To be perfectly honest, when I think about what ‘got me into art’ in the first place, I can’t separate my interests in ‘the meaning of things’ and my desire to be ‘smart’. I’d always gotten off on being the one who saw more than met the eye. Reading subtext was always my ‘thing’, like a parlor trick. Until it wasn’t.
To say that teaching changed me profoundly is simultaneously a cliché and an understatement. But here, my talent for seeing more than seems to be there is quite effective.
The cliché is that teaching necessarily divests the individual of a certain sense of power or ability or importance. As soon as you stand in front of a class you ask yourself, ‘What can I possibly know that’s of any real use to these people?’ Even someone teaching CPR knows that there are times when it just doesn’t work. And yet, you get up and do it every day because maybe sometimes the thing you teach really does come in handy. It is literally humbling. Every teacher is humbled in the classroom. And to assume authority and be humbled at the same time is a weird paradox with which most teachers, I assume, struggle. (And if teachers come across as ‘larger than life’ or totally in control, that’s just protective armor. Promise.) This is a total cliché, right?
But that cliché is an understatement. Teaching is a horror show.
I don’t care if you’re teaching college or preschool, in an ‘urban’ public school or at an Ivy, particle science or the alphabet, if you teach long enough, one day a student will come to you with a problem or experience so completely outside of your purview that it will shake you to your core. And you won’t be able to do anything at all but stand in solidarity with that person. Period.
I had a student who had a dental abscess so bad he couldn’t think. He was a lovely boy: gentle, smart, talented, well-liked. And every day, that abscess got worse. When I talked to him about it, I could see pain in his eyes. I gave him ‘the numbers’ (you know, the numbers to call in ‘situations like this’), but I couldn’t shake the sense of injustice that led to his particular suffering. I couldn’t get over the dignity with which he faced it. I was enraged. And I couldn’t help him. In his rotting mouth, I saw the failings of this society, a monolith of fragmentation and lies and selfishness, an indictment I won’t let go any time soon because I know that his pain was only the tip of the iceberg.
Two years after that encounter, I decided to come to art school. While it wasn’t the reason I came to MCAD, it was one of several compounding reasons. I loved teaching, but if the society in which I teach treats its children the way it treated my student, I knew I’d better shore up my resources so at least when faced with situations like his, the well from which I drew to help or support was strong and deep and full and reliable. My students deserved to have adults in their lives who were steady and mature and fully developed, had thought at least one thing through, had asked and answered as well as they could hard questions about life and the world and living. For me, those questions and answers are in art, its subtly.
I have a friend who studied philosophy who says that when people say ‘art’, they’re talking about a uniquely Western phenomenon or concept. I don’t agree. When I say ‘art’ I mean ‘the distilling of something into a specific form with the intention of communicating meaning’. It’s quite simple. Everybody does it. Art can be any and everything. (But that doesn’t mean there are no standards or criteria that communities can use to evaluate art.) Artists are those of us who take as our vocation focus on that process in particular media. In art school, I learned that my medium is narrative as conveyed through gestures and language.
I’ll continue to test out this thing I’ve learned, push it, refine it, find ‘my’ way about it. And then, the universe willing, I’ll be back in the classroom with ‘my kids’. They’ll be different individuals, I’ll be a different person, but, hopefully, I’ll have some strategies for being one of the many adults they need to guide them through this fucked up society we all share. My desire to be ‘smart’ and my interests in ‘the meaning of things’ have become a desire to participate in establishing and maintaining healthy communities. And I sincerely believe art has a part in that.