Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.
Date: Tue, 18 Aug 1998 12:41:50 -0400 (EDT)
Random Thought: Two Conversations With Henry
It's a good day. I am happy! I had a happy summer. Whatever
powers to be said I couldn't teach summer classes for the first time in 32
years didn't know what a present they had handed me. I didn't know. I
completed our horrendous renovation; I built a relaxing and meditative
koi fishpond; I lost 22 pounds and am down to the weight when I got
married 32 years ago this Thursday; I surpassed by pre-operation four mile
walking distance and reached six miles in 55 minutes and 13 seconds; my
blood pressure is 60/100; I got myself not only back in peak physical
shape, but mental and spiritual shape as well; and I am happy the semester
is about to begin.
But, I'm especially happy because I unexpected got hit with a
spray of invigorating "spiritual bullets" that penetrated deep into my
soul and energized my spirit: a telephone call from a student I'll call
Henrietta from whom I haven't heard in a long time, a conversation with
Katie, and above all a conversation with a student I'll call Henry whom I
haven't seen or heard from in a year.
In fact, it was eerie. For whatever unknown reason I was thinking
about Henry as I was crossing the rotunda and about to go up the stairs to
my office, wondering what he was doing, where he was, what he was feeling.
He had stopped coming to class and participating in his triad, and failed
the course a year ago. That's the least of it. He failed the other members
of his triad; above all he failed himself. When he was in class, he may
have been present physically, but he was not mentally or spiritually
there. Everyone noticed in class that he couldn't look at any one face to
face, not even the members of his triad. Seldom smiled. Talked
hesitantly and softly. His eyes always seemed shut by an invisible second
He more interested--so he said--in his job that he needed to make
payments on his new truck and insurance as well as tuition, in hunting,
and in spending time with his girl friend. The truth is that all that was
Strangely, as Henry approached me the details of our last
conversation in the hall outside the classroom, just before he walked away
from the class with just over two weeks left in the term, leaving the
other two members of his triad to fend for themselves, flooded back with
vivid detail. "I don't like to work with other people; I don't want to
depend on them for anything," he had mumbled in his defense of what he
knew was his indefensible irresponsibility of not contributing in any way
to the latest project and doing at best superficial work on the previous
one and now stopping to come to class and taking an "F."
"You're a salesman, aren't you? You telling me that you're not
dependent on others for your success, that no one taught you about the
machines and how to sell, that no one gave you leads? Do you think your
boss is not dependent on anyone to make a profit?
"You deal with people on the job, don't you?"
"Then, what's the difference in this classroom."
"I don't know? I just don't want to depend on anyone else for my
"You depend on others at your job to do your job, don't you?"
"How?" No answer. Only a hollow stare at the cold hallway floor.
We talked some more. "Okay," I said. "I'll make you a deal. I"ll
give you your own course the way you want it. I will lecture to you; you
will take notes. I will make reading assignments; you will hand in
answers to MY questions. You will work alone. I will give you tests; you
will study and take tests. I will give you grades. BUT, on one
"What's that," he asked.
"You say you don't want to work with anyone else, and you say you
don't want to depend on anyone for your grade. So, you have to go out
into Valdosta and find ten professionals or business people who are NOT
dependent on other people for their success, who do not have to work with
other people. Find me ten such people and I give you a personal course.
"There aren't any people like that."
"Well, then? When are you going to start working with people?"
"They won't take me back."
"Are you sure? Have you asked them?"
"No, I just know. Beside it's too late. The project is due
"I'll give you all a few days extra to put things together. But,
that's not the issue. Do you really not know if they'll take you back or
don't you want to know? But, suppose you're wrong, what do you think you
have to do for them to welcome you back into the triad and give you still
"I guess....," he stopped as if he came to wall. He continued to
hesitate obviously hoping I would utter the answer for him. I remained
silent. It was a long, pregnant pause. He knew the answer, but it was
obvious that he was afraid to face the demon of what should be said.
"Apologize," came reluctantly forced out from his mouth. He hung his
head to stare at the tiled floor and his voice tailed off into a whisper
as he approached the last sylabyl as if he didn't want to hear that word.
"I can't. That's being weak. I've been taught that if you have
to apologize, you're not a man."
"Is that the real weakness? Are you really being truthful?" I
carefully asked feeling I was approaching dangerous territory and dare not
"I don't know what words to use."
"Do you think it's the words or your sincerity--or the truth--
"Well, they don't respect me."
"Did either one of them do anything that was disrepectful to you?"
"Was what you just did and have been doing all quarter,
disrespectful to them and more importantly yourself?"
"Can you tell them for me that I am sorry? The last time they
didn't accept it."
"Did you mean it?"
"Not really. Will you tell them?"
"Can't do that. You have to face up to what you've done and why
you did it, and what you have to do. But, I'll tell you this. I know
that if you sincerely apologize and are honest, they
will..take..you..back. You know that, don't you."
"Yeah, but I'll have to think about that."
He didn't return to the classroom with me. Instead, he turned
away, walked down the hall, rounded the corner, and disappeared. I
substituted for him as the other two members of the triad presented their
Broadway project. Neither I nor the other members of his triad saw or
heard from him.
At the end of the term, I called him to see how he was doing. He was
surprised to hear from me.
"I thought you hated me."
"Why would I hate you?"
"Because I didn't do what you wanted."
"Did you do what YOU wanted?"
"No, not really."
"Well, then, you have someone more important who is already upset
with you. What I think doesn't really matter."
I told him that I would like to have him back in class when he
decided to take the course again but only on the condition "that you admit
to at least yourself the REAL reason you walked out on yourself, your
triad members, and everyone else in the class."
"I don't think so," he said with what I thought had a tone of
"Sorry to hear that. Well, stop by for a Tootsie Pop. You take
care, and have a Merry Christmas and a happy new year."
"And you too. Thanks for calling." Then, he softly said
something cryptical that I am afraid of decoding. "It means a lot."
We hung up.
Now here Henry and I were, on the floor, sucking on Tootsie Pops,
talking. He had a different look on his face. It was if that second
eyelid had lifted.
"First I have to make a confession. I tried to pressure you to
change my grade to a "WP" by going to the Vice President's assistant and
your department head?"
"I know? Did you think it would work?"
He smiled, "Not really, but I had to try. Mad at me?"
"No, I've got a thick skin. But, tell me, if I had changed your grade
would it have helped you? Would you have learned anything?"
"In the short run, yes. But, not in the long run, and not the
right things. I know that now. What you said to me on the telephone
about being honest about the real reason I walked out really got me
"I'm starting to see that getting an education is more than about
grades and getting a job. It's also about opening myself to myself and
"If you've learned that in the past year, you've learned more
than most people who graduate with a piece of paper and more than a lot
Feeling on a role, that a hope and pray was being answered, I
press on. "Learn anything else?"
He hesitated as if he knew that I knew what he was about to say. I did.
"I've gotten too good at dodging the bullet. You were right, I
wasn't being honest. I lied to you. I didn't walk out on my triad because
I couldn't work with people or didn't want to work with people or didn't
want to depend on others for my grade. It wasn't even it being hard to
apologize. That was bullshit. I wasn't ever told that apologize was a
sign of weakness." He stopped to clear his throat. "This is not easy to
say. I was raised in the south. No, that's just an excuse. I left the
class because I was prejudiced. I didn't like having to associate and
work with a black, especially a black woman. You knew that didn't you."
"Why didn't you confront me?"
"My sense at the time was that it wouldn't have done any good.
You'd deny it. I just had to hope and pray that you would confront
yourself one day. Looks like you have."
"Is your offer still open?"
"I'll see you in class tomorrow. I know it won't be easy facing
up to my racism, but you once wrote on the board that being hard if what
makes doing worthwhile."
We got up and shook hands.
As I walked up the stairs, I silently screamed out a bursting
"yes!!" I turned to see Henry leave the building. "Who says prayers
aren't answered and hopes aren't fulfilled," I asked myself.
As I warmly reflect on what had just happened with Henry, as well
as my conversations with Katie and Henrietta, I wonder if maybe the true
evaluation of who we are, what we do in the classroom, and the purpose of
what we do is how humane classes truly are, how much we teach and
learn more than than we can imagine.
What I mean is that Henry put his finger on the meaning of an
education. Of course, it is important that we teach and the student learn
the subject material. But, for what purpose? To get a grade? Fulfill a
requirement? Be handed a piece of paper? Just to make a living? I
certainly believe that it's also important that we teach and the student
learn what we call certain analytical skills. But, once again, for what
purpose? No, that's too limited, too valueless. Getting an education has
to be more than merely information and thinking skill. We live in a three
dimensional world and too often we teach--and learn--only in the two
dimensions of information and skill. I think there's an all-important and
too often ignored third dimension to getting an education: the "human
dimension." It's that dimension of education which insists that we
teachers--and professors, if you will--focus not on just the quest for the
mythical golden fleece of "subject mastery," and the equally mythical holy
grail of "all the skills," but on that elusive, mysterious single student.
After all, if we can't focus on that one student, on that signifcant,
invaluable human being, haven't we lost our moral, intellectual, and human
bearing? The "human dimension" helps us, as Henry so wisely is beginning
to learn and realize, to open our lives to ourselves and others. And, in
so doing, helps us to expand our lives and those of others, to excite our
lives, to refresh our lives, to give meaning and purpose to our lives, to
respect our lives and those of others.
Yep, it's a good day and I am happy--and classes haven't even yet
begun. I'm going to unwrap an orange Tootsie Pop and toast Henry.