Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.
Thu, 3 Aug 1995
Interesting walk this morning. Ignoring the dampening remnants of hurricane Erin, I was concentrating on my experiences with John (not his real name), a student who was in one my first year history class in the spring, 1994. He is what I can only call "my favorite mistake." He reminds me that it's damn easy being a professional, but it's a struggle, a lot more hard work, a lot more riskier being a human being. He reminds me that the person is far more important than "the student" and that we as teachers are dealing with people caught up in the trials and tribulations of both their lives and the classroom, not with high-sounding words or dry abstraction and theories. I was thinking about him, as I do frequently, because of an on-going conversation I'm having on a list with an e-mail colleague about how "peril", "risk", and "mistake" relate to teaching, how in education you can't steal second base if your foot is always safely on first base. John was the epitome of what another colleague called "teaching on the verge of peril."
How do I describe John without seeming to be the psychologist I am not? Physically, he had all the hallmarks of being one the "breathing dead": smileless, blank stare, laughless, stone silent, hollow eyes nailed to the floor, eyes that fought to look at another face, head almost always bowed, a face that spoke loudly of deep felt hurt, penetrating fear, and an inner crying. On those very rare occasions when he said something, it was in an almost inaudible whisper. All his body movements were guarded, tense and hesitant. He always seemed to be on defensive alert.
In many ways, he reminded me of the "me" not too many years ago except he had not perfected pretending to an art. He could not hide his confusion, loneliness, pain, weak self-concept, and fear beneath shielding images of smugness, complacence, nonchalance, and sophistication, or behind masks of authority and scholarship. He could not project an image as I once could that he was in control, in command, needed no one, and did not care what anyone thought of him. He could not act cool, smooth, and that nothing could shake him.
About a week into the class, a student, who had been his classmate in high school, came to me and asked what was wrong with John. She said something to the effect, "He was outgoing, friendly and used to have a good time with us. He should have loved the bonding 'stuff' we just did. He and his family left Valdosta a few years ago. I don't know what happened, but now he so different. I went up to him to say hi and he just mumbled something as if he didn't want me to notice him. It's not like him to ignore people or push them away. I'm worried about him."
I suppose her plea put me on quiet alert. I kept an eye on him. She was right. He acted like a person who had joined the armies of his enemies and had taken up arms against himself. His mask was transparent to anyone caring enough to see. An invisible bargain basement price tag hung around his bent neck that read, "Seconds. Damaged goods. Soiled, marked down. Close-out, half price."
He refused to journal except on the rarest occasion, offering a myriad of lame excuses. But, a word here, a phrase there in the very few journal entries that he did write, indicated that he preferred isolation behind a self-built barricade which he had painstakingly created to shut himself off. If he had his preference, he would have been a loner, going faceless and nameless, lost in the background's shadows.
He had gone through some of the motions of doing the beginning of class bonding and trusting exercises, but he never bonded and trusted. Rarely did he display a responsibility to the other members of his triad or a voluntary willingness to work with them or participate in class discussions and projects or discuss answers to questions on the open weekly quizzes. He would do what he was told to do by the two others. He would somehow always be absent from class when his triad had to get up to perform its skit or run its game. He frustrated and angered them, but they tried--oh, how they tried---to include him. But, he kept them at a safe distance.
I tried to talk with him, to offer him support and encouragement on more than one occasion, but he seldom answered a question during our conversations about his class performance and commitment to the others in the triad with more than a word or two. He kept his doors tightly shut. More often, he just stared ahead or looked down at the floor and enveloped himself in silence. At various times, fishing around, I offered him alternative ways to display the material he professed to understand. "If you don't want to discuss in front of the entire class, just bring in a question to raise and then remain still." Nothing. "Write the question out and hand it to someone in the triad to read out." Nothing. "If you don't want to discuss with the class, talk with the other members of your triad." Nothing. "If you can't talk to anyone, talk it into a tape recorder and hand the tape to me." Nothing. "Write up your reflections on the material and give the pages to me, or make it part of your journal." Nothing. "I saw that you like to draw during the shield exercise, draw pictures for me depicting your insights to the material." Nothing. I talked with our school psychologist. Agreeing that since he refused to see her, there was little else I could do.
All quarter I and the other members of his triad could sense as one wrote, "He desperately wants to take that first step, but can't bring himself to unlock the door even to take just a quick peak. I think he is afraid of being liked. He has done enough work behind the scenes, the script for the play and one of the ideas for the game, but not much for the final project. Be merciful and give him a 'C-'. He needs support desperately." The other said of him, "He took no initiative, offered no suggestions, did only what we told him to him, tried to include him without success, but I know he has the ability. I think he is really afraid of being laughed at, and being made to look foolish. Something or someone has hurt him and put in that damn straightjacket. Don't fail him even if his contribution was at best minimal. I vote for a 'D.'" At the end of the quarter, relying heavily on the evaluations of the others of the triad, I gave him a "D." It was afraid it was going to cost him his scholarship, but I didn't see what else I could do.
A week after summer school began, John popped into my office to discuss his grade. He told me that he needed a "B" to keep his scholarship. We went outside, sat on a bench, unwrapped some Tootsie Pops, and talked. The sum of his argument was that "I read all the material", "I understood the material", "I did what I was told", and "I don't like to talk." I countered simply with the fact that he didn't seize the alternative ways I offered for him to display when he knew and his contribution to his triad and the class was at best minimal. He never once looked at me, and I had to look ahead for him to listen to me. I told him that I didn't think he deserved more than he received in spite of his self-evaluation to the contrary. We went down the requirements of the course as laid out in my 15 page syllabus and offered him my assessment. But, I told him that I am willing to reconsider if he prepared a portfolio detailing everything he did in class and the extent of his contribution within the triad, and got the other members of his triad who I knew were on campus to either write testimonials on his behalf or talk with me. He didn't see why he had to go through all that trouble. "Then," I told him, "I have no reason other than your statement, which isn't enough, to change your grade."
He never did put together a complete portfolio together and get the other members of the triad to write on his behalf. Nevertheless, I spoke to them and they held their ground, but would accept without any rancor whatever decision I made. One of them made the passing remark of which I took little notice at the time, "I guess a quarter wasn't enough time for him to take even one step."
During the remainder of the summer quarter, John and I met four times, all at his insistence. He wouldn't let go although he merely repeated his position, but at least he put up something that resembled a fight for something. More importantly, during each meeting, a minute here and a few minutes there, he mentioned or talked briefly about himself, members of his family, and his dreams and fears. Finally, at the last meeting, at the beginning of August, I told him I would make a decision once and for all on the following day.
That night was a restless one. God, I remember that conversation with my wife. "What to do. How I do I get to him in a way that has some meaning?" I asked her as I warmly lay next to her. "I'm not going to give him something he hasn't earned. I can't change his grade just because I feel for him. But dammit I know there's a hell of an aquifer below that desert. I feel it in my gut. How to get him to divine for it."
"Maybe," she said with a consoling voice, "this is one of those whom you just can't get to."
"Maybe," I sighed in return. "It sure was easier to make this kind of decision when I was just a distant professor. I'd just scratch him off without getting involved. Putting a face and name to a student can make it tough."
"Yeah," she retorted, "but you're a teacher now and you can't just throw him away and blame him for it."
I told her that I had seen glimmers of light occasionally escaping through cracks in his wall before he could rush to patch them up that tells me there's something worthwhile inside him for me to fight for. I told about one day, about a third of the way through the term, I bumped into him where he worked. He was more relaxed. I went up to him and said a simple, sincere, and warm, "Hello." He seemed pleased that I noticed him. I thought I detected an almost imperceptible smile and a slight spark in his eyes. "Can I help you with the groceries?" he asked. That was the longest sentence I heard him speak. The manager, an ex-student, came over, "John your student?" he asked. I nodded silently. "He's a good worker. Quiet but reliable. Always gets his job done and does whatever we ask him to. A good word never hurts." I was surprised that I was not surprised, and it nothing to do with him being a "B+" high school student now on a state scholarship. About a week later, I came into class with Aretha Franklin blasting from the boombox, and yelled, "John", as a chocolate Tootsie Pop softly sailed in his direct. He stiffly caught it and looked at me. I shrugged my shoulders in a "why not gesture" and said with a "I need you today" tone, "I'm a bit down today. I need one today. Thought we'd share some sweetness together." A fleeting smile. "Can I have an orange one instead?" he hesitantly asked. That was the most he had said in class. "No sweat," I replied with glee as the two Tootsie Pops passed each other in the air. Two weeks later, as he was lying on the floor drawing during the shield exercise, for an entire hour I saw him smiling and guardingly chatting with the other two members of the triad. Even though he refused the next day to get in front of the class to explain his design, it was a start. And he wrote a heck of a script for the triad's chapter skit enough he didn't show up to put it on and left them in a lurch for someone else to wing the role.
"But," I signed, "in the long run, nothing could make a permanent crack; not a Tootsie Pop, not the boombox, not a shield, not his classmates, not me, nothing and no one--not even him."
"Maybe that long run is not long enough. He just needs more time than the others. Sounds like he tried to lift his foot, but maybe a quarter is not enough for him to take even one step. What are you going to do?"
That quietly jolted me. I stopped staring at the ceiling and turned towards her beautiful face thinking, "Maybe he does need more time." It was exactly what John's triad member said. I decided what I had to do. I told her that I was going to take the risk of holding out my hand even when it appeared that it was last thing he wanted from me. I had the feeling that though he acted like he did not need me, he really did. "I'm not going to listen to his words, but to his silence. I'm going to let him take the course over." After a few seconds of silence, I asked her, "What if I'm making a mistake trying this? If it blows up in my face, my ass may be in one hell of a sling."
She came back with just the right encouraging words. "I think you know it would be a mistake not to try."
She was right. I just needed to hear say those words.
The next day, I told John what I told my wife. "I'll make you a deal I've never made anyone else. I'm going to bet on you. I will change your grade to a 'B' right now so you don't lose your scholarship, but you have to promise to take my course again off the books in the fall and risk giving it all you've got. You know what to expect now. They'll be no surprises."
He looked off in the distance asking with his warning system at full alert. "Why are you doing this?"
Looking off into the distance, I tersely replied, "Why shouldn't I?"
He turned his head and for the first time looked up into my eyes as I turned my head toward him. To the surprised look on his face was added a slight glimmer in his eyes that I had never before seen. It was as if my words were a key that might fit the lock to the door of his self-built prison. It was as if my words alleviated his fear that deep-down he was nothing, just no good; that they reassured him that I if I discovered the truth about him, I would not think less of him, laugh at him, and reject him. It was as if my words were words of love that assured him what he could not assure himself, saw what he was afraid to see: that he was really worth something.
"That means I'll have to take an overload. That's tough what with work an all."
"That's the best offer I can make, and believe me when I say the administration will not be happy if anyone finds out."
"What if I agree now, you change the grade, and change my mind later?" he asked
"Will you?" I confidently replied without missing a beat.
After a few minutes, he said, "I won't." And we shook hands.
The first day of the fall quarter came and went. No John. The first week came and went. No John. I finally saw him come out the building I was about to enter. We looked at each other. "I thought about it. I tried. It's too much," he whispered and walked on. With disappointed tugging at my heart, I turned and slowly walked to the registrar to change his grade back to a "D." On the change of grade sheet form, I wrote, "Professor's mistake." Then, I walked over to the Financial Aid Office and sadly told them of the grade change knowing John was going to lose his scholarship which he would not be able to retrieve.
After he received letters of notification from both the registrar and the Financial Aid Office, he came to me. I wouldn't budge. He complained to the Department Head. I wouldn't budge. He went to the Dean. I wouldn't budge. He went to the Vice- President of Academic Affairs, a stickler for procedure, who called me into his office, demanded both an explanation and a promise not to violate procedure again. I ignored his "demand" but willingly explained the motives behind my actions, and refused to issue his desired promise. John went to the President, but I never heard from him. He knew better. And finally, John walked into my office to make on last request for a grade change.
We got some Tootsie Pops, and as we sat in the hall, I told him. "John, I'm going to tell you what I told the Vice-President. I still believe in you. And I will change your grade back to a "B", but this time only AFTER you take my course off the books in the Winter quarter--not before.
He looked at me. "It won't get my scholarship back. Why should I do it?"
"That you have to figure out. But, I think you know why."
"I'll let you know."
He got up and we shook hands. I never saw him or heard from him since that day.
I'm sure there is a coterie of sociological and psychological explanations for John's behavior, but that doesn't make him any more of any less human. I still believe he's still magic and wonderful, and would greet him as a long lost friend if he chose to unwrap a Tootsie Pops with me. If for no other reason, I owe him. He taught me a lot about myself and my the extent of my commitment to my educational ideals when the time came to putting it all on the line. I learned that if I choose to teach, I cannot in good conscience hide the human face of each student however it may sneer at me or him/herself. It's impossible to connect if I am not willing to take the risk of believing, hoping, and loving.
I must be willing to risk that again and again, every day of every term of every class. To miss trying to seize the opportunity to help them re-write that price tag around their necks to read: "First. Top quality merchandise," always would have been MY greatest loss. I can't think of anything more important to attempt. That's what we work for, strive for, endure for, hope for. And, I know that only if I am willing to risk, to be hurt, to be disappointed, to be reprimanded, to suffer setbacks, to have my outstretched hand slapped away or ignored, to feel a sense of having failed to touch a student, will I have the opportunity to help a Student help him- or herself--or myself. For the truth is that in any relationship between and among people there will always be the danger of betrayal. But, without taking the chance of creating a bond there can be no love, no friendship, and no real teaching.
Now don't get me wrong. I don't like to make mistakes, but maybe I have to make a mistake every now and them. Like the prophets of old, a mistake afflicts my comfort! Cuts me down a peg or two. It confronts me with my humanity and reminds me that I am not a saint, that I am imperfect and fragile, that I have foibles; and that I will stumble--and that it's okay. So few of us allow ourselves to make or to be seen making a mistake. We have written a resume for ourselves that is not human. It's superhuman. It's distancing from the mortal students. That's why I say that John is "my favorite mistake." He, more than my "successes", caused and still causes me to deeply reflect, and in looking at myself I am discovering a heck of lot of what I am personally and professionally made of, and humbly how much more there is to be remade and made.
Have a good one. --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" -\____