Copyright © Louis Schmier

Date: Mon 3/12/2007 10:57 AM
Random Thought: The Teaching Power of Love

It was a balmy this first pre-dawn morning of Spring Break. Those silent streets under the awesome, star-studded sky are a special place, a studying place, and an enlightened place where in the pre-dawn darkness lots of things dawn on me. As I my wound my way along the starlit streets, I was reveling in yesterday’s victory of my beloved Tar heels in the championship game of the ACC tournament, shuddering at the thought of the size of the honey-to-do list Susan had thrust under my nose as notice that I was to have no break, and recalling that fateful call I had received on my cell phone late Friday afternoon that went something like this:

“Dr. Schmier, this is Celia (not her real name).”

“What’s up? You were MIA today.” I said thinking she was going to talk to me about the continuing troubles her community had been having with filming its “Let’s Go To Hollywood” project and to explain why she wasn’t in class Friday when the project presentation was due. Explain she did. I wasn’t prepared, however, for what was about to fall into my lap.

“I know. I’m sorry I missed class.”

“That’s not like you”?”

“I just didn’t know what to do.”

“About what? Your community presentation?”

“I’m pregnant,” she whispered with a hesitating tone of brokenness.

That staccato sentence sent shivers down my spine. Celia is the seventh student—yes, you heard me right, the seventh—who has told me this semester that she’s pregnant. The seventh! The seventh freshman!! The seventh 18 year old!!! This semester alone!!!! I came to a halt, closed my eyes, and slowly shook my head in disbelief as I listened.

“My Spring Break is not going to be a happy one. Nothing feels warm and sunny. I can’t laugh and play at the beach like I had planned, but that’s not why I called.”

“Why did you call?” I asked softly, almost not wanting an answer.

“I’m so lost. You always tell us that you love us. And, you do really mean it, don’t you? It’s not all a show, is it? None of the professors I’ve seen really give a damn about the student as a flesh and blood person. They act as if students don’t have a life outside their precious classroom. They just don’t care about us. I called because I need to know: Do you still love me now that I told you of my situation?”

“Why do you ask?”

“I was afraid you’d stop loving me if I was honest with you and you wouldn’t listen to me. My boyfriend and parents have done that already. My boyfriend back home doesn’t want anything to do with me anymore. He was all loving when he was all over me after telling me I had to show him that I loved him. Now he’s treating me now like a ‘slam-bam-thank you ma’am’ lay, and my parents are telling me I’m a disgrace to them and that they are embarrassed about what people will think of them and are talking of disowning me and cutting off my money and taking me out of college and maybe sending me away if I don’t have an abortion. But, I don’t believe in that and supposedly they don’t either--until the chips are down, I guess--and I want to stay here and get my degree and get into medical school. I don’t know why they are so upset since that’s the way I came into this world, before they were married and all that. They’re trying to make me feel dirty and its working. This has already wrecked my mid-term exams. I need someone to love me and believe in me and make me feel like I’m still a good person and help me in spite of having done it only that one time. I’ve got to get back on track. You’re the only around here I feel I can talk to. You disappointed in me?”

“Yes, I’m disappointed,” I said with a deliberate empathetic sigh. “but that has nothing to do with loving you. I still love you. That won’t change. And, you’re a good person who just didn’t make a good decision this time.”

“I know you mean it. I can tell by the sound of your voice.”

“I mean it.”

“Help me.”

“How can I help you?”

“Tell me what to do.”

“I can’t do that.”

“No one else will. I have no one else to turn to.”

“Yes you do.”

I walked to a nearby bench, plopped down, and leaned over with the phone pressed tightly against my ear. We talked for a good while. For one moment while we were both taking a breath, I thought, once again, how many of you out there think that what I’m doing has nothing to do with our job description, that we are not in the people business, that education is not about human relationships. I’ll say it again. What happens outside the classroom to a student has a bearing on what happens inside the classroom; what is happening inside each student shapes his or her performance. And, if you think that is of no concern of ours, well, my ‘cancer friend’ is an example of how wrong you are, and now here is Celia. And, I assure you that there are a lot more students in between.

I won’t tell you what we talked about. I will say there was a lot I wanted to say, but I knew I was at the line and dared not step over it. So, I took on the role of what I guess would be called a “help giver.” I knew I could offer her comforting empathy and support, but at the same time she needed more. I had to help her get to where she could feel comfortable and confident enough to get help from someone who had an expertise I didn’t have and who could help her.

Celia ended our conversation, “I’ll talk with my parent when we all calm down. And, thank you for offering to take me to meet with someone if I feel queasy about going alone the first time to someone else. I feel better now knowing someone is out there for me. I will go see someone like you said I should either during Break or after it. I promise I will. I’ll find my way and know it is the right way whatever path I decide to take. Thank you for giving a love about me. Thank you for talking to my soul and not just to my ears.”

I got up, closed the cell phone, and started walking home--slowly walking. I needed Susan’s comforting arms and a glass of relaxing wine by the soothing fishpond.

“Giving a love about me.” “Talking to my soul and not just my ears.” Those words say it all, don’t they? First of all, I want you to know that I share this snippet of the whole story for selfish reasons. Telling a story, or part of the story, with you somehow helps lighten the load of the helpless sadness I’m feeling for Celia. For being there for me, I thank you. But, there’s another reason I’m sharing this story. How many times have I talked about love in the classroom? How many times have I said it is my first principle of teaching? How many times have I said love should be the first principle of education? How many times have I talked about its power? How many times have I said love is our most important teaching tool? Just pour through the archives of nearly fourteen years of over 600 Random Thoughts and you’ll find out.

Why is love important? As a teacher with a wholeness version of education, I'll you. Emotions are behind behavior. They are behind intentions. They are behind choices. Not just theirs, but ours as well. Because, as I recently said, it is not only about the “eye of the beholder,” more importantly it’s about the “’I’ of beholder.” And, if you want to know what love in the classroom looks like and feels like, you have to bring it out, draw it out, and talk about it. As I love each student, I feel a quickening inside me that overcomes all doubts. As I love each student, I love what I am doing and doing what I love. As I love each student, I find it despicable to flatten her or him into a dehumanized enrollment statistic or retention datum or I.D. number. As I love each student, I have a genuine fondness for each of them though at times I may not be fond of what they do. As I love each student, I bombard each of them with all my best qualities. As I love each student, the reality of that classroom is better than my dreams. As I love each student, I find it abhorrent to waste the human potential that resides in each student. As I love each student, I give it everything I have to help her and him do less damage to her/himself. As I love each student, I will help her and him more academically. As I love each student, I cannot dishonor myself or anyone with distain; I cannot sneer, denigrate, dismiss, discard, weed out, or ignore. As I love each student, I choose caring over being judgmental. As I love each student, I am calmer and more patient, and treat each of them gently though at times firmly. As I love each student, as in the case of my “cancer friend” and now Celia, I care about their joys and sorrows. As I love each student, I don’t delight in her or his mistakes with an “I told you so” or “what is the world coming to?” As I love each student, I don’t try to make my job easier, but work hard to make it easier for each of them to learn. As I love each student, then, I become a messenger of wonder, a promoter of happiness, an architect of imagination and creativity, a nurturer of faith, an encourager of belief, and supporter of hope. As I love each student, I become an alchemist of the heart and mind, of body and soul, helping each student transform her or his lump of lead into a nugget of gold. And finally, as I love each student, I consciously hold my feet to the loving torch to model these loving behaviors and attitudes and feelings.

As I once said, and will say it over and over and over again because I see evidence of it day after day after day, we underestimate the power of love in the classroom demonstrated by a warm smile, a slight touch, a gentle word, a caring act, a kind glance, an sympathetic expression, and an empathetic ear. I have seen its power make a difference and start turning things around and alter directions. So, once again, I want to talk about love in the classroom, but I want to talk about it in terms of what it has meant for me. I know that especially will frighten some, anger others, discomfort still others, and cause even more others to smirk and giggle. I know many of you will scatter as if I had some lethal contagion. Before you clear your throat in embarrassment or roll your eyes in exasperation or tighten your face, hear me out.

Love in the classroom is very good, very important, very powerful, something exciting, something I am proud of, and something that I hold on to dearly. Accepting the challenge of loving each student as an invaluable, sacred, noble human being done wonders for me and my teaching. It has taught me that as I accept the challenge, I will grow stronger and more confident; that as I am stretched, I will not be stressed; that as I persevere, I will become more capable and effective; that as I love each student, I will not be bored; that as I teach from my heart, I will not be faint-hearted; that as I make a difference, my life will grow richer; that as I love each student, however different she or he is from me, I’ll acquire new and valuable insights and perspectives; as I love each student as a blessed human being, I will feel blessed; that as I discover the essence of each student, I will enter new worlds; that as I truly listen and see, my wisdom will increase; that as I give and to serve, my life will be fulfilled. Loving each student has taught to love surprise, love the ordinary moments, see that each moment is filled with warm and golden riches; be aware, and love something about each person each day. Loving teach student has taught me that as I give love, I receive hope; that as I build with love, I can withstand any assault; that as I draw on the power of love, my patience is strengthened; and that as I love with every gesture, every word, every thought, every feeling, I’ll know love in return.

Too lyrical? I make no apologies for that. It's not "fuzzy," "touchy feely," sentimental, "naïve," "old fashioned nonsense." It’s sound pedagogy! I think a lot of us ought to apologize for the schizophrenic and unnatural split between heart and mind that we have created and perpetuated in the classroom. Belle Hood and M. Scott Peck, are right. Love must be a part of the classroom culture, that there is a human intimacy in great teaching, that we really can’t teach those whom we don’t love, and that those who don’t feel loved can’t really learn from us.

Love in the classroom is about seeing the sacredness in each student. It’s about helping each student help her/himself lead her/himself to her/himself as a way of becoming whoever she or he is capable of becoming. It's about fondness, tenderness, caring, respect, sensitivity, trust, awareness, courtesy, compassion. Without these qualities, without these essentials of behaviors, education is empty despite the vastness of knowledge, the brilliance of the delivery, and the most impressive of resumes. But, I tell you, without love there is loneliness, aloneness, complacency, a lack of fulfillment, the absence of passion, a loss of energy, a brittleness, a resignation, a purposelessness, and ultimately burnout.

Someone once asked me what my inner journey meant professionally. I guess the answer is to create in the classroom what the ancient Greeks would call agape and the Christian theologians would call caritas. Want to empower students, let them learn through the lens of love. Love makes the world go round; it must no less be so for the classroom. Maybe, then, we all ought to read Horton Hears A Who and have the words that define Horton’s big-hearted determination and spirit pass across our minds like a text message: “a person is a person, no matter how small.” Then, again, there’s no maybe’s about it! For when we have the attitude towards each student as Horton had toward each Who, we’ll teach for human majesty and not just for that jargonized goal of “subject mastery.”

I’ve got lots more to say, but enough for now.

         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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