When I taught in the public schools, the difficult, frustrating, maddening days would occur fairly frequently. In those days, behind your classroom door, you could be very alone. The many rewards of my job made it worth it, especially when I knew I truly made a positive difference in the life of a student. I knew this because of the letters.
Some students left notes on my desks; some sent cards; occasionally the parent would write; better were the Thank You notes from college and adulthood. They are still writing, which is the only reason I’m on Facebook. I kept them all. They are still in my studio desk drawer in a file marked “Feel Better.” And when I doubt myself, I still drag them out to read.
Today I’m writing my own letter. To a student whom I knew well at the arts school which was my last venue and which provided many challenging days. Students like David were so precious. He, like my students at East Mecklenburg, allowed me to be a human being, not some stereotype of a teacher. So here goes . . .
I need to thank you for many things: trust, laughter, stories about trees, and an almost finished portrait that I cherish (not the one on the door, the Klimt-esque one.) But this letter is about the day you made it possible for me to begin to claim that I might could, someday, be an artist.
I was weaving in those days, and one day I brought to school some placemats I had made. They were so ugly, and I had tried so hard. I showed them in class and you, in your boldest 15 year old voice said, “Of course they are ugly. Why did you try to mix those two shades of red and green? Didn’t you know they would be ugly?”
At this point, I need to reassure your family that you would never have used that tone that about an English issue, but art and color were your specialty, and I was obviously the learner here.
You insisted you would be back after school to address my color ignorance and, indeed, you were. You stormed in and began unpacking your book bag. If you weren’t actually shaking your head in sad disbelief, you certainly were doing so inside. I waited.
Out of that book bag came watercolors, a small sketchbook, brushes, a bowl and a bottle of water. You sat down and we began to mix colors. We analyzed what could work and what was mud. You made me keep at it for at least an hour. Then you made me take the materials home and play. You really emphasized the play. And I did.
Because of you, I began to understand that I could learn to see color. It wasn’t easy, but it was usually fun. I still made horrendous errors from time to time, but I noted the error as well as why I thought colors didn’t work. I learned.
Today some of my most admired designs are filled with colors. Students want to make these designs, but are afraid of the colors. Guess what I do then! I tell your story and pass it on. I even tell them, “No black.” You believed black meant you were settling for safe. I hate safe.
I know you taught art for a while after you left college. I have no doubt you were great at it. What you do now, I don’t know. I’m sure it’s creative, communicative, and caring.
Thanks, David, for changing my life, and for allowing me to be a part of yours. I hope somehow you can see this and that on a really bad day, the thought of it will help a bit. Have a wonderful life.