Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Tue 5/3/2005 1:22 AM
Random Thought: Everyday Mitzvah, II

Yes, a mitzvah is a potent teaching tool. For if Thich Nhat Hanh, Martin Seligman, Deepak Chopra, Jon Kabat-Zin, Jack Kornfield, Parker Palmer, Daniel Goleman, Peter Senge, I, and a host of others whom I’ve mention over time are right when we say in various ways that we teach who we are, then, students likewise perform who they are. And, if we as teachers want students to do more or do differently, if we want them to strive to become the persons they are capable of becoming, we have to teach to the whole person of the student, get to whom each is, and help each of them transform.

I wish I could tell you the details of a particular story that embodies the power of mitzvah and what I believe teaching to be. I can’t. The story is too personal and confidential to share. All I can say is that it concerns an eighteen year old first year student whom I’ll call Judy. As I read her last journal entry for the semester, my eyes glazed over, my muscles slacked, my shoulders drooped, my breath slowed and deepened. With her expressed permission, I do want to share that entry, for it tells us what teaching truly is:

You know day after day you wrote the Words for the Day on Vista all those weeks while you were at home recovering from your cancer surgery and then on the board when you came back to class, Words of the Day like “Lessons learned must be lessons lived. “Impossible things are accomplished every day,” “’Hard’ is not the same as ‘impossible,’” “Miracles do happen; you just have to work hard for them to occur,” “The only limits you have are the ones you place on yourself,” “Fences are great for lawns; they suck when it comes to your spirit.” “No one can depreciate you without your permission.” “The longer you carry a grudge the heavier it gets.” “You are the choices you make.” At first I thought they were sappy. Then I found myself copying them into a notebook and reading them over and over and over again. They all were hitting home even though I didn’t understand that at the time. Then, I slowly realized what an effect they were having on me because I felt as if you were talking directly to me. Soon, I found myself writing to you about my….in my journal and you sharing yourself with me in reply to show me that I was not alone. I’m not sure why I could tell you what I’ve never told anyone about……I don’t really know why I felt safe that I could trust you with the deep dark secret eating at me and come out from the corner in that the black room I had locked myself in for so many years. I don’t really know why. I didn’t have a chance to get to really know you. You were in class only for about a week and a half before you went into surgery. Maybe it was the story of your painted pinky nail. Maybe it was what you called your genesis story about how you started admitting your stuff to yourself about yourself, shared your secrets with us, how you started to come out from your own locked, dark room and started working on yourself, and began changing your straw into gold. Maybe it was while you were facing cancer and major surgery and a month of recovering at home and months more of getting back to normal, you never stopped thinking about us. You never stopped making sure we wouldn’t get hurt. You never stopped caring about us. Maybe it was all that belief and trust you had in us that we could carry the load while you were recovering. Maybe, in spite of ourselves, we couldn’t help but believe you were sincere and what we saw was what we were really getting. Maybe it was the fact you never stopped laughing and smiling in the face of all the stuff that was coming down. Maybe I felt that if you could do it, why couldn’t I take the chance to do something I’ve never thought I could do: free myself up and change. Maybe it was all of these maybes. Whatever it was, something told me that I could trust you and I just puked up all that stuff inside me just like you did with yourself when you had your epiphany.

For you, teaching is a passion for the possible and for you all things are possible. And somehow and for some reason you saw me as one of those “possibles” before I did. You live those words you write and you model them for us and challenge us to do the same. I don’t think everyone gets it or wants to get it. Well, I want you to know, as you do from my journal, I got it. I guess it was time. It wasn’t easy. Still isn’t. Probably won’t be for a long while. I got to get over a lot of bad habits of how I look at myself and learn new ones. It’s hard pulling out those posts of the fence I had place around myself. It’s hard to come out into the light after being in the dark for so long. But, hard is not impossible, is it. I feel like I’m beginning to walk all over. I just want you to know in this final entry of my journal that you’ve help me start to come to terms with…. No, I don’t think you’d agree to what I just said. You’ve helped me help myself to go past the limits I thought existed, past disbelief, past hesitations, past the point of giving up, to the point of finding a faith, of stirring a courage to do more than just get by, of stirring of a hope in me, of having a trust and belief, of exploring my abilities and talents, of opening doors to my real potential, of opening the window and letting the warm fresh air in and getting rid of the cold, musty, stale air, and of just going for it. You somehow saw my gold where I saw only saw straw and convinced me that there just may be more to me than I thought and let ……convince me was there. You’ve helped me help me fill myself with dreams I never dreamt before that have started pushing away the dark memories that have been strangling me and holding me back such a long time. I’m happier and more self-confident and working harder. I don’t think I’m as dirty any more although I still have to wash myself off a lot more. I used to run myself down and run from myself because I believed what others were saying about me. Long ago I had accepted doing things that I knew wasn’t good for me because I didn’t think I was good enough. I had trained myself for mediocrity at best and certainly for sadness. You helped me start training myself for excellence and happiness. Now I think I may be starting to work to find myself and become in charge of myself like all those feminists we studied. Small steps I thought until you told me no step on a great journey is really small. Without this class, without you, without these first steps in this class, I could not have blossomed as I did, taken a risk with Robert (not his real name), done the projects that we did, learned about my creativity as I did, learned so much American history as I did, and learned so much about me as I did. I see that what I can do is so far beyond what I thought I could do and ever tried to do—and did. I just didn’t trust or believe in myself and hid behind my “I tried.” Once I struggled past my “I can’t” and my “I’m not good enough,” I found I could and was good enough. Now, I don’t have a reason not to believe in myself, have faith, and just do it. Like you quoted Yoda on the board, “Try not. Do. Or, do not. There is no try.” Now, I will stop trying and only do when I used to only try and usually did not.

I also want you to know that I’m changing my major to elementary education and it’s all your fault. Not only am I finding myself, but I think I’m finding what I want to do with my life. I now want to help other students help themselves like you helped me help myself. People catch colds. Well, I’ve caught heat. I’ve caught the heat of your passion. And as I begin to have compassion for myself, I know I’ll be infected with your caring that fired it all up. Don’t ever lose your passion and compassion for each of us no matter what happens and no matter what anyone of us does and anyone says. So, I’m going to leave you with two of your own Words for the Day to always remember. They happen to be my favorite ones and the ones I’m going to learn to live by. The first is: “Who you are is revealed by how you deal with circumstances and other people, not by those circumstances and other people.” The second is: “You are not defined by the judgments of others; they are defined by their need to be judgmental.”

Thanks for being a professor, a mentor, and a unique spirit. You are a joy for me. Have a great summer. Get yourself well while I work on myself. I will see you in the fall…..

Everyday mitzvahs. Not so random acts of kindness. Faith. Hope. Love, especially love. This is what teaching is all about: leaving your mark, making a difference, helping to begin a great and wonderful transformation, changing the world, and altering the future, step by step, little miracle by little miracle, day by day, one student at a time. It’s about having a vision, a sense of purpose and meaning, and then filling in the daily details and bringing your dream to life. That’s what it can be for each of us who want it to be. There’s not much money in it. There are lots of challenges. There are lots of risks. There are no guarantees. It’s not simple. It’s not easy. It’s not quick. It demands a lot of attention. It requires a lot of perseverance. It takes a lot of work. It expends a lot of energy. It soaks up a lot of time. But, I guarantee the gratification can be something else.

         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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