Copyright © Louis Schmier

Date: Wed 4/5/2006 3:20 AM
Random Thought: Only One Person?

Good springy or summery morning. Thank goodness March is gone. It went out more like a polar bear than a lamb or lion. Now after just a few days, April is fooling us into thinking it is spring while it's springing over spring into summer. Anyway, this sultry morning, as I was breaking the year's first sweat in the mid-60 degree pre-dawn morning, I was thinking of an interesting message I had received last Thursday. I had been thinking a lot about how to reply to this professor from a southwestern community college. Part of her message read, "Louis, I read your last two Random Thoughts about Crystal and Caroline. Congratulations. However admirable your efforts are, remember you're only one person. You know you can't change the world much less our academic system. So why do you think you can? And, if I might add, why are you always such a 'positive freak (in a good sense)?'"

Well, let's get being a "positive freak" out of the way. I wasn't always one. You know, when you change how you look at yourself, at others, and at things, everything changes. I've learned the hard way that being upbeat sure beats halting and debilitating helplessness, self-pity, negativism, cynicism, fearfulness, resignation, and surrender. You can't live life fully or live a fulfilled life by running on empty. I have gone through a few pains and challenges in my career and life. The latest are dealing with a bout of cancer last year and now being with my darling wife as we struggle to provide care for her ailing Alzheimer afflicted mother. I now understand the blessed gifts hidden in the apparent curses of such travails. So, I have reached the point in my life where I realize it's always about struggling to be a good person. Everything I think, feel, believe, have faith in, hope for, love, and do flows from that spring well. I know life is not a cabaret; I now accept the truth that nothing is perfect, easy, or simple--and never expect things to be otherwise; and, I now have acquired an attitude of standing up to meet all that life has to offer, however my legs may occasionally buckle, so that I will be strong enough in body and soul, mentally and spiritually, to strive to become the person I am capable of becoming and not to go silently into that good night.

A "positive freak?" Positively!!

As for being able or unable to change the world, my response is two words: Birdsal Viault. Birdsal Viault was a history professor at Adelphi College back when I was a student there between from 1958 to 1962. He wasn't out to change the world, but he did. He was ultimately to become my mentor. He forever changed the path I took in life. You see, history was not my first major in college. I had not planned to become a modern day Herodotus. Becoming a modern day Hippocrates was more in my stars. In fact, history was my second, third, fourth, or fifth major, depending on whether you consider playing "musical majors" in psychology, religion, and philosophy in my fourth and on into my fifth semesters were bona fide declarations of majors. History, however, had been my childhood hobby. I don't know why and still can't figure it out. Anyway, I cut my pre-teen history teeth on every book in the Landmark history series. Long before the HARDY BOYS, the first book I ever read was JOHN PAUL JONES, FIGHTING SAILOR. As a teenager, I bought, read, and reread every Ballentine paperback history book on World War II. I scrupulously taped cardboard backing to reinforce and preserve the flimsy paperback covers (I still have every one of them on my office shelves), and I never looked back. When I was fifteen, I read my first bona fide history book. It was Mitsuo Fuchida's MIDWAY. I subscribed to the "United States Naval Institute Proceeding" and each year naively entered its annual essay contest. But, after graduating high school, a pre-med major was in my collegiate cards. It was expected of me by my parents that I become a physician. I accepted the family baton only because science, with the exception of math beyond geometry and advanced algebra (I despised trig and calculus), was my second love. But, I had an ominously less than stellar attitude towards academics and a mediocre performance in high school which earned me the unofficial titles of "Class Clown" by my peers and "least likely college-bound graduate to succeed" by my teachers. I carried that approach to academics into my first years at college. I easily gave more time to being a member of the soccer team, to being a prankster in the labs, and to working two after-practice jobs to pay tuition than I gave to my studies. Then came that disastrous third semester. A very heavy overload of advanced science classes, sports, severe game injuries, prolonged absences from class, indifference of professors, sometimes a hostile professorial attitude towards athletes, jobs, and being less than an honors student in the first place made sure that I blew that semester big time. I mean big time, so big that the subsequent rash of good grades in the rest of college career when I got serious could only pull up my final GPA barely above a C-. Needless to say, no crystal ball would foretell medical school in my future.

As a beanied freshman (yes, freshmen wore beanies in those days), I had taken Dr. Barrow's required American history courses. He was a gentlemanly, graying, roundish man, with the tip of his tongue peeking out from the right side of a jolly smile that always lit up his face. His method of teaching was a verbal series of joyfully asked short answer questions taken from the daily reading assignment to which students volunteered short or expanded answers. It was his version of the Socratic Method. I was impressed with his love of history, his obvious pleasure with teaching as he knew it, and his equally obvious joy when a student gave more than merely a short answer. Throughout the two semesters his was the only class I looked forward to do the readings he assigned and to participating in his class. But, outside the classroom he may have looked like a glowing St. Nick in a suit and tie, but he acted like a cold, distanced, and unapproachable Professor Kingsfield.

However, it was to a much younger Dr. Viault I gravitated during that critical fourth semester. It was his European history class that was the only one I passed during the previous horrific third semester. Dr. Viault was a new Ph.D. from Duke. He had a straight-forward, distanced, non-discussion lecture style of teaching, but in the hallways he always knew who I was and would stop to talk with me and praise my test essays and mini research papers. I wasn't sure if my collegiate attraction to history was the result of my hobby interests, his accessibility, his youth, and/or his ego-boosting laudatory comments about my research and writing. Whatever it was, one day, in desperation, I went to see him to share my thoughts and fears about officially becoming a history major. I told him I wasn't sure if I was drawn to history only because of my familiarity with it. What to do. There are too many professors nowadays as there were then who would not do what Dr. Viault did. He stopped doing what he was doing in his tracks. He told me that he didn't know why I was lured to history any more than I did, but if I had time we could sit down and talk right there and then in his office. He asked me to look into my crystal ball and see if I could see myself as an historian. I told him that I did not know what I could do with a history major. That was true. I explained that neither business nor the military appealed to me. That wasn't the whole truth, but at the time I didn't know it. I also told him I really didn't know what a historian did. That, too, was true. We talked about what seemed most appealing to me about history. From my meager and amateurish experience I liked the reading, investigative, and writing part. Reading about history stirred my curiosity and imagination. I told him that I was afraid of my parents' reactions. He asked me more questions than he offered answers. We talked of the risk of taking risks, about assuming responsibility for making my own decisions and talking control of my own life, about not living the lives others dreamed for me, about nothing being worse than feeling trapped, and of not getting any satisfaction from a career. "Mr. Schmier," Dr. Viault said in his usual formal, slow, baritone manner, "I think you'd make a very good historian, but that is your decision. I will help you if you wish to become one." I guess after that talk in his office I knew I was going to become a history major. And, "Bird," as we students called him behind his back, appropriately took me under his wing.

That unexpected get-together the altered course of my future. That chance meeting led me to a chain of life-altering chance experiences. I stopped playing soccer and got serious with my academics. It led me to graduating Adelphi with a A.B. in history, to getting chance high marks on the GRE, to getting an M.A. in history at St. John's University at Dr. Viault's urging, to the chance acceptance into UNC's Ph.D. program also with Dr. Viault's support, to being blessed by the chance meeting of my Susan on a blind date at "The Hill," to the chance taking of a position at Valdosta State, to a chance event that lead me to becoming one of the nation's leading authorities on the Southern Jewish experience, to being blessed by the chance adoption of my youngest son, to a chance comment that led to sending Robby to Hyde School, to the chance knowing what a deep turning point in your personal self and your life is, to the chance discovery of my true place in the very place where I was, to going from a secret "negative freak" to public "positive freak," to wanting to be important to wanting to do important things, to foregoing research and publication for the concentration on and learning about teaching and learning, to replacing wanting to achieve to wanting to contribute, to replacing taking with giving and serving, to taking the focus off me and my needs to focusing on students and their needs, to who knows what is to come.

The moral of this tale is that most of us have more ability than willpower, and to imagine things are too big to take on is often an excuse and rationalization to ourselves not to take the risk, make the time, and exert the effort. So many people use the word "impossible" with great abandon, not willing to realize the extent to which that word throws up barricades before them, stymies their thoughts and actions, fades their dreams, impovishes their soul, atrophes their heart, saps their vitality, and extinguishes their inner flame. Yet, each of us has the capacity to be far more than a mere, innocuous, impotent "only one." As an historian, I know of no movement, political or otherwise, that wasn't begun and led by a "one." We each can be a one. We each can change the world however immediately imperceptible that alteration may be. Each of us is afforded countless opportunities to touch another person's life forever. Each of us experiences innumerable chances to make a difference. Each of us lives a vast number of moments in which to alter the future. If we take a little extra time to be aware, empathetic, caring, and compassionate, the impact we can have on another individual can be incalculable. We must remember that we all have had the likes of a Birdsal Viault in our lives, individuals who spent a critically few extra minutes with us, who noticed us, who supported and encouraged us without any attached strings, who went that small extra mile for us, and had a huge impact on our lives. And, equally important, we each can be a Birdsal Viault to the likes of a Crystal or Caroline; we all can have timely time for others; we all can go the distance for someone; we all can have unconditional and immeasurable love, boundless faith, boundless hope, and boundless belief in others; we all can contribute; we all can be significant; we all can leave memorable footprints behind us through the generosity of being gentle, softly listening, saying uplifting small words and phrases, and making kind gestures that have far-reaching meaning for others and for ourselves as well. We have to do that only for one person to change the world and alter the future.

Only one person? Can't change the world? Wanna bet?

         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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