Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.
Sat, 24 Dec 1994
It was an interesting walk this frosty, misty morning. At 5:00 a.m., the comforting, quiet solitude in the dark, icy, crystal clear air was broken only by the muffled crunch of pine needles and the harsh grinding of fallen acorns under each of my steps. As I sledded over six-miles of slippery pine needles that blanketed the darkened streets like brown string and darted between the myriad of huge pine cones that lay along the route like obstructing boulders, I thought about Susan. A day hasn't gone by that I haven't thought about her. She really has gotten to me. Because of her, I see more clearly than ever that teaching is a verb, not a noun; that teaching is being, not merely doing; that teaching should be filling, not draining. Because of her, I hear a little more, laugh a little more, smile a little more, and try a little more. I have been reviewing the students' journals this past week a little slower, a little more closer, and with a little more reflection. I have been revising my syllabi with greater care, more sensitivity, and a deeper awareness. She has made me greedier than ever. I want more real moments like that. I like that feeling of sharing, fulfillment, and accomplishment. I tell you that there's nothing like it. It's like experiencing spiritual ecstasy. I want to hold on to that warm glow, and I don't want it to be a rare occasion.
Students like Susan are what Walt Whitman was talking about in his SONG OF MYSELF when he wrote some of my favorite lines: "Every kind for itself and its own....a leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of the stars, and the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren, and the tree-toad is a chef-d'oeuvre for the highest."
Thinking about Susan set off a flooding mental chain reaction of images and memories. With the reposing signs of the early south Georgia winter all around, I found myself swamped by warm summery thoughts about my garden. There were too many to talk about at one time. So, I'd like to talk first about dandelions of all things, and about an incident that occurred on my front lawn late last summer.
I had been mowing the grass as nonchalantly as I could be. It is the least favorite of my hobby. To take my mind off this uncreative and dull activity, I was looking around at the colorful array of my garden and admiring the fruits of my hard- earned labors. Then, lo and behold before me challengingly pranced in my manicured lawn, a vegetative pest--a lonely dandelion. Angrily, I turned off the mower. I whipped out my ever-present weed puller from my back pocket with the smooth speed of a gunslinger, stomped towards this invasive disfigurement of the serene beauty of MY lawn, dropped to my knees, and vengefully stabbed the ground in front of the dandelion with the puller. Just as I was readying with triumphant finality to pluck out this marring plant, a neighbor drove up, stopped, and commented something to the effect, "It's hard work keeping your garden looking neat the way you want it. I always admire your garden when I drive by. Everything is so beautiful and in its proper place." I stopped snarling, put on a smile, got up, and walked over to the car. We briefly chatted. As she drove off, I turned to complete my task. As I approached the vulnerable dandelion, I hesitated.
As I turned back to attack that weed, my neighbor's words,"the way you want it" and "in its proper place," made me hesitate. I now noticed more the majesty of the dandelion's silky geodesic dome than its disruption in my smooth green carpet of creeping fescue grass. I think her words had hit a sensitive nerve. It was the end of the summer term and I had gone out into my yard as a respite from struggling to assign individual grades to a video tape the entire class had decided to do as the final exam. I had been awed by the courage of their collective decision to scrap my final exam questions and devise a question they thought was more appropriate, dazzled by the cooperation displayed among the triads, surprised by the trust that most of the students had demonstrated in each other, impressed with the creativity and ability that went into making such a substantive project. At the last moment, the students of this class with whom I seemed not to be making contact, had in their own way, at their own time, unexpectedly and wonderfully blossomed into a magnificent bouquet.
With this on my mind, I laid my weed-puller gently on the grass, sat cross-legged next to the dandelion, and started talking to it. Resting my chin in the cup of my hands, I stared, and whispered to it, "Who are you, really?" I always talk to my plants, but this was the first time I've talked with a weed. To so many people, that cut-and-dry ruination of their agricultural endeavors isn't worth the effort. BUT, then I thought, what if I took that unsightly weed of a dandelion and planted it in the meridian of a super highway. It would become an essential part of a beautification program. And I thought more: take that ugly weed, plant it in a forest meadow, and it becomes a magnificent wild flower; take that loathsome plant, place it in the hands of a child, and it becomes a pretty, delicate, poetic "love-me-not" plaything; take that lowly weed, give it to a vintner, and it becomes a delicious source of wine; take that useless weed, place it in a shaman's pouch, and its root becomes a medicine for gastric ailments; take that nasty weed, give to a chef, and its stem, leaves, and flower head become mouth-watering parts of a salad; take that worthless dandelion, put it in Walt Whitman's hands and it becomes a glory of creation, a miracle, worthy of adorning "the parlors of heaven."
I looked around at my garden with its flurry of color, variety of sizes and shapes, mixture of smells, assortment of grasses, flowers, bushes, trees. Each plant has a name; each has its needs. And I said to myself, and now to you, are my spiny cacti less than my thorny roses; are my daisies worthier than this dandelion merely because one is planted where I wanted and the other is not? Are my hybrid daylilies with their name plates stuck in the ground more important than my nameless blue Stokesia? Are my tagged bearded Irises more beautiful than my untagged amaryllis?
So, I did what I felt I had to do. I got up, put the weed puller back into my pocket, started the mower, finished cutting the grass, and left the dandelion alone to garnish my lawn.
What does this have to do with education? Well, instead of gardening, read teaching; instead of garden, read classroom; instead of dandelion, read students. What do each of us see when and if we stop and look at that dandelion called a student?
I think the answer is more a reflection of us, of our priorities, our expectations, and our perceptions. I think the answer is more a reflection of our private world of meaning conceived out of our personal experiences, self-awareness, and personality. I think the answer is more a projection of our personal thoughts, attitudes, emotions and needs than it is a proper description of the student.
Unless we stop and look at the dandelions as something other than annoying weeds we'll ignore their grandeur, and unless we see and feel in ways so varied and so full of changeable meanings about our students, we'll miss the Susans. We have to learn to see that all individual students, like all individual plants of different species, are all beautiful. They each have a right to grow into whatever it is they are capable of becoming, and I am responsible to be nothing less than a nourishing, caring teacher as I am a gardener for each and every one of them. I mean what kind of gardener withholds tenderness and yells at any plant before it has a chance to grow, "You will not bloom!" Should we as teachers, then, presume that the whole of the personas of the Susans coming into our classrooms rests in the ability or otherwise to write and speak and pass tests and get grades, and scream at them before they have an opportunity to broaden their horizons, "You will not grow?" That would be a shame for them as well as for us. I know now that every time I see a dandelion I will think of the students and myself; and whenever I see a student I will think of the dandelion and yourself. And I will ask, "Who are you really?"
Make it a good day. --Louis-- Louis Schmier (912-333-5947) email@example.com Department of History /~\ /\ /\ Valdosta State University /^\ / \ / /~ \ /~\__/\ Valdosta, Georgia 31698 / \__/ \/ / /\ /~ \ /\/\-/ /^\___\______\_______/__/_______/^\ -_~ / "If you want to climb mountains, \ /^\ _ _ / don't practice on mole hills" -\____