Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.
Wed, 13 July 1994
The pre-dawn moments, when I power-walk in the streets--where each Random Thought originates--are precious to me. I have come to look forward to that little less than an hour it takes me to complete one of my six-mile routes. For me, an early riser, that wee hour of the coming day has become a time to watch and feel things beginning to move forward. I feel beautiful and fresh and good. After all, I haven't done anything yet; I haven't ruined anything, said anything wrong, made any mistakes, or done anything rotten.
I walk to feel alive, not just to live. Walking is my spiritual aerobics. I exercise as much to keep my soul in youthful shape as to keep my aging 53 year old body trim. It is my quiet time, my reflection time--what I call my "just to...." time. I think everyone should have their own "just to...." time and scenery. For me, it's a cleansing, creative, and nurturing time to reflect on the unknown adventures of the coming day and the lingerings of yesterday. I lose myself in a moving capsule of silence, to be alone with myself, to continue a never-ending inward journey in search of myself that I started three years ago, and, if I'm both courageous and lucky, to discover a bit more of my true self and about the mission of my craft. Those moments on the street are my time to float free, to drift with the currents of my spirit and emotions, unfettered by the cluttering flotsam of noise, movement, people, sights, or schedules. I just leave the tap to my spirit open, walk, and let whatever is in the pipelines spontaneously and honestly flow out.
So, here I am, with the first introductory Random Thought shortly after dawn, just off the streets of graying Valdosta, Georgia, after a walk--at home, sitting in front of the computer in my sweat-soaked grubbies, sipping a cup of freshly made coffee and letting my fingertips do their own walking on the keyboard as they translate into electronic bits the words and feelings that poured out while I was walking.
It was a warm 79 degrees and a drenching 72% humidity this morning. A tepid, light, steamy fog hung in the air. Everything looked muted in the faint, soft, early-dawn glow. Swarms of annoying gnats and clouds of attacking mosquitoes, bred by incessant afternoon storms, billowed along my route. A person doesn't just walk, but wades and swats and whiffs along this asphalt swamp. "Comfortable" and "weather" are not words used together during the summer month down here in south Georgia.
This sultry morning, early in my route, I was thinking. "How the hell did I get myself into this?" I asked myself in an almost castigating tone. "Here I am, almost--three years after I started withdrawing from the devouring publish-or-perish rat race to devote everything I had to teaching, struggling to write introductory Random Thoughts to a collection of reflections which I never had any intention of publishing." It was just then that I stumbled. As I walked on, it occurred to me that I had tripped over a branch that I had not caused to fall from the tree above, that at my age I still had sufficient reflexes and agility not to have fallen flat on my face, and that I continued walking along a route I had laid out on streets others had designed and built. I started thinking about how strange and twisting my life's route has been, how chance and karma and maybe destiny, as well as the thoughts and actions of other people, interplay with my inner self, with my strengths and weaknesses, with my talents and inabilities, with my determination and doubt, my courage and timidity, my loves and dislikes, to lead me through a little bit of comedy, a little bit of satire, a little bit of tragedy, a little bit of high adventure, and a little bit of drama.
As I look back on the slightly more than five decades of my life, and browse through its chapters, they seem to have closed and opened without my permission and without any conceivable plan. The words "unexpected," "unintentional," and "unforeseen" seem to have played prominent roles in almost all of them. Many were the times that I asked, as if someone were listening, "What if I hadn't done this?" or, "What would have happened if I hadn't gone here?" or, "Where would I be if I hadn't known so and so?" I sometimes almost get the feeling that someone is telling me to get my hands off my life, that its none of my damn business. I can't plan it or control it to make the "right" personal and career moves--those self-serving, easy, safe, and comfortable decisions--and still reach my full potential. I should just get out of the way, go with the flow, and get on with this wondrous, unnerving, mysterious trip. It's almost as if someone moves in on me every now and then at will, shouts "boo" in my face, and startles the hell out of me just as I am comfortably and safely settling in. It's like being told to get onto a bus and say to the driver, "Take me wherever you're going," and just sitting back and going for an adventurous ride to that somewhere called destiny or potential. Now, as I go back over my life's table of contents, I think that maybe the paths I walked were far less haphazard than they ostensibly look. Maybe everything was laid out to arrive at this particular chapter in my life when I take great pride in being told by a student named Barbara, "You're not a professor, you're a teacher."
That gets me thinking about a portion of a letter written to me eight months ago by Barbara whom you'll meet later in the book in a Random Thought entitled "Barbara." The letter is pinned to the bulletin board in my office. I've read those words so often that I've memorized them:
I want to be a teacher, and I want to try to teach like you. I want to know how did you become a professor? When did you change and become a teacher? And I've learned that there is a heck of a difference between a professor and a teacher. And I'd like to know about why you teach the way you do. I think most of what you do is because of who YOU (her emphasis) are. But who are YOU? I'd like to really know more about who YOU really are.
"But, who are YOU!" It's an uncomfortable question, a releasing question, a challenging question. I had been struggling to write these introductory comments for some time. I now realize why writing this part of the book is as comfortable as walking in the south Georgia summer weather. It is far more difficult than I thought it would be, because it is putting unexpected demands on my sense of self, testing my identity, and challenging my integrity. It reminds me that the lease on comfort is short. It is easy, and humbling, to forget how quickly you become nervous when you are unsure whether others will share your passions, understand your insights, accept your beliefs, and consider your teaching techniques.
But, I realize this morning that this introductory part of the book isn't the problem--it's me. It's not the external pressures I feel, but the internal ones. I've been subconsciously trying to write defensively, in case I was offensive, by separating myself from this writing, to distance it from me, to hide me, to protect me. I've felt threatened by me because I'm afraid of disappointing myself. I've been trying not to be me. I see now how that undertow for approval and acceptance apparently had been getting dangerous. I have been letting myself get too sensitive of the currents of possible response to my words. Of course, by "my words," I really mean "me." I have been unwittingly threatened with getting stuck in the quicksand of caution, ego, and image. But, my conscience won't let me do it.
So I've decided that I have to write more from me and less for you. Unless I take you on an honest, and uncomfortable, journey inside my being, where my personal and professional spirit--and the Random Thoughts--originate, these introductory words will be hollow, spiritless, and meaningless. So it is not about style, content, intent, or even about the Random Thoughts themselves that I now want to write. It is me about whom I want to talk. Because whatever the Random Thoughts are, as Barbara so astutely observed, I carry them inside of me every hour of every day, inside and outside class, on and off campus. They flow out from the depths of me. They are me.
The Random Thoughts were unexpectedly born out of personal trauma and family crisis that exploded into a spiritual and emotional nova of liberating self-reflection, self-examination, and spiritual revelation that ultimately was to shake me out of personal and professional stagnation. It occurred on a fateful October day in 1991, during a challenge session at The Family Learning Center at Hyde School in Bath, Maine. It forced--and continually forces me--to think about how I label myself, how that labeling affects how I perceive myself, how I expect myself to behave, how I label others, and how that labeling affects my attitudes toward others.
The path that led to Hyde was not a delightful stroll down the yellow brick road. From the fall of 1990 through the summer of 1991, everything in my life seemed to be coming apart. My wife was still wrestling with the recent death of her father after a decade- long struggle with cancer. She had gone back to school and was struggling to change the direction and meaning of her life. She was barely coping with a new job as a legal assistant to a leading lawyer. She was traumatized by the unexpected death of her younger sister during routine gall bladder surgery. She was worried about her mother who was having an almost impossible time dealing with the compressed succession of tragic loss. My older son, Michael, was experiencing a serious personal anxiety crisis while away at the University of North Carolina.
I was buckling mentally, emotionally, and physically under the weight of having to be the family's tower of strength. My scholarly and teaching activities were becoming less satisfying, less fulfilling, less meaningful, and I didn't know why. And finally, the eight year, daily, consuming struggle my wife and I fought over our then 14 year old son, Robby, was reaching a climax.
Robby has a condition called Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. It was not suspected until he was six years old. His condition, however, continued to be improperly diagnosed, improperly treated, improperly addressed, improperly understood, ignored, and/or denied. We watched and listened helplessly as so many professionals fumbled about. There were so many offices, so many experts, so many tests, so many quick cures, so many regimens, so much medication, so much counseling, so much advice, so many promises, so much desperation to believe, so many hopes, so many disappointments.
We watched and listened helplessly as this highly intelligent, compassionate, sensitive and vulnerable human being was stripped of his dignity, swept up, and thrown away like a broken branch by so many middle-school and high-school educational groundskeepers who were merely interested in maintaining the neatness of their manicured institutional landscape. We had to contend with so many teachers and administrators who were more concerned with weeding out than nurturing, more concerned with discipline and order in their classes than with his human growth, more concerned with their instruction than his learning, more concerned with their comfort and convenience than his struggle and hurt, more concerned with their control than his empowerment, more concerned with their pay stubs than the cost to his psyche, more concerned with their feelings than with his spirit.
In countless and fruitless meetings with teachers and administrators, we requested, pleaded, demanded, and confronted. We had to helplessly hear them tell us or whisper in his ear or publicly proclaim aloud in class or gossip to each other that he "needs better parents," "needs more of the paddle than his pills," that he was a loser destined to fail, wasn't worthy of their concern, had no right to achieve, had few prospects for achievement, should have little expectation for success, was someone no one could do anything with, and would likely wind up in the gutter.
He was shunned by the "better" students, made into a leprous outcast by so many teachers, shunted into meaningless "study management" classes, frequently hidden away in ISS (in school suspension session) cells, at times exiled from the campus, and always thrown into depressing isolation and loneliness. Those words, gestures, and actions were poisoned spears that were mortal blows to his spirit.
When he was bled white of all self-worth, and he said that he believed that his biggest mistake was being born, my wife and I cried uncontrollably.
These were the dark, struggling years during which Robby lost all self-esteem, trust in others, trust in himself, focus, meaning, purpose, direction, fight, dignity, and pride; when he just plain gave up on himself; when the grimaces and growls of resentment, frustration and anger replaced the childhood smiles; when the melancholy of resignation eclipsed all joy; when the sorrow of hurt, shame, and despair dulled the sparkle of laughter; when he slipped from enrichment classes, bounced down class levels, landed in some remedial classes, cut classes, flunked course after course after course, and failed an entire grade; when he got in with a bad crowd, became a "head-banger," costumed himself in long hair and leather jacket and motorcycle boots, challenged all authority, had trouble with the law, got into drinking and smoking and sex, roamed the streets late at night.
Everything was crashing down around us. There were no assuring voices, and there was no understanding and comforting presence, no rescuing guidance, no saving vision. We were at each other's throats and blaming each other. I have never felt such fear, pain, confusion, frustration, helplessness, and anxiety in my life. I couldn't get away from it; I couldn't make it go away. Nothing was able to satisfy me, to fulfill me, to make me happy.
But, I couldn't show it. I had no one with whom I could share the heavy burden of my feelings, and I felt so alone. My wife could not take on any more; my son, Michael, was away at UNC and had more than enough to handle; my friends could not and did not understand. I was expected to be the family's Olympian, able and willing to take the load off others. It was a role I tragically, and willingly, played. After all, I was a Ph.D., a scholar with a national reputation in my field of research, a leader on the campus, a crackerjack teacher. I could answer questions, solve problems, bear loads. I could handle the tears, pain, and sorrow. It was expected of me; I demanded it of myself. Ph.D., frailty, and confusion are not synonymous terms. And, though I didn't know it at the time, it made me feel needed and important.
I don't want to say that we were individually and collectively dysfunctional. I don't think you can get the full understanding of what we were experiencing with the word, "dysfunctional." "Dysfunctional" sounds so cold, so detached, so clinical, so sterile. It's a euphemism that avoids the humanity, emotion, and pain of the experience. Life was truly hard to bear.
There were the endless nights of uneasy sleep, wondering why, listening for the slightest sound of Robby trying to leave the house, waiting for the sound of him returning when he did, waiting for the police to telephone and ask us to bring him home. The days were blighted by darkness. Many were the times I beat my fists on the walls, cried in my office, and cursed God at the top of my voice in the backyard for tormenting this innocent child. The pain had a psychic intensity that frightened me. There was such grief and fear that I covered my eyes and plugged my ears and wrapped myself in padding so that I would not see or hear or feel the agony. I didn't want to think, to feel, to touch at all. There were times I thought I was among the walking dead because I had so shut down.
Then, by the merest of chance, after a long search, we found a very special school--Hyde School, in Bath, Maine--with teachers who were even more special human being--caring, compassionate, understanding, and dedicated but tough and demanding. Hurt, desperate, and nearly broken, we had lost all belief in miracles, and almost all hope. Nevertheless, seeing Robby once again in handcuffs, being told that he had flunked the entire ninth grade, we knew time had run out. To save our son, to rescue him from what seemed to be dismal prospects of either prison or a grave, to give him one last chance at the future, we took a chance and sacrificed our future. We cashed in our retirement nest egg and enrolled him in Hyde.
It didn't take long to discover that Hyde School isn't just any ordinary private prep school for troubled children. It's not a place where parents send their children to "get fixed" by someone else. Parents do not just "dump" their troubled children at Hyde's door and then drive off into the vacationing sunset. They must "enroll" at Hyde themselves. They sign on to a difficult, continuing, and intensive program of family seminars and challenge groups in which they and their children struggle to face and truly get to know themselves and each other. The program consists of daily journal writing, fall and spring family weekends at Hyde, annual visits to Hyde's Family Learning Center, participation in monthly regional meetings of Hyde parents, and annual regional retreats.
That's how I came to be sitting in my first challenge session at the Hyde Family Learning Center. I have to admit that I was sitting there "just for Robby," smugly going through the motions. I was just putting in the time, winging it, and faking it.
Then it happened. I was leaning back nonchalantly on my chair, listening to other parents, thinking "What 'touchy-feely' bullshit. All these people with problems with divorce, alcohol, drugs, and/or abuse, spilling their guts about their parents and childhood. Susie and I are lucky we don't have any of that."
Suddenly, and without warning, someone or something screamed "BOO" so loud that my ears hurt and my soul reverberated. It was what my son Michael would call "one of those sudden, Hollywood-type moments" when I instantly saw and recognized my basic, tragic flaw. It happened almost as an overwhelming, sudden, unexpected, uncontrollable, painful volcanic eruption of honesty about myself that I couldn't stop from occurring. I don't know what triggered it at that moment. Maybe all those years in the fires of emotional, spiritual, and mental hell had unknowingly "softened" me up as a metallurgist works his metal in the furnace before reshaping it. I lurched forward on my chair. As tears poured from my eyes, I heard myself releasing an anger and resentment at being treated as if I had committed some crime for having exited the womb as the second son. I could hear the sounds of me blurting out long-buried frustration, hurt, and sadness at being the second son--"dismissed," "ignored," "forgotten," and "taken for granted". I stunned myself by openly admitting for the first time to deep- seated feelings as a child of having been "home alone" in my home, of feeling unloved by my parents, of feeling unworthy of their love, of being increasingly shunned by my older brother--who increasingly saw me as a challenge, as he was increasingly unable to live up to his top billing as the First Born--and consequently of having a strong need to be important, needed, seen, and loved. Something had taken control. It was as if another person, the "real" me, imprisoned and hidden inside me all these decades, had broken free and had stepped outside without my permission to expose himself.
It was a painful moment. I saw all so clearly how the dead hands of the past were controlling me in the present. I saw how I carried all the feelings of insecurity, self-doubt, and diminished self-worth wherever I went--how all the needs to be important, needed, seen, and loved, which I had been denying and hiding all these decades behind masks of humor, degrees and resumes, position of authority--influenced everything that I believed and did, both personally and professionally.
Someone or something had started performing spiritual surgery. It opened personal issues, the unresolved resentment--long suppressed, denied, or ignored--that were crucial in shaping who I was and what I did, and were crucial to face if I was to reshape both myself and what I do.
For the next few days at Hyde, I felt myself being stripped to my core spiritually. The regional wilderness retreat in the mountains of north Georgia a week later--which you will read about in two Random Thoughts entitled "The Climb" and "Blueberries"-- continued this deep, painful, and honest ongoing conversation with myself. I started a never-ending challenge of my values, a review of my priorities, a ripping away of my masks, a questioning of my identity, an examination of my purposes, a review of my life's personal and professional goals, an identification of my weaknesses, and a discovery of my strengths.
This isn't something that I enjoy admitting, but I'm not embarrassed by it. It was and still is part of me. From that moment on, as a colleague wrote about me, there was and is what a jazz musician might call a personal, professional, and curricular "back beat" of words that keep challenging me, keep me growing and learning: Who am I? Why am I doing what I am doing? How do I feel about what I and others are doing? Why do I teach? What is meaningful about what I do? What are things I need to do, should do, and can do if I am to have the chance of being a truer person as well as a truer teacher?
I consider this breakthrough one of the most important personal and professional moments of my life. On that day at Hyde, I started hammering away at and tearing down the walls, and I started to throw the locks and keys away. It was a time to find the strength and courage to admit that I needed to face up to and start letting go of the old illusions and fears, for overwhelming and new possibilities and potentials. As Pink Floyd's lyrics from "Coming Back to Life" say, "I knew the moment had arrived for killing the past and coming back to life." While I knew that not every thing could be changed immediately or even completely, however I faced it, nothing could be changed until and unless I faced it and continue to face it.
Enough for now. I'm drained. More sometime later when the spirit strikes me.
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" -\____