prayers kept coming as friends whom I hadn't seen in a year kept coming in. At these moments when we hugged and talked, I knew why I make the Herculean effort each year to go to Lilly. Always stuffed into the third Thursday through Sunday before the official Thanksgiving the following Thursday, it's the first of my two Thanksgiving. It has a feeling of being a home away from home among friends and family. Like Thanksgiving a week later, it is that time that endows me with a keen sense of gratitude. It is a gratitude for what on the other 364 days seem so normal and ordinary: the bounty of closeness I feel to so many at this gathering, "newbies and old timers alike." It is soul nurturing time for me to pause to fill my cup with gratitude for all those neat people who call me and allow me to call them friend and colleague. I am by nature a romantic, but in the course of the year I learned even more that there is nothing too old fashioned or out of fashion with sustaining gratitude, consciously and deliberately and intensely sustaining gratitude, for more than one day in a year.

Fellow passengers around me are milling around, annoyed and complaining as we wait for the buses that will take us back to Valdosta to arrive. Once you've had and have beaten cancer, things like mechanical problems, delays, Atlanta's airport trains not running, racing from A to D concourses in six minutes to make connections, not very nice and considerate ASA personnel, more delays, bad weather, still more delays, diversions, and yet still more delays, and long bus rides in the scheme of things really don't get to me. So, here I am, sitting on the carpeted floor that's as soft as fuzzy concrete, leaning against a wall, waiting for the buses to arrive, and thinking of this year's Lilly conference. And there is so much to think about.

One of an ongoing conversation I had with a "newbie" that began at breakfast Friday morning. He told me that he had been reading my Random Thoughts for about a year and had wanted to meet me to see if I was a real person.

I smiled. "Here I am in the flesh."

"I've been wanting to ask you a simple question," he said.

"Fire away," I smiled between sips of coffee.

He asked, "What do you think is the most important question to ask in education?"

I put down my cup. It was 7:30 a.m. "I'll tell you what. That's anything but simple. I've got to set up for my session at 8. How about if we meet about 10:30 when I'm finished?"

He agreed. We met. It wasn't until about noon that we ended the first of what was to prove many conversations throughout the conference. Let me give you the pertinent snippets of our conversation. I told him that I could think of a bunch of questions that would answer his question. I had to admit to him that I really didn't have "the answer." I had, at least, my answer. Or, better still, one of my answers. Here's what I told him: "What are you caringly doing each and every day in the interest of each and every student so that each leaves as a better person?"

"Each and every student? That's impossible," he shot back.

"Well, if you think it is, if you accept that it is, you won't go for it.....But you have an impact on each and every student anyway, one way or another. While you're getting your teaching done, you just don't realize that you're in students' lives or how significant each moment can be. That being the case, do you know what the three questions are that we should always ask ourselves in order to be awake to what is going on around us?"

"I don't think so. No."

"Think about it for a second."

He paused. Then, with a hesitation rooted in a fear of being wrong, he whispered, "Well, if I'm in the students' lives as you say I am, one question to always ask is will I be or am I a positive or negative influence?"

"Okay. And the second?"

After thinking for a long while, he offered, "Do I know who the students really are whom I'm influencing."

"Good. You always have to keep thinking about who it is you're helping. And the third?"

"How do I want to influence them? Do I know where I want them to go with me?"

"See, you didn't need me. That's your 'why' question. I'd only put it in a different way: Do I know where I want to help them take themselves?"

"But, how do you do all that with each student?"

"Care! Care unconditionally! And, remember that the words 'I care about students' are cheap. You've got to live them. You got to treat each and every student unconditionally with respect all the time, believe in each of them unconditionally, welcome each one of them unconditionally into your presence, love each one of them unconditionally, and extend an unconditional caring hand to each of them. No preconceptions. No biases. No prejudices. No perceptions. No assumptions. Only a tabula rasa each day."

"Well, how do you do that?"

"It's not so much how you do that as it is who you are. Who you are will determine how you'll do that. I'll ask you one more question that I don't want you to answer: what lurks in your heart? That is, do you feel empowered to make a difference in the lives of each and every student who crosses your path?"

"That's two questions," he smiled at me. I'll answer that right now. I feel I am empowered to make a difference in a few lives, but in the lives of each and every student? No."

"Ah, as Yoda might say, 'so certain are you....then impossible it is.' You know, I'm giving a plenary presentation at Lilly-South in February. The theme of the conference is "Learning So Everyone Teaches." You know what that means to me?" Before he could answer, I said, "It means that the theme is only half of the equation."

"What's the other half?"

"'Teaching So Everyone Learns.' I'm not sure that the true teacher should have a fixed plan and be intent on arriving. Sure, there has to be a structure, but within it there has to be a readiness and willingness for flexibility, improvisation, spontaneity, dis-controlling, and even dead reckoning. My secret to always being interested in and impassioned about each and every student is this: don't set limits on what I can or cannot do or on who is or is not worthy of your time. It's the simple feeling of possibility that hums like a dynamo inside me......."

".....But, where's the time to do all that? You do have to cover the material and see to it that students have a mastery of the subject, don't you?"

"Ah, to quote Maxwell Smart, 'the old "cover the material" and "mastery of the subject trick."' We make ourselves so time-poor, schedule-obsessive, and material possessive.....It's like being a tourist wanting to hit all the sights, squeezing everything in, following a strict list of 'things to do,' and being able to brag, 'I've been there and seen everything.' Ever read Steinbeck's TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY?"

"A long time ago, but I don't remember any of it. I read it in a senior English class. Or, I was supposed to. I used a 'pony' instead to pass the test," he chuckled.

"Well, somewhere in there Steinbeck talks in a way about preparing for a journey that's applicable to teaching and the classroom. He wrote that once you've designed, equipped, prepared for, and go off on a journey, new factors appear for which you haven't prepared that take over the journey. He said all plans for the trip are useless. No two trips to the same place are alike....See the parallel? Steinbeck's new factors for us are the students. We plan our classes in any given term or from term to term as if they are identical merely because they may have the same number or title. Once we've draw up our syllabus, written our lectures, and prepared our tests, the students appear. And most of us have few clues of what each student is like and are at best vaguely aware of the world that surrounds us in the classroom. And while we may have the same syllabus, lectures, and tests from class to class that are numbered the same, the real life students from class to class and day to day and term to term are different. They each have the audacity to come with unexpected surprises and imperfections and paradoxes and contradictions. They're inconsiderate and disruptive for they clutter up our pristine landscape with the fallen leaves of their real lives.......You see, they learn who they are no less than we teach who we are......They're a bane. So, what do we do? We resist that truth and treat them as disrupters, sometimes almost the enemy. When we aren't relaxed about having to significantly adjust or abandon our plans, when we figuratively grapple with the students for control, when we hold tight to OUR plans and perceptions and conceptions as if our personhood or professionalism is at stake, we get upset to say the least only with the students, and our blame of them for messing things up jades our attitude towards them--and our influence wanes.......What should we do? I told him that we ought to write and live by an educational version of Matthew 5:43-48 or the Oath of Maimonides."

We talked about those two passages for a while. "You know, it's like coming to Lilly," I explained. "We can read everything about it and hear a bunch of stuff about it, but there's no substitute for smelling it. So, too, we seldom sniff the air and savor the aroma in our classrooms. "

"Then, what's teaching all about if not about our disciplines."

"People! Ordinary people, none of whom is ordinary! Offering and receiving an education is as much, if not far more, about people than it is training for a profession," I replied. I went on to explain that an education is as much about if not more about personal growth. It's not about reaching your destiny. It's not about getting a grade, a GPA, or a diploma. It's about unending commencements. It's about constant beginnings, always going on, always knowing you never get it or have gotten there, and always knowing how much there is yet to go, know, and live. It's about opening eyes, ears, minds, and hearts. It's about a life-long dining on all that food for thought and soul food.

"Teaching is a both very public and very private mission," I emphasized. "It's all about connections." On one hand, I explained, it's about "them," each student, and connecting with them, helping them connect with themselves, and helping them connect with each other; at the same time, it's about "us" and connecting with ourselves And, one the third hand, it's about connecting us and them to knowledge. That is, the purpose of us as teachers is not just to educate someone else; it's also to educate ourselves; its not just a matter to make a difference in a student's life, to help that student improve the relationship between life and his or her life, and to help that student become a better person; it's also to make a difference in our own lives, to improve our lives in relation to ourselves, and to help us help ourselves to become better persons. "In the course of my forty years with my angelic Susan, I've learned that a kiss isn't much good if either one of us is so hurried, so pressed for time, that it doesn't have any mindful love in it, if one of us isn't present, intensely and consciously present, in that moment. It's no different in education. If we are so pressed for time and so hurried to cover the material, we won't be genuinely and personally connected; we won't be mindful of the individuals in that classroom with us. An educational kiss is really all about loving the disbelief away and calling up the developing spirit into the present. That goes for us as well as for them. It's about being genuinely and personally connected. It's about being more mindful, aware, and present in THE moment."

We talked about it's in our thoughts and feelings that our actions are determined and our future is decided. We agreed that our thoughts and feelings can either be jailors of our actions, imprisoning and limiting us, preventing us from achieving what's in our hearts, or they can be liberators, releasing us from our confining perceptions, freeing us to achieve our unique potential. "So," I suggested, "going back to your original question: don't wait around making excuses; don't think the magic wand exists; unlearn what you have learned; alter habits; cultivate new fascinations with each student; face fears and hesitations; believe in the unbelievable; have an unattainable ideal that you do not accept is unattainable; just have a healthy disregard for the impossible and go after doing whatever it takes to make it possible."

I explained that I read somewhere that we are each made of desire. And as our desire is, so is our faith. As our faith is, so are our works. As our works are, so we are and become. So, I twisted Yoda's words, "So certain are you. Always with you it can be done." I asked him to be a believer rather than a dreamer, to feel the force of that belief, to use its power to look for adventure in each ordinary day and make adventure part of an ordinary day, and to see that beauty is more than what is on the surface or more than the obvious. It's all attitude, I explained, a personal act, a loving and intense interest in people that makes you an adventurer, discoverer, and difference-maker in the truest and most vivid sense of the words. For me, I told him, the world of teaching and learning shouldn't be an ordinary or routine one; for me, education is about the search for the unique. It's about opening new days each day. Do that, I assured him, and he'll be surprised how much he'll deepen his faith, how much more he'll widen his embrace, how much more he'll increase his acceptance, how much more he'll increase his efforts, how much more he will give of his time, how much farther he'll reach out, and how many more 'few lives' really will add up to.

We both realized that time had gotten away from us. It was lunch time and we had missed the plenary presentation by Parker Palmer I so wanted to attend. As we got up, I ended my part by reminding him, "But, remember, all this isn't something you buy into; it's something you give yourself to"

We kept on talking on and off throughout the next two days of the conference.

         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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