Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Tue, 10 Aug 1993

Whew! I just came in from my power walk. The dog days are upon us down here in south Georgia barking loudly as ever. The humidity was so thick I could have sworn I was wading through the Okeefenokee swamp. But, at 4:45 a.m. it is so quiet on the darkened street, as they say, you can hear yourself thinking. I was still thinking about climbing that cliff and what it took to climb it, just to make the attempt to climb it. I will say without embarrassment that it was for me a spiritual experience, a moment I came in contact with myself and saw my potential as I never saw it before. I have a piece of my safety rope hanging on the wall in my study. A day does not go by that I don't look at that rope and think about that experience, think about the self-confidence it instilled in me to have the courage to face the personal, professional, and communal challenges that were to follow. It made me realize once again that the will to achieve is impossible without the courage to fail, that there is value in the effort if it is seen in a positive and learning light. That was the lesson of what my wife and I call, "The Climb." The issue was not successfully facing up to the cliff; it was facing myself. It was not the mastery of the cliff; it was overcoming myself. But, I didn't do it alone. I could not have done it alone.

So, this morning I was thinking of Curry, our guide. And suddenly I found a solution to a problem I have had for several weeks. A colleague had said, "Professors are not teachers, they are guides to learning." I remained silent as I struggled unsuccessfully to find a way to answer that statement meaningfully. Now, I think I've found the way. So, I'd like to tell you briefly about Curry.

I met Curry at the lodge the night before our climb. As our group discussed the next day's event, my legs became jelly. "What climb?" I asked myself silently in a panic. "I thought we were going hiking or canoeing or communing with nature." The rest of my body parts weren't feeling too good either at that bit of good news. After all, I was the "professor" in the group. I had an image to maintain, as if my Ph.D. made me into something apart from the others. All night I wrestled with disturbing questions that I preferred not to address: did I want to find out, really find out, about myself; did Ph.D. really mean "piled higher and deeper"; could I tolerate possible public failure; did I want to discover what others thought about me, really thought about me. I felt like a student in a classroom suddenly asked a question by the lord high master behind the lectern. Curry came over and talked with some of us, as he must have done many times with others. The others drifted off, but he and I talked quietly about things into the wee, wee hours of the morning. He talked assuringly about himself, a lot about himself, his love of the outdoors, occasionally and in passing, mentioning his climbing experience, his enthrallment with Indian folklore, and about his outlook on "things." I talked about myself, a lot about myself, my love of teaching, my fear for my youngest son's future, and my outlook on "things." We never talked specifically about the climb. But, in that short time, as I now look back, I felt a kinship forming, a bond of trust, a mutual commitment that I would be there to give it my all and he would be there to give it his all and together we would make that climb.

It was dawn. He quietly invited me to join him in an Indian cleansing ritual for wiping out all the "evil spirits" of fear and doubt before going off on a hunt. The air was still and crisp. It was about 35 degrees outside that early morning. And there we were, stripped down butt-naked, sitting on the banks of the mountain creek that flowed about 50 feet down the mountainside from the lodge. We talked a bit. Then, Curry and I stood up, arms out reaching to the sky, chanting an Indian incantation. Curiously, I did not feel cold. We then slowly immersed ourselves in the freezing waters and washed our bodies with oak leaves. I could have sworn I felt the cold waters entering my veins and purifying my blood. After a few minutes we emerged, sat on the banks, dripping wet and talked. He talked about the inner him and Indian warriors going out on a dangerous hunt; I talked about the inner me. We never mentioned the climb. I have never felt as clean and pure as I did then. Every nerve fiber was tingling with sensation. My thoughts were crystal clear. Putting on my clothes seemed to stain my soul, hurt my skin. My wife later told me that she and a few others had been watching our return to the lodge. She had never seen me look as I did in the 25 years of our loving relationship, that I came into the lodge with an emotional glow that had overwhelmed my intellectual posturing.

As we all walked up the mountain, my fears started returning. We practiced the technique of climbing on a huge, slanted rock slab. I kept sliding off. I screamed, "I'm going to die today!" We reached the face of the cliff by way of what seemed a very narrow path cut out from the steep mountainside. When we reached the ledge at the base of the cliff, I immediately starting pacing back and forth, back and forth in quiet anxiety. When it came my turn to climb, I looked up from the bottom of the cliff and saw Curry on the upper ledge belaying the safety rope on the most difficult and sheerest of the three routes up the cliff. I remembered, realized, knew, and climbed. The climb for me was an indescribable experience. As I climbed, I felt myself entering the rock. I felt myself becoming one with the cliff as I had become one with the creek. When I reached the top, I felt myself literally emerging from the rock. Overcome by an exhilaration which to this day, almost three years later, remains as vivid, and upon which I constantly draw, I turned to Curry and blurted, "WE did it! And then, a bit subdued, said in acknowledging gratitude, "You're not a guide, you're a teacher." Never turning to look at me as he prepared to help the next climber, he quietly replied, "What's the difference?" a faint smile of accomplishment betraying his matter-of-fact manner. There is none.

And that is my response to my colleague's implication that a "professor" is something far above and something better than not only a "teacher." His kind of guide is little more than an aloof tour group leader mouthing some memorized script, moving along a prescribed path from tourist attraction to tourist attraction just to keep on schedule, oblivious to whether the people in the group behind him are listening or understand, demeaning them if they don't follow at his pace. No, a professor or teacher or guide or whatever term you want to use should be far more interested in the persons the students will be after they attempt to climb their mountains than in the climb itself. The professor, however, can't help the students climb their mountain, can't show them how to climb, unless he/she climbs it along with the students. That kind of effort is far more personally rewarding than being a distant and uninvolved tour guide, for as you help that student climb, you will get closer to the top yourself.

Make it a good day.


Louis Schmier  (912-333-5947)
Department of History                      /~\    /\ /\
Valdosta State University          /^\    /   \  /  /~ \     /~\__/\
Valdosta, Georgia 31698           /   \__/     \/  /     /\ /~      \
                            /\/\-/ /^\___\______\_______/__/_______/^\
                          -_~     /  "If you want to climb mountains, \ /^\
                             _ _ /      don't practice on mole hills" -\____

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