Sunday, May 30, 2010

Homage to My Teachers

Four years old, my first graduation, Mrs. Stone's Nursery School in Farmingdale, Maine (1973)

Alice Carroll-Bair
Sculptor/Jewelry Designer, shown here with her metal wall sculptures
My mentor in the MFA program at Heartwood College of Art

Natasha Mayers (left) and Karen Adrienne (right), during Lubec Arts Alive 2009
Natasha has been my inspiration and model for community arts and activism
Karen was one of my university drawing professors
Photo by Goodman/Van-Riper Photography ©2009

This afternoon Chris and I will go to school to watch a group of teens pomp and circumstance down the aisle to receive their high school diplomas. At age eighteen, I imagine that they feel this is the grand finale after a long and often turbulent or exhilarating ride on the rollercoaster of life. It probably has not occurred to most of them that this is only the mere beginning.

As a teacher, I wonder what impact I have on my students. Teachers are in their classrooms day in and day out, lecturing, demonstrating, leading, and testing. We throw out our bits of wisdom here and there and think that most times those words fall on deaf ears. I try to choose my words carefully, though, knowing that my own experiences as a student have impacted my life more than my teachers may ever fully understand.

I can name most every teacher I have had since I was four years old, starting in nursery school with Mrs. Stone. I remember her beehive hairdo and her little pink house with a yard that felt like a page out of a fairytale, with droopy willow branches and lots of magical, secret hiding places. Kindergarten at Helen Thompson School in West Gardiner was equally as fun with Mrs. Bernstein on piano leading us in a round of "On Top of Spaghetti" and plaster-casting our handprints. I still have the yellow saddle-stitched "See Spot Run" booklets in my memory box in the attic.

I'll admit, much of my school years are a blur. I have blips of images and conversations but as I get older, I find that I can't remember most of my 250 high school graduating classmates. But I do remember key moments that have helped to shape me into the person that I am today.

Once a week between the ages of eight and ten, I would take the bus to Mrs. Rommel's house. She was an eccentric older German woman who had a ceramics studio. We would begin our afternoon class ritual with a cup of Russian tea, then into the work space we went to create. These were the poured-mold ceramics. For a young budding artist, this was as good as going to the corner store with twenty five cents for penny candy. My eyes would peruse the shelves for the mold that caught my fancy. Then I would sand the edges and paint. My proudest moment was winning a blue ribbon at the Litchfield Fair for my hand-painted Eskimo girl. Other little treasures from my time with Mrs. Rommel are still on display, thirty years later, in my parents' home.

Chemistry Class, Grade 10, Gardiner Area High School, Mr. Waters. During a final lab we worked in groups to discover the material in our test tubes through trial and error. While Mr. Waters was out of the room, a student noticed the answers to all our labs in the rank book, sitting open on the teacher's desk. Most students ran up to the desk and jotted down their answers. I was one of four who did not. Because of my highly developed morals? Doubtful. I probably was afraid I'd get caught. Whatever reason, I didn't cheat as most students did. As you might guess, someone in the class fessed-up to the teacher. We were called to his room one-by-one and interrogated. He asked each one of us what happened. I told him my story. he already knew that I didn't cheat,'s the kicker....I still got a 2 in deportment. Full-on cheaters got a 4 and had to re-do the lab. But why did I, who quietly went about my business in an honest fashion, get a 2? Because when I saw that an injustice was being done I did not go to the teacher to tell him. Boy was I ripped. But, years later, I understand the lesson. It was only high school, and it was only a chem lab, but in the larger scope, I learned that keeping silent when there is an injustice does not move a people forward.

Philosophy 101, Joe Grange: A Professor that I had for only one semester that I will probably never cross paths with again. Still, it was in this class where my spiritual and philosophical beliefs started to take solid shape. I remember Prof. Grange standing by the window and discussing Spinoza. The line "God is Nature" struck a chord with me. I never looked at a cloud or tree the same way again.

Patt Franklin was my ceramics professor at USM. I admired her from the very start. She was somewhat of a mystery to me and I wanted to create work that made her proud. Though she didn't talk much about herself, I felt that she was a healer and quite intuitive. Clay became my "medicine" and once I experienced the meditative qualities of working with the earth, I was forever hooked. I went on to take several more courses with Patt and ceramics as my studio concentration. I received the ceramics award certificate when I graduated in 1993. Patt told me that it was a close call between myself and another student. I didn't take it for granted. That certificate was a sure boost for my fragile self-esteem and no doubt gave me the confidence to continue with my artistic dreams.

I returned to USM in 1998 for the ETEP (Extended Teacher Education Program). For years, people told me that I should be a teacher. I fought it like crazy. Eventually the teacher in me won out. I had been teaching out of my Hallowell studio and saw first-hand how art is a vehicle for healing. I worked with inmates, women's groups, and children. So many times I would hear an adult say "I don't have a creative bone in my body" then they would create something amazing and as a result, self-confidence was boosted. A friend of mine was studying to be a teacher and he encouraged me to apply to ETEP. I remember heading into my interview, three women questioning me about my goals and asking "what would you do if....?" I think there must have been a bad cop/good cop routine going on because by the end of the interview I was a bit flustered and red-faced. Trudy Wilson kinda scared me at first. She seemed tough and asked the hard questions that got me a bit bent out of shape. I honestly don't remember what those questions were, but I remember thinking I did not make it into the program and drove home that day feeling a bit peeved.

Trudy, as it turned out, became one of my mentors/professors in the ETEP program, and no doubt, has become one of my all-time favorites. She is intelligent, creative, nurturing, and has high standards. It was during ETEP that I for the first time ever thought that I was "smart". My work was judged and critiqued and it wasn't like taking a form test that questioned whether or not I could memorize basic facts, it was about finding my skills as a teacher and learning to organize those talents. Trudy made me want to be the best teacher that I could be.

During ETEP, I was honored to work under two phenomenal Maine art teachers. Jan Mellyn, at Longfellow Elementary, showed me that kids are amazing artists and to never underestimate what they are capable of. Kendra Farrell at Freeport High School taught me that teaching is fun, teachers are "hip", and that laughter can get you through most any situation. I keep in touch with Kendra through Facebook. She now heads the art department at a school in China and she still possesses that same incredible enthusiasm that inspires her students to be serious artists.

I first met Susan Merrill at a workshop in Lubec. I was immediately moved by her loving spirit and knew that I would someday again work with her. Four years later, I received a Maine Arts Teachers Fellowship from the Maine Alliance for Education and the Maine Community Foundation. I was privileged to spend a summer under Susan's tutelage learning the weaving techniques in her book "Zati: The Art of Weaving a Life." Susan is pure love. It just oozes from her. Not only did I learn new skills as a weaver, but I learned that the most important thing in this life is love. She is a gentle teacher, inspiring, healing, and nurturing. She helped me to focus in on what is important to me in this lifetime, and I am overjoyed that the foundation that was set in my work with Susan has carried me through and has been instrumental in forming who I am today, both spiritually and philosophically.

I met Natasha Mayers years ago in my family's business, but it was just last year that I got to know and befriend her on a more intimate level during Lubec Arts Alive. She is an accomplished activist and artist who has traveled the world to lead community art projects. She is a visionary with a warrior spirit and has been a model for me in my own work with community. I kind of see her like a beautiful tree that has endured all the weathers and years yet still continues to blossom every spring. I am sort of like a tiny sapling, an offshoot, trying to grow, aspiring to someday reach as close to the sun as the Mother tree. The partnership with Natasha during Lubec Arts Alive has set a foundation for my present and future development as a truth-seeking artist and activist for what I believe in.

Now enters three new teachers in my life. Our journey is only at the very beginning, and I look forward with great hope and excitement in our partnership. Berri Kramer and Susan Wilder are President and Dean at Heartwood College of Art where I am enrolled in the MFA program. They are down-to-earth, forward thinkers, enthusiastic and passionate artists. I admire their tenacity and vision. It is amazing what women can accomplish when teaming together their ideas and dreams. The first mentor that they chose for me is a metal sculptor, Alice Carroll-Bair. I just met Alice for the first time about a month ago, and am ecstatic to be working under her guidance. She is wise and spiritual in her work, a master of her craft, and is confident in a quiet way. She has been kind of like a "zen cheerleader" throughout my first semester, encouraging me from a very centered and sage space.

Of course, there are many non-traditional type teachers in my life, from my parents, to my grandparents, friends, husband, and even my cats, but that would be a lengthy blog chapter in and of itself.

For now, I give praise to all those teachers out there who make a difference in someone's life. Even when you don't realize it, you are leaving your footprints on an other's soul, and the lessons you teach go on for many years, handed down from you, to student, to their students, and so on and so forth.


Owl Who Laughs said...

This is very moving and touching, and took a great deal of skill and heart to write. All teachers hope to have students like you.

Dirt Girl said...

Thank you for writing this post about teachers!