It’s dawn. The sky is greying with the coming day’s light. I just came in from slowly sipping a cup of freshly brewed coffee by the koi pond. As I gazed at the barely visible graceful sweeping moves of the koi and listened to the music of the waterfalls, I thought of the urgent beckoning by the pond. “In the morning, – solitude,” Emerson said, “nature may speak to the imagination, as she does never in company.” To lose that silence, to lose that ability to keep quiet company with yourself, to fail to be a guest in your own heart, to fail to be more that a passing tourist in life, is such a tragic loss of the opportunity to develop the ability to think and feel honestly. Without a time and place carved out for personal reflection, our authenticity is challenged; we can so easily get swept up and away by the crowd; we can so quickly lose our uniqueness and individuality; we can so completely surrender to numbing “what everyone does and believes” uniformity and conformity; we can so fail to find the calmness among people and circumstance that we find in being alone.
These last four months or so, when I was uncharacteristically off the grid, have taught me that life is constant improvisation, for, as Robert Burns rightly wrote, “the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/Gang aft a-gley.” I was dramatically reminded that each day is a time filled with the unexpected, that the only certainty in life is its uncertainties. I was taught there isn't a moment that is not an exploration into the unknown with uncertain outcomes. Nevertheless, as Rumi says, “Wherever you are, be fully present there.” He means that we can’t be that passing tourist in life in general or anywhere we are or in whatever we’re doing. Instead, we dauntlessly have to show up and keep showing up. We have to be intensely mindful; we have to be fiercely aware, alert, attentive, and alive; we have to have a profound sense of otherness and of nurturing others. We have to constantly tap into that inner authenticity through thick and thin. There’s no way around it. To do that, however, is a high order of skill that takes constant practice to reach, a lot of constant and conscious practice. That’s why, whether I’m standing by the pond or walking the streets, I love this graying time as a time of deep listening. It’s so important, for it offers the opportunity to transform inattentive thoughtlessness into conscious thoughtfulness; for me, it readies me, emotionally and mentally, for every moment to engage fully and joyfully with every step and breath into whatever this day may bring. It brings a daily understanding that as Thich Nhat Hanh said, the real miracle is not walking on the surface of the water; it is walking the earth and relishing in the mirales that are everything and everyone. These past four months I been thinking a lot of how this is all so easy to do during the “up” times of life, when things are bountiful, when they are good, when they go your way. But, the real challenge is to hold your own when things turn “down.” These last four months have been a test to see how committed I am to living Rumi’s words. I’ll just say that I and Susie have been distracted, redirected and challenged by a roller coaster of family celebration and near family tragedy: the joyous week-long Bar Mitzvah celebration of my California grandmunchkin, Nina; the happy days of wine sipping in Carmel Valley with Susie and my sister; staying for another week of California grandmunchkin spoiling; returning to Valdosta only to be almost immediately greeted with the blood curdling news of the near-fatal bicycle accident of Nina’s older teenage sister, Natalie that almost took her from us; the two weeks—the toughest two weeks of our lives—of fear, crying, anger, cursing, emotional exhaustion as Natalie lay in Stanford’s pediatric ICU with severe brain trauma, broken wrist and back, and severe internal injuries; the waiting for news during several life-saving surgeries; the exhilaration and wonderment of her slow but miraculous near-total recovery; two weeks of returning to California to support Natalie, to help to take the load off her exhausted parents, and to help them back into the normality of their lives; the joy of playing tourist for the 13th coming-of-age birthday celebration of my Nashville grandmunchkin, Jackie; dealing with the constant agony of Susie’s torn achilles tendon, and facing the prospect of surgery and a long recovery period; enduring painful physical therapy to avoid surgery on my rotator cuff that was torn during a stupid fall in Monterey; and the joyous preparation for celebrating the 51st anniversary of my love fest with Susie in a couple of weeks. Yeah, the last four months or so have been filled with lots of what Dickens would call the best of times and worst of times. And, let me tell you what pulled and still pulls me up in those worst of times and lifts me higher in those best of times, what has given me the strength to withstand for better or worse. Richness! Inner richness! The inner richness of a loving wfie, a loving family, loving friends, and having a sense of meaning and purpose to my life—no matter what. What steadied me in those worst of time, when I was sorely tested and wavered, was gratitude, that constant revelation of how blessed I felt my life was. Does, this have anything to do with the classroom? Sure it does, for life in the classroom is but a microcosm of life’s macrocosm. The ultimate “upper” or “downer” in the classroom is mood. It’s not what too many of us solely concentrate on: information, method or technique, and technology. No, it’s feeling, emotion, attitude, mood. I recently read an article by Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner, social psychologists at UC-Berkley. A while back, they published the unexpected results of a study that demonstrated the pernicious psychological effects of wealth and income disparity, that there was an apparent link between wealth and unseemly behavior; that wealth comes with a set of values that are something less than communal; that the wealthy feel entitled with a deservedness for having “made it;” that the wealth creates a new privileged aristocracy or meritocracy. I went back to Piff’s sobering TED talk from four years ago and read some of his writings. They got me to wondering. Recalling all the bemoaning and frustrations I’ve heard and read over the years cynicism about all but the “good” students: “They’re letting anyone in.” “They don’t belong.” “I’m here to ‘profess,’ not teach!” “We’re diluting the value of an education.” “It’s just plain dumbing down.” I don’t have the time for them.” “I’ve got more important things to do.” “I’ve got to meet a deadline.” “I don’t have tenure.” I wondered if all those silent and expressed nasty barbs, sarcastic comments, negatives, lack of appreciation, the eye rolling sighs, complaints, criticism, finger-pointing, put-downs, demeanings elevate our mood in the classroom? Once again, that question has gotten me to wonder if Piff’s and Keltner’s findings could be extrapolated to an equally corrosive academia, to the proverbial “wealth of knowledge,” to an attitude of having academically “made it" shown by degree, title, position, tenure, grants, research, and publication. Would this negative mood towards teaching in general and to the “average” students in particular whittle away a professor’s energy little by little? Would a habit of naysaying, adding up one small negative behavior, one snide comment, one demeaning thought, one denigrating feeling at a time until they become weighty chains on our attitude and hence our performance? I mean, honestly, ask yourself: “How much do I really know about each student?” “How unconditionally supporting and encouraging am I for each student?” “How much to do notice each student?” “How much to I listen to each student?” “How empathetic am I?” “What is it like to talk with me?” “How easy is it to meet with me?” “How easy is it to ask for help from me?” “Does my attitude hold me back or give me a shove?” “Do I constantly complain?” Now, in one of the last responses to my Random Thoughts, I had been accused of being an “academic wrecking ball,” that talk of faith, hope, and love in the classroom ”and this constant harping on teaching is silly, dangerous, and beyond stupid.” No they’re not. They set the chain-breaking, positive mood for both you and each student. They neutralize naysaying with an unconditional enveloping lovingkindness. They’re attitudes and actions that I have found is what transforms in our eyes, and the eyes of each student, an “awful student” into an “awe-full” person, and an “awful” classroom situation into an “awe-full” one. I will assert without reservation or hesitation or equivocation that being a classroom teacher in higher education does not—I repeat, does not—damn a person’s academic soul! Focusing on classroom teaching instead of research and publication doesn’t place you in academic moral danger. It doesn’t corrupt; it doesn’t harm your character; it doesn’t warp your behavior. So, I ask, in the spirit of Piff’s and Keltner’s findings, and if we’re honest, I’d ask us to ponder this: are the more academically renown more or less empathetic and compassionate towards each and every student? Are they more likely to be engaged with or disengaged from each student? Are they better or worse at reading each student’s emotions? Does all that drive to secure grants, to research, to publish, to secure tenure make someone numb to students? Do we value ourselves and colleagues proportional to the length of our academic resume or extent of our and their academic renown? Are accomplished professors really so different from students? My point is that grant securing, tenure pursuing, researching, and publishing aren’t inherently poisonous, but they are so dangerous that they should be looked at with suspicion and caution. It’s our choice to allow or disallow them to have a negative impact on our way of feeling, thinking, and acting. Maybe consciously building connections with all students, being engaged with them, thinking of them as equals, “desegragating” ourselves, breaking down barriers, building chasm-spanning bridges, bringing about a sense of community can trigger basic empathetic processes. And, maybe faith, hope, and love are the essential building materials we need to make our lives in the classroom exponentially better. Caring, without deeds, is meaningless. Too many find it easy to profess “I care” and then carelessly fail at it. At least, I have found that to be so. Faith, hope, and love are the currents that allow me to drift away from impersonal and dehumanizing stereotype, generalization, and label. They allow me to deal, with an empathy and a compassion and a smile, with the ups and downs in the classroom. They give me the insight to see that Thich Nhat Hanh is right: everyone who steps into that classroom is an “awe-full” miracle. Enough for now. Make it a good day -Louis- Louis Schmier http://www.therandomthoughts.edublogs.org 203 E. 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