Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Sat, 23 Apr 1994

Well, it's Saturday. What a fabulous walk today. It was over before it started. Though it is a "cold" 56 degrees and the air was clammy because of yesterday's rain, nothing could chill or dampen my spirits. I have been on a high all week because of Julissa. I haven't been able to stop thinking about her. I want to share with you in celebration of her success at facing and successfully meeting a personal challenge, the appearance of joy in her heart, a growing confidence in herself, an increase in her performance, and my pride for her. Julissa was one of those students who come on our campus thinking they're not bright, who find the path difficult, who become unnecessarily discouraged, who come into class believing that they're destined for lesser things, and who play out that constricting role. If those same students, however, are encouraged to face and overcome difficult challenges, to see the potential that lies within each of them, they can become confident, productive and fulfilled people. They can become filled with that awe and wonder. Julissa started on that road.

I suppose the story starts with my apology to the class a week ago Friday. I had received an inkling of how some students felt as I handed out the quiz and roamed about the room for the rest of the class time. James had said to me as I passed by, "Nice going Doc. That was really smooth." Bill had stopped his argument over an answer to a question long enough to catch my arm with his hand, press it, and say, "I really appreciate what you did." Karrie, with a surprised admiration in her face whispered as I passed by, "that was something else." There was a glance here and a smile there, a slight nod, a thumbs up. And finally, Eleanor came up to me at the end of the class and said, "You've earned yourself a tootsie pop."

The students handed in their journals on Wednesday. About 45 of the 60 students had written something about that day. Here's a sampling:

"That was pretty cool...I was pretty leery about this triad stuff, but now I'm going give it a chance. No, I'm going to do more than that."

"What Doc did to own up to a mistake was neat. Maybe that will give me help to do better in class."

"Wish other profs had the same amount of guts. Maybe I can find the same stuff inside me."

"Boy, is the grapevine ever wrong. No son of bitch of a professor who didn't care for students would have done something like he did."

"Dr. Schmier apologized for accidently poor-mouthing a student on the first day of class. Interesting. That was more than show."

"I know I should say something more than "Wow," but that's all I can think of right now. Now, I am going to try to wow him like he did to me."

"Hell, I'll work my ass off for that guy now except I know if I tell him that he'll say I should work it off for me."

"Talk about a lesson in eating humble pie. Who would have thought a prof had it in him. Their (sic) never able to admit to anything except that they're right."

"That'll be one I'll long remember. I bet I'll never see another teacher do that."

"Dr. Schmier apologized in front of the class. He didn't have to do that. No one forced him. He just wanted to. I'm really impressed. I told my folks about it. They were surprised. I told them that I'm going to give it everything I've got in this class."

"I was really surprised. It proved to me that he really cares about us. I now know he wants me to care about me enough to make the effort to do my best."

"I wish more professors were as personable and caring. I truly admire what he did today. He showed tremendous respect for us." "To have that kind of trust in us students, no other professor or teacher has ever shown me that he thinks I am worth that much. I don't' think I can let him down now."

"I was really moved. Now I am going to start moving myself."

"I guess I owe it to myself to be just as dedicated and give 110% to this class and myself as he does to himself and to us."

"I really respect the Doc for what he did."

"Today the prof apologized for saying some remarks to students. That was real big of him. Most teachers I've had are so small." "Most teachers won't admit when they are wrong. I didn't think until today that anyone of them knew that the word existed much less what the word meant. Dr. Schmier does."

"That was the most sensitive and kind thing I have ever seen a professor do. It makes me feel I can trust him."

"Damn, he's for real."

"He puts his heart where his mouth is. Now it's my turn."

"I'm going to buy him a bag of tootsie pops before this quarter is over."

"I didn't know professors had a conscience. Well, Dr. Schmier sure as hell does. He's got heart. I wonder if he really is a student disguised as a professor."

"Personally, I think he is quite brave and very admirable. If he can do that, maybe I can face my fear of talking in class like Julissa did."

"The doc gave Julissa courage by showing his."

As I read those journal entries I remembered something a friend, a philosopher at the University of Alabama--Birmingham, once told me and often said by my wife. They both say that Eric Segal was wrong. Love is often having to say you are sorry, and meaning it. I had thought that saying you are sorry to students would be just as easy as it is for me to say to my wife and children. I was wrong. It still is not as easy as it should be. As I look back, the need for the apology in class was obvious; and I thought the apology would not have been that big a deal for me. I guess I still have a ways to go before I am able to see easily what has to be done. He reminded me that for me it is still not easy to make saying I am sorry easy to do, and that it is still not easy to easily pursue truth, goodness, and beauty, and to share publicly that pursuit with others aside from my wife and children without fear or embarrassment. I think it is important for students, and for professors or anyone else for that matter, in the midst of forming themselves, as we all are, to see that struggle in themselves so they can embrace it in themselves, instead of ignoring or dismissing it.

It was important for Julissa. Julissa is an exchange student from Honduras. She is a conscientious student. But, until Monday, she was quiet. She never talked during the discussions. She always had a look of insecurity. She seldom contributed to the triad during the quizzes. I almost got the sense she wanted to contribute, but was afraid to try. She reminded me of one of those students who would prefer to hide in the back of the classroom. But, I noticed that she always came to class prepared. She had done her share of the chapter write-ups, her share of the outside reading assignments. As I roamed about, I noticed the highlighting in her textbook. I knew she had at least read the material. Once, I called upon her during a discussion. She became momentarily paralyzed. She stammered to say something, but nothing came out. A look of fright overcame her face as her lips tightened, her eyes bulged open, and the muscles in her neck became taut. There was look of disappointment with herself.

Monday, just before I entered class, Julissa stopped me. I had just turned on the boom box. It was very softly playing "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" from the soundtrack to BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY. The meat of our conversation went something like this:

"Dr. Schmier, can I talk with you for just a second?" she asked with great concern.

"Sure, what's up?" I answered.

"I have a great problem," she said with nervous hesitation. "I was afraid to come to you before because I thought you would think I was dumb, but not after what you did Friday."

"Why don't you tell me about it," I answered.

"I'm from Honduras," she explained. "I only finished with my English lessons last year. I don't speak English so well. It is hard for me to read the book. It is slow. I sometimes read it two or three times. I use a dictionary a lot. I don't understand everything."

"Neither do I or any one else in the class. Maybe you should ask questions in class, or least ask the others in your triad for help. If you want, I'll answer your questions outside class. We'll get together and I'll give you some tips on how to study."

"I would like that, but I am afraid to speak up in class because of my poor English."

"Your English sounds fine to me," I softly and assuringly replied. "But, you won't learn to speak better unless you practice it. Start with talking about things with Jason and Flynn."

"But, I get embarrassed. I'm not very good with English."

"You got up and sang on the first day of class, didn't you?" I reminded her.


"Well, nothing can be more embarrassing than that in this class. And you did it. What does that tell you about you. Once you did that, what else could be more embarrassing? Be honest with yourself, what's really troubling you?"

She hesitated and then said reluctantly, "I am afraid I am not good enough. I am afraid I will make a mistake and say the wrong word and the others will think I am stupid. I don't know what to do. When we talked about women, I wanted so much to say something about how women are treated in Honduras. But, I was so afraid. I couldn't. The same thing happened when we were talking about the Indians and slaves in Latin America. I so much wanted to say something, but I was so afraid."

"You had a lot to contribute to the class and you could have taught the others. But, until you stop worrying about what others will think about you, you're just like the colonial slaves. You have to trust yourself and trust the others. Believe in yourself. You have the ability, but it's not important that I believe it. You must believe it. Take the risk. Raise you hand and speak, or don't wait and just blurt out what you want to say. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. And, you can help the others by sharing your experiences."

"But what if I say something silly?"

"You know that, at least in this class, there is no such thing."

"I have another professor who makes fun of people who ask questions or say the wrong things."

"I'm not that professor. I guess you have to trust me, too. Has anyone been made fun of in this class for attempting to improve him or herself?"


"Have we ridiculed anyone when they made a mistake?"


"When Chris told me that he stuttered, what did I do?"

"After Chris said it was alright, you told the class and asked them to understand and help him. But, what if I look stupid?"

"To whom? It's not what you say that is important right now. It's that you make the effort, that you meet the challenge and see for yourself how able you are."

"What should I do?"

"What do you really want this class to be for you"

"I want it to help me learn to do my best and be a good person."

"Then let it. Do you believe in yourself?"

"Yes. I think."

"Then act on your belief. Remember what I always say, 'You can't learn how to climb mountains as long as you practice on mole hills.' This is your first attempt at the mountain. I can't tell you what to do. I am me and I know what I would do. I can't tell you to be me. I can help you to climb. I can show you how to climb. I can even tell you that you have the ability to climb. But, you have to decide whether to climb."

"What should I do?"

"I think you know the answer. That's why you wanted to talk with me. You just wanted me to reassure you. Well, I am. You can do it."

And decide she did. We went into class. I turned up the boom box. As I was seeing who was in class, I saw Julissa talking with the other members of her triad. They were making shoving motions. I then asked the class, "Ok, chapter 3 today. What are the issues you want to bring up?" A few hands went up just as Julissa hesitantly rose from her chair and asked, "Dr. Schmier can I talk to the class?" I gave her the floor. "She's going to do what I hoped against hope she would decide on her own to do." I thought to myself. I felt a sudden rush of excitement. Flynn pressed her arm in an act of encouraging faith. As Jason looked with great support and admiration in his eyes, Julissa continued, "I am very nervous. I am not sure I can do this." She stopped and looked at me. I didn't say a word. I just made an encouraging nod. But, I was screaming in silence, "go, go, go!" Taking a deep breath, she straightened up and went on, "But, I think if Dr. Schmier could say Friday that he is sorry for something he said to the entire class, I think I can stand up and ask for you to understand me. I am Julissa and I am from Honduras and I only finished my English training last year. I am not sure about my English. I need your help. I want to talk with you in class and learn from all of you, but I will make mistakes with the words. I need you to correct me if I do and to tell me the right words." Then, with a smile beaming from ear to ear, she ended, "I feel good and I will talk more in class now. I promise." She sat down to the applause and whistles of the class. A few stood up as they clapped. I even heard a "bravo." The other members of her triad grabbed and hugged her. She had such a feeling of relief and self-satisfaction. I was on the side of the room. I felt a lump in my throat thinking what courage she had just displayed. She looked in my direction. I nodded my head approvingly, smiled admiringly, raised my right arm and made a fist as an expression of my pride in her. I said, "Julissa, that was a true act of courage that set an example for all of us. We'll all be here if you need us." From various parts of the class came a supporting "You bet," "Show us what you got, Julissa," "We'll help," and "We need you."

During the discussion on slavery in colonial America that followed, a student asked why didn't the slaves just get up and revolt. Julissa hesitantly raised her hand. With anxiety written all over her face, she answered the question with one phrase, "didn't believe in themselves." That was great. The ice was broken and the river flowed. You could see a nourishing sense of satisfaction flooding into every cell of her body. A few minutes later, as the discussion continued, she raised her hand and spoke a sentence. A few minutes after that, she asked a question. I said to myself, "Julissa, today, this is your class." By the end of the class, Julissa was taking a position and making a lengthy statement. I was so proud for Julissa. As she left the class, she turned to me and said, "Thank you." I replied, "No, thank you."

Each day this past week, she came into class a bit stronger, a bit more relaxed. Her face had more of a soft glow where once there was a pallor of fear. Her lips curled upward with a smile more often where once they continually dipped with a frown. Her confidence grew stronger each day as her inhibition grew weaker. She participated in the class discussion every day. On Wednesday and Thursday, I watched her take an active role, a leadership role, in developing a triad symbol, motto, and name that is part of an in-quarter bonding exercise I have instituted.

I marvel at how deeply inhibited most students are. I ask them to show their true selves to others in a variety of ways. This is tough for most of them because they've been told that if they don't excel in everything, they are nothing; if they don't conform to someone else's ideal, they're not ideal. Here was an instance when I witnessed the awesome power of humility. Once Julissa confronted and overcame her groundless fear, trusted herself, trusted the other members of the class, she started to learn to appreciate herself and her own uniqueness, and she started to truly learn.

I think in one respect the classroom is a microcosm of life. We all have choices of being productive in a stressful situation or laying back and watching life go by. I don't think anxiety in the classroom comes from what professors do or don't do, or from what students do or don't do. It comes from how we each react to what we and the others do. I think the classroom is a stressful place not because it is a stressful place, but because the support system seldom exists wherein everyone is concerned for and cares about everyone else, wherein everyone assumes the responsibility for the success of each other.

The essence of teaching is in making the visceral connection with the student. The challenge is, then, to make teaching so powerful, so dynamic, so passionate, so alluring, so purposeful that it touches the student's emotions. For my part, at my son's school I learned that if I am to make a serious commitment to the students, I must make a serious commitment to the truth, to recognize the value of being honest with myself, of being honest with them, of sharing my strengths and weaknesses, my visions and emotions, and surrendering the images of myself and of them that keep both me and them from being genuine.

I was reminded by a conscientious high school teacher that in our conservation conscious society, we discuss ways to cut down on our energy usage. The electric and gas companies have come out to my house, taken an energy inventory, and have offered me cash incentives to become "energy wise." Their motto is "more efficient, costs less." That may be true for using our fossil fuel resources. It is not applicable to the utilization of our human resources. Human growth is not energy efficient. Nor can the assistance in this growth be energy wise. In terms of an energy investment by both the student and professor, it is so expensive. But, in the long run it makes for both good sense and good cents.

In her journal, Julissa wrote, "Everything I did I owe to my professor." She's wrong. She owes it to herself, to believing in herself, to trusting herself and her classmates, to wanting to develop the character necessary to bring out her potential, and doing whatever it took to start striving for that goal. I am so proud for her. If I must evaluate Julissa and give her a grade, as I must, I will measure her and the other students more by the number of challenges they confront and struggle to overcome than by the grade on their assignments and tests.

On Tuesday, I gave Julissa the highest grade at my disposal as both acknowledgement and encouragement. At the beginning of class, I approached her, kneeled next to her chair, and quietly said, "This is for you for being so courageous in meeting your challenge." Her eyes lit up with a confident pride and joy that I do not expect will disappear. I quietly handed her an orange tootsie pop.

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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