Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.
Mon, 22 Nov 1993
It has been a while, over three weeks I think, since I last glided through the quiet, early morning streets. A knee wrenched by stumbling over a raised crack in the asphalt saw to that. It is amazing how quickly you lose it if you don't keep up the walking. This morning I wasn't consciously thinking at first about anything much except the ache in my legs, the searing heaves in my lungs, and what seemed like the very real possibility of a heart seizure. If anything, I was wondering why I couldn't quietly accept the slowing physical momentum of age instead of putting myself through such torture. Then, about half way through the route my mind began to play its games, probably from pain induced delirium. In the midst of the surrounding darkness, I caught sight of the moon and I suddenly started thinking about "the brightest." It may seem odd to think about brightest in the midst of darkness. But, the gray of dawn had begun to make its faint appearance on the horizon and I began to wonder about its relationship to the receding darkness. The dark sky, I thought, was merely a present, but not necessarily a permanent, state of affairs. It seems to say little about the coming of the dawn that can herald an unknown future brightness.
I guess I really had something on my mind. It was the matter of the "brightest students" and the supposed "not-so-bright". I have to admit that when it comes to the issue of those people who elevate and brag about "bright students" and the so often ignored and supposedly embarrassing "not so bright," I cannot be coldly objective. About such matters I do not wish to be abstractly intellectual. I will not be scientifically theoretical, and I do not wish to idealistically philosophical. I cannot be detached. Education is a human issue. It's about human life, human hopes, human dreams, human futures. At least, for me, there is nothing impersonal, detached, abstract, theoretical, or cold about issues dealing with real people. We can fool ourselves into believing that our job is just to teach a subject. But, the truth is that no action by a teacher is impersonal, no attitude is detached. Like it or not, by gesture or word or glance, by display of concern or disinterest or disdain, by inclusion or exclusion, we touch students' lives. We open or close minds and hearts and souls to what's out there. We foster or shatter dreams. So, I admit that I can't be impersonal.
I was reminded of that reality in a self-evaluation a student wrote last week before I left for a conference on teaching college freshmen in Washington, D.C. It posed an agonizing topic that tugged at me all weekend. After my walk I went back to re-read it. My heart ached no less than when I first read it. It glassed my eyes with sorrow and anger. "I know you believe in me," she agonized as she explained why she felt she had not reached her academic and personal goals for the week. "You support me and encourage me. But it is so hard. No teacher but you has ever cared about me. I have been told so many times with so many words and so many gestures by so many teachers and by so many other people that I am mediocre or worse. I want to believe you. I am so afraid to believe you. I am afraid to find out who is lying to me, if I am what they say or any better than what they say." No, I can't be impersonal.
If that entry weren't enough, that passage stirred memories, excruciating memories, of my ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) son being thrown about by the winds of an uncaring educational system. Those words also stirred memories of an event that had occurred a few years ago as I was climbing my own cliff.
It was the beginning of the school year. A teacher from an elementary school in a nearby county called me. She wanted me to come and talk to several classes of fifth and sixth graders about old photographs that I had been collecting for my photo-history of Lowndes County and Valdosta. I initially balked at the suggestion. Though I've coached tee-bat baseball with this age group, I had no training in dealing with them in a formal classroom situation. To this day, I vividly remember her reply to my hesitation.
"Oh, it won't be any trouble," she blandly assured me. "They're only first and second level students. They probably don't even know what a camera is all about. Some can hardly read. All you have to do is show them a few pictures and say a few words about each. They get bored quickly and start getting unruly. You shouldn't have to take more than about ten or fifteen minutes of your valuable time and then you can go."
Her tone of voice was so matter-of-fact, so ho-hum, so resigned, so unexciting, so uncaring, so demeaning. It really annoyed me. The more I thought of that telephone call, the more upset I got. Here were children who needed encouragement and support the most, who needed caring attention the most, who needed to be told by word and deed that they mattered. Yet, I got the feeling they were getting the least, that they were being tagged, sold down the river by teachers who felt there was little prestige in teaching at that level, teachers who felt the second they first set foot in that classroom that the students were beyond learning and weren't worth the effort.
I decided I wasn't going to that school and go through the motions to give the teachers some relief time. Those kids weren't going to be just another line in the "Community Service" section of my annual self-evaluation. Those kids deserved more than they were getting. I thought and thought and thought. After a while, I got an idea.
The teacher and her two colleagues were somewhat surprised when I walked into the library room totting all sorts of paraphernalia: camera, camera bag, copy stand, lights, and original photographs. The students were all quiet and orderly, their hands folded on the tops of the desks, blank looks on their faces. The teachers were "shhhhhing" and whispering to remind them not to move. As I laid my equipment out on the table, I noticed one young man in the back of the room stretching to see what I was doing. I invited him up to the table.
"Oh, no," one teacher exclaimed. "They'll all want to some up."
"That's ok. That's what I'm here for," I replied, and, as if I were playing THE PRICE IS RIGHT, enthusiastically invited the students "to come on down," and look close hand. They rushed up, giving out little screeches of excitement and noisily shoving chairs aside. I could see one teacher annoyed at my disruptive influence on his class discipline, or should it be called crowd control.
One curious youngster immediately picked up the camera.
"Don't touch Dr. Schmier's camera," one frowning teacher lunged forward as she sternly warned with a threat. "It's very expensive and if you break it you'll have to pay for it."
She scared the hell out of me! I could see the brief glimmer of interest and curiosity in the student's eyes disappear as she quickly, with fear and disappointment screaming out from her facial expression, placed it back on the table as if were a proverbial hot potato.
"It's OK," I softly said. I picked the camera up and handed it to her. "You'll be careful." The little girl smiled; her eyes beamed, as I put the camera strap around her neck, and she carefully began caressing the camera and looking at it from all angles, showing off to the others who crowded around her.
"Now," I announced, "how many of you would like to copy one of these pictures for my book?"
Their hands excitedly shot up.
"But," I warned with an impish, but encouraging, smile on my face, with a deliberate, confident tone in my voice, "you're going to have to do all the work."
The children poured over the equipment like ants at a picnic. I could see the nervousness on the faces and in the movements of the teachers. With lots of encouragement, a nudge here, a demonstration here, a suggestion there, a question now and then, these students figured out how to copy a photograph. With a minimum of guidance from me, they opened the camera, loaded the film, mounted the camera on the copy stand, turned on the lights and directed them, placed the photograph on the stand, and even focused the lens, and took a picture. It took time, more than ten or fifteen minutes. It took the entire period. Out of the corner of my eyes, I noticed the teachers were periodically checking their watches. I didn't care. I looked at one straight in the eyes and quietly, but noticeably, shook my head in less than subtle admonishment, and moved my lips in silent murmur as I telepathed like a Betazoid (that's Star Trek talk), "How can you be bored? Look at those kids. Notice them. There's electricity in this room. How sad for you." It was exciting to watch the facial contortions of determination, reasoning, decision, concentration, curiosity; to listen to the cacophony of squeaking "what's this for," "what's that," "silly, do this," "let me show you," and "this is how it goes." "no, it doesn't." "yes, it does," "see!"
To the surprise of the students themselves, they did it! And when all was said and done, they had such a sense of pride in what they had accomplished. As I hugged some of them and clapped in praise of their achievement, their eyes shone, their lips smiled, their faces beamed. In sad reflection of their attitude, all the teachers could do was to stand quietly. It was almost as if they resented the students' achievement because it was proof of their less than committed devotion to their craft. No, I can't be impersonal.
These students, the student in my class, my son, have been marked absent from classes. The teachers assumed there was something wrong with them because test scores or grades say that they are "ones you can't do anything with," or the "ones who just aren't smart," or the "ones who won't ever pay attention", or the "ones who......." These students are not dumb. They are not without potential. They have gifts and talents to be nurtured. They are just caught in and thrown about by a smart-dumb, socially segregating game. They are not without feelings. They are made even more marginal in these classes which reinforce the notion that their place in society is inferior. They are caught in a conspiracy of low expectations. They are being educated to be invisible, to be life's failures. They are placed among the "outs": sorted out, weeded out, cast out, left out. They have been told in subtle and not so subtle ways that they don't have much of a chance to make anything of themselves; that nobody needs them, nobody wants them, nobody cares about them. Shovels, mops, dust rags, dishes, and fast-food spatulas are the only images in their crystal balls. Yet, it has been my experience both as an educator and as a parent of a bright, but almost discarded ADD son, that learning occurs, not just when someone sees how it materially benefits him or her, but when that person realizes he or she can learn and when he or she believes they can learn.
I am not loyal to an educational structure that is dedicated to academic selection, personal exclusion, and intellectual elitism. I have a deep, emotional, unswerving commitment to an educational structure that affirms the right of each student to succeed, to an institution of inclusion dedicated to the principle of individual and personal cultivation and reclamation, to an educational approach that provides standards of opportunity no less than academic standards, that believes there is more to education than academic achievement, that is convinced it's not what you can't do, but what you can do that counts.
By the way, the photograph those students took did appear in my book. No, I can't be impersonal.
Make it a good day. --Louis-- Louis Schmier (912-333-5947) firstname.lastname@example.org Department of History /~\ /\ /\ Valdosta State University /^\ / \ / /~ \ /~\__/\ Valdosta, Georgia 31698 / \__/ \/ / /\ /~ \ /\/\-/ /^\___\______\_______/__/_______/^\ -_~ / "If you want to climb mountains, \ /^\ _ _ / don't practice on mole hills" -\____