Copyright © 1997, Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Wed, 20 Aug 1997 09:07:51 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: Random Thought: Too Much?

As I trod the dark streets of Valdosta this morning it was hard to meditate. Those howling dogs of August sound as large as the hounds of the Baskervilles. They're baying so loud I wonder how anyone can sleep. Down here, as the editor of the local newspaper said, we know these dogs intimately by their first names: "heat" and "humidity." It was a vain attempt to keep them from nipping at my dripping heels. But, I did manage to think of a message in which a howling professor from a mid-western univeristy was trying to take nips at me.

"Louis," she wrote, "you're an idealist and a dangerous promoter of humanist education." I think she was cussin' at me. Personally, I take the barb as a compliment. Anyway, she went on to write, "You believe too much in each student. You care too much. You can't reach them all. Your expectations are too high?" I am sure she meant all of those activities to be sins.

Too much? Too high? Nonsense! Let me tell you a quick story about a student I'll call Helen who was in my class a few quarters ago. Bright, alive, cheery, this young woman in her late teens is racked by the ravages of chemotherapy that is keeping her cancer in remission. She is doing everything she can to live a normal life and enjoy each day that is given to her. Her thoughts for tomorrow center not letting her afflication stop her dream of becoming a vetinarian come true. She activly participated in class discussions and was a viable member of her triad. On the day, a Wednesday, the class triads were presenting their scavenger hunt project Helen wasn't in class. No one in her triad knew where she was. Some of the items for which she was responsible she was not present to discuss. About half-way into the class period, Helen meanders into class with an unusual non-chalant canter and a "who cares" snicker on her face. But, I thought I felt a hidden sense of near-defeat. Anyway, when it come to her turn to present, she's obviously was not prepared. The second time she tried to wing it, I called her down on it since I had cancelled class for three days so all the triads could work on the project. Her snicker became a frown. She ploped down on the chair with a huff, loudly tore a piece of paper from her notebook, wrote something on it, folded it, interrupted the class by walking up to me, handed me the folded paper, and walked out of class. I put the paper in my pocket and the class went on. After class, at home, I took the note Helen had written me out from my pocket. In it I read a heart-rendering message about discovering she was pregnant, the unsupportive father who didn't care, and an irate mother who was threatening to disown her "after she kills me." She ended the note saying something to the effect that she didn't have the strength to argue with me and that she frankly didn't give a flip (not her word) about the project, about school, or about anything else because her life has so suddenly and drastically changed. But, she offered an opening by giving me her telephone number if I felt I needed to contract her.
I picked up the phone.

"Helen," I asked softly, "this is Louis Schmier. You okay?"

"I was hoping you would call, but I wasn't she you really cared like you told us."

We talked. Actually, she talked and listened. I remember one comment as if I had a photograpic memory and will remember it to the day I die. "You know," she cried, "it took me a while after I learned I had Hodgekin's that I learned to feel felt each day was a gift. I guess I opened that gift one night too many. Momma says God is going to punish me with more cancer. Will he really? She says I need to get an abortion and get rid of that sin before God does something. But, that's a life in me and it ain't it's fault it's there. I don't know who I can talk to but you. The days just don't seem wrapped in pretty paper any more."

I told her that she had to talk with people in support groups on campus or in town if she wanted to tie beautiful ribbons around her spirit. She balked at that saying she was strong enough that she didn't have to talk with anyone.

"You're talking with me," I quietly argued. I went on to say something to the effect, "Getting help is no a sign of weakness. It shows you how straong you are. You went to a doctor to treat your cancer. What's the difference in doing that from getting help from someone to treat your spirit."

"Didn't think about it that way. None, I guess."

Then, I asked if she had talked to her oncologist about how the chemicals in her body would effect the fetus. She hadn't thought of that and would call him the next morning. We went on and finally I said, "Why don't you let me make a phone call tomorrow morning and get you an appointment just to talk about things. Think about it and let me know tomorrow morning."

She called and asked if I would go with her for introductions. I agreed, made a phone call, set up an appointment, met Helen who told me what her oncologist had recommended, and left her with a councilor.

The next class day, she was her old self. She came up to me after class and said, "Thanks for being you and giving me back my gifts. I think I have to do a project, the whole project, even the other triad members' share, to make it up to them for leaving them in a lurch."

I agreed. She did the project and tore up the class for the remainder of the quarter. I never asked her about her decision. She never volunteered to tell me either in conversation or in her journal. But, for her closure item, she brought in a piece of gift wrapping and--to the tears of all of us--talked about her cancer and how so many people are taking their time on earth for granted and are wasting their precious days on earth by "going through the motions, just gettin' by and only doing what you have to."

At the end of class, she handed me a gift-wrapped an orange Tootsie Pop. Inside was a note. It said, "Don't let nothing or no one stop you from unwrapping today's gift." I took a deep breath. It now has a place among my sacred objects of teaching.

I haven't seen her since that quarter. But, somehow I know whatever her decision was, she is at peace and she is opening her gifts once again.

Too much, too high? Tell Helen that. I would rather intensely believe in, support, care about, be involved with, challenge, and encourage each student and have my expectations sky-high, and get only to 80% or to 75% or to 50% or to a third or even to just one student such as Helen rather than get all of beliefs in and expectations of students that are rock-bottom.

Passion in education for the student, THE WHOLE STUDENT, the inseparable connection between a person's life in the classroom and a person's life outside the classroom, is not a transgression; it's the right stuff.

Make it a good day.


Louis Schmier  (912-333-5947)
Department of History                      /~\    /\ /\
Valdosta State University          /^\    /   \  /  /~ \     /~\__/\
Valdosta, Georgia 31698           /   \__/     \/  /     /\ /~      \
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                          -_~     /  "If you want to climb mountains, \ /^\
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