Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Fri, 1 Jan 1999 07:19:18 -0500 (EST)
Random Thought: Jill

Good morning, and a happy new year to you. It's 5:30 a.m. here in chilly south Georgia. Asking what am I do up at such an ungodly early hour on new year's day. Well, Susan and I don't really do it up on new year's eve. We have a quiet dinner with close friends, sit around and talk friend talk, barely make it to the dropping of the ball. No hats, no horns, no confetti, no screaming, no bacchanalia. Just a series of loving hugs and quiet kisses, and then it's home. So, I was up and out early on the street in the near freezing, frosty air before the first sunrise of the new year. There was a strange vacancy in this morning, a dark quiet and stillness. It's the first day after the six celebrating weeks before. The lit candles have consumed the wax, the Yule log is ashes, the menorahs are on the shelves, the trees are browning and shedding their needles, the floors once strewn with the refuse of presents are clean, many of the holiday decorations are boxed, the clanging bells and charity pots are stored, the champagne bottles are empty, the latkes have been eaten (those are Jewish edible mortar that doubles as potato pancakes), horns are tooted out, confetti and silly hats are piled knee deep, class are about to resume. For a moment, on this first day of 1999, the year next to last year of the millennium (2001 really begins the new millennium) seems to hesitate to catch its breath before moving on after its first exhaustive sprinting minutes

There is something invariably touching about a six week feast of bountiful thanks and abundant giving at which we all find our own reasons to be thankful and give. Ever think about the fact that at the moment the year is almost over, the days are shortest, and the light is weakest comes the time of this miraculous time of bursting joy and glorious wonder and bountiful sharing. People say that by the end of the twelfth month, the year is ancient enough to have shown us its wisdom. We know what to be grateful for by now.

So, for what am I grateful. Yeah, for the usual stuff about health, happiness, family, friends. There was so much swirling around in my head as I trudge along in my Carolina blue grubbies, nose pale red, eyes tearing, nose leaking. But, for some unknown strange reason I kept thinking of a special student, now a sophomore, named Jill. Don't know why Jill in particular. Maybe it's because of Jill's influence that I'm becoming a volunteer book recorder in the university'sspecial services office and a volunteer reader to fourth graders in a local school system's "get them to read" program. I don't ask about these things.

So, with the first aromas of freshly brewed cup of 1999 thawing coffee at my side, let me tell you about Jill and why I think my resolution thoughts are centering around her. Jill is what the PC jargon calls a "special needs" student although she is by no means a special needs person. I've known Jill since she first arrived at the University a little over a year ago. Members of the local Jewish community have taken her under their wing and have been taken by her. Every time I see her on campus, she gives me a pack of gum and a small capsule of miniature M & Ms. I trade them for a Tootsie Pop. We have been together in a couple of classes. She has a significant learning disability with which the kind and warm special services people have helped me. She has difficulty reading. We have to record her assigned reading material. And after untold laborious hours of stop and go listening, after she learns whatever it is she is supposed to learn, she has great difficulty expressing and communicating her knowledge either orally or on paper. It is almsot impossible for her to keep up with a class lecture. She needs copies of someone's notes.

She is not a beauty queen, but she has an inner beauty that is royal. She is intelligent, diligent, alert, caring, always smiling in spite of the fact that the world has not often smiled back and is for her often a dim play of shadows and murmurs. She doesn't have many friends among the students, and not much of a social life. She has a car and lives off campus with two other students. At times when we are sitting in the hall sucking on Tootsie Pops, she wonders about her future. She wonders what her lot in life will be and if she will ever have a family. Yet, there is a refreshing and appealing aura of authenticity and innocence about her. I have never seen her without a smile on her face or in her soul. I have never heard her say, "I am ashamed of being...." or "I am embarassed of being...." She just says, "I was born this way. " She wants so much to help other people help themselves.

Some professors act as barriers to that goal. They want to treat her matter-of-factly as they do other students: nameless and faceless. Some teachers are especially frustrated, at times antagonized and threatened by Jill's presence. They really do not want to take extra time, inconvenience themselves, alter the comfort of their routine. I have had a professor cruelly say to me that Jill will never be a "productive member of society" and shouldn't be on campus taking classes. Another told her that it wasn't his job to help her in class, but go to special services. He told her that it wasn't her fault for not being able to do the work, it was society's fault for all the trouble she has to go to for letting her think she belongs on campus. Educating Jill, the professor implied was socially irresponsible because it took resources away from other, more promising and profitable uses. Most of the professors think that Jill's limited prospects don't make her worthy enough to be worth the work and anguish and expense. Thankfully they are partiall balanced off by some professors who compassionately put things aside and give of their time to work with her, support her, and encourage her. And, of course, there are those neat, caring special services people.

I suppose people could conjure up a host of rationalizing academic, financial, and social philosophies, arguments: we don't have the time to devote to one student; we can't water down our curriculum; we don't have the money to serve their needs and make the campus accessible. We find funds for all sorts of things, but always seem to have difficulty to find the monies for people. We find monies to beautify the campus and negotiate to buy a football stadium, and somehow can't scratch enough together to beautify lives and help people negotiate through life. We are ready to do what we have to do, are required to do, are told to do, but we don't really deserve the bestowal of a congressional medal of honor. And, on it goes.

So many people condemn and imprison people like Jill to live in a living death of solitude and living a divided life separated from our lives. Oh, they don't do it with any formal or structural institutionalization; they use more subtle and emotionally self-serving means. They use a word, a gesture, a tone, a gaze here and there that makes her so different in their eyes from them that they don't think much of dumping her into a deep, dark pit of irrelevance or placing her on the waiting list of the forgotten and neglected by categorizing her as a "Oh, you're only a ......"

Yet, we are a fickled specie. We want the faith to rise about ourselves and yet find it easier to remain in a medieval funk that pulls us below ourselves. Jill is a reflection of that glaring contradiction between our most deeply felt moral and social conviction, and our most widespread social and educational policy. On one hand, we affirm the essential dignity of each person. On the other had, we demand that each person must achieve, that is, has to "earn" his or her dignity. Our most cherished symbols, our most beloved stories, our current best sellers, our most revered words, and our heroes urge us to love ourselves, our neighbor and our enemies; we are told all people are created equal, that we are born with inalienable rights, that we have equal opportunity to life and happiness, that we are all children of God, that we all have a unique potential, that each of us is sacred, holy, precious. We pronounce these profound convictions in our homes, from our pulpits,, in our political wells, on the streets, and in our halls of ivy. They are essential articles of our social, political, cultural, educational, and theological faith, at least in words.

Yet, while we yearn for beatitudes, we board beasts who we let roam freely in this "dog eat dog world." While we say, "I am proud of what I say," we so easily explain and rationalize away what we do with a, "in the real world." Jill, and others like her--my son, Robby, who many of you know has ADHD--is asked to say "I'm not O.K." until or unless she proves that she has a demonstrated talent that is valued by others, that she can make what others judge to be a valuable contribution to society, that she has reached a bar of achievement set by others. Personal dignity and respectability is not inherent or inalienable; it's a conditional iffy. And, our schools, where we level, track, isolate, tag, label, separate are the front line--or at least a solid reflection-- of our culture. We use dignity as a reward, respectability as an incentive, value as an award. We place conditions on justice for all: do your work hard; pull yourself up by your own bootstraps; assume the sole responsibility for your learning. Honors, awards, scholarships are prerequisites for recognition. Acceptance and affection are conditioned upon achievement and certain "socially appropriate and acceptable" actions of respect, obedience, propriety, normality, and docility.

We tend to applaud and glow when we hear of those teachers who are flexible and "progressive" and will broaden the area of achievement: "I know such and such has a unique potential. It doesn't have to be in astrophysics or medicine or history; it could be in art, sports or in any one of his intelligence, and I'm going to continue to look for whatever it is so and so can excel at." But, it still reveals a sentiment that highlights our obsession with achievement and success, since it says, " we don't care what so and so does as long as he does something well." It is an ethic of conditional love: "we'll love you if you make it. Even if we have lengthened the list of making it, you still must make it." But, we are quick to condemn as meaningless "touchy-feely" b.s. those teachers' dedication and commitment and willingness to help a student find fulfillment and a sense of well- being and self-esteem. Worth too often, it seems, is not inherent, but bestowed as a medal pinned to the chest subject to trial, examination, assessment.

I have to admit that I have found myself falling into that trap and doing that all too often. And, maybe it was a simple few seconds message we found on the answering machine from Robby joyfully wishing us a happy new year that is prodding my soul this morning. Maybe I am talking about Jill, but remembering Robby's near devastating trials and tribulations that left callouses on his spirit and soul by so many calloused teachers. If that be true, I make no apologies for it. Regrettably you have to experience the biting chill of a harsh winter to appreciate the luxury of a warm coat and house.

To be sure, our need to believe in the nobility of each person is the engine that pulls us out of darkness, most educational training and programs for special people have a good and noble purpose that has, quite literally, opened doors and let fresh air in for many who in past days have been hidden in dark staleness behind closed doors. Whatever good it may bring, however, an overly focusing on this utilitarian approach could be fatally flawed if crudely applied. It would tolerate, perhaps even condone, the dismissal of people like Jill into the shadows of the unnoticed and unwanted.

Jill is as good as any one else and yet she is asked to demonstrate that fact. We demand that she has to prove she is deserving of our attention, energy, time, and money. For her to have dignity, she has to pursue it; she has to achieve. So, if she gets an A, she has a lot of respectability; if she gets a D, she has less. The higher grade in our eyes, determines her greater worth. "Get the grade or you don't make the grade." "Get the test score or we get testy." It is so routine, so pervasive, it is hardly noticed and barely questioned. Like academic cheerleaders waving pom-poms, we sing out from the sidelines: "Excellence, excellence, is our cry! Q..U..A..L..I..T..Y! Yeeeeaaaah, 'A'! Yeeeeaaaah, 'A'!". All of that still rests on the unshakable conviction that dignity and worth must be earned. And with that conviction we unintentionally and inadvertently hurt, suppress, oppress, diminish, denigrate, segregate, stratify . So maybe we ought to ask ourselves, "Are 'normal' people more deserving than 'special' people?" "Are 'smart' people a higher order of specie than 'dumb' people?" " Are A students more entitled than the 'average' C student?" " Are honor students honorable and those who graduate without honors without honor?" On our answers rest what happens to our immense and overwhelming yearning for unconditional love that we all have, for "love me for who I am and can be" rather than "love me for what I do or what I have."

We'll use emotionally self-satisfying and vindicating buzz words and phrases to answer those and other questions. But, this is not a matter of human nature; nor is it an issue of an impersonal fact of life; nor is it tied up in the knots of complexity and complication; nor is it a matter of unfairness; nor is it something to do with "the world" or "the system." or "reality." It is simply and truthfully a matter of personal choice and accountability. The problem is not whether something external called "life" is fair; it's a question of whether each of us is fair.

At this time of giving, I realize that Jill's real present is her presence. Unwrap her gift and you will see that it is not about productivity, not about achievement, not about contribution. It is about humanity. To those naysayers who preach that Jills presence is a sign of impending academic Armageddon, I say--I scream out--Jill is worth it. She has a worth. The extent we see her value, is a reflection of our values. Her value, if it need be argued and proven that she has a value, comes precisely from the challenge she poses to the usual definitions of "value." She is a living reminder that the range of human experience is broader than the narrow confines imposed by budgets, programs, GPAs, jobs; that faith and hope creates optimism, compassion, fairness which enables us to rise about ourselves. She has expanded the world of her fellow students, and the world of those who care about her. They aren't as afraid of "difference" or "strangeness" as they were before they met and worked with her. The people in the triads haven't just come to accept her. She has become their friend. They don't shy away from her. No, they have a snack together, go to a movie together, work together. They didn't feel they were propping her up. A couple members of her triads wrote throughout their journals that Jill was helping them to see that for people like Jill being treated with dignity and worth is something that they have to fight every day. Sometimes it is a battle that almost sucks her dry; sometimes it creates an anxiety that almost suffocates her spirit; sometimes it lets a depression creep in that nearly imposes a surrender of that which is so angelic of her. One student said it help her see her own daily struggle with personal hurt and pain and fear and depreciation that she had rationalize as "that's just me" and explained away with "I have always been ...." They also said at various times in their journals that they saw parallels in attitudes of African-Americans, women, homosexuals; people in wheel chairs, with crutches or canes or dogs; towards people who walk and talk differently; towards people of other nationalities and cultures and religion; and interestingly, they saw parallels in attitudes of students in general in response to depreciating attitudes of faculty.

We need the Jills among us everywhere all the time to touch up our flawed portrait of ourselves and each other. Her most profound effect is to shake us out of our complacency, smugness, and hardness, to bring us in from the biting cold of the distancing and objective and harsh outside to be warmed at the hearth of compassion inside. She invites us to think philosophically, educationally, practically, socially, culturally, metaphorically, theologically, and above all, honestly about ourselves. Without a word, she poses the deepest questions. What is a life? What is human? What makes any human life worth it? What are life's limits? What it is about life that is life-giving? Are the answers something about holiness or sacredness or love or grace, something about a deep and hidden community that stand in contrast to emphasized surface differences, something well beyond the material concerns of everyday life? What are each of our responsibilities to become engaged and involved? Until we seek the answers, we each are morally and spiritually, as well as socially, unfulfilled; we are not as good teachers as we are capable of being.

I don't have the answers, but I do have the questions. And I guess my resolution for the coming year, if I must make a resolution, is to let Jill's presence nudge me to keep looking for the most important, transcendent answers.

May you have a happy turn of the calendar. Bless, and . . . .

Make it a good day. 


Louis Schmier           
Department of History    
Valdosta State University
Valdosta, GA  31698                        /~\    /\ /\
912-333-5947                       /^\    /   \  /  /~ \     /~\__/\
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                          -_~     /  "If you want to climb mountains, \ /^\
                             _ _ /      don't practice on mole hills" -\____

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