For the past thirty-five years I have been an art educator. Twenty-five of those years were spent at the same school in the same classroom (a converted library—lots of storage!) teaching art to the masses. I had students early in my career and later I had their children. Some of them were far better artists than I was at their age. There were students whose sole purpose in life was to aggravate me (or so it seemed). I taught special needs children who sat next to the academically gifted. Many students were in my art class because there were few electives from which to choose. Hopefully they learned a little something about the arts and will remember the experience as a positive one. My guess is that I probably taught a thousand students during that time.
I occasionally run into former students who made careers in the arts. Sometimes I see students who tell me they still use the calligraphy skills learned in my class. Another student purchased a painting I made just because it was mine. When a former student who works in acrylic contacted me about learning to work in oil, I thought, “Finally! One of my students wants to do what I do!”
She was accomplished in acrylic but wanted to get out of her comfort zone. We began a simple still life and went from the initial drawing, getting values established, a period of “the uglies,” and on to completion. She was pleased with the results and very excited about shopping for new art supplies.
I was just thrilled that a former student felt she still could learn something from me!
This is the week students (and former students) show appreciation toward their teachers. It never occurred to me what a challenge being a professional educator was. All I saw was what happened in the classroom. Not the Sunday afternoons of catching up on grading and planning. Not dealing with the difficult student who irritated everyone, both teacher and classmates (and probably parents, not that they would admit it!). Not the frustration of teaching students who did not work to their full potential (me). So when I see former teachers and professors, I tell them that I now realize what a privilege it was to have been their student. I have also been able to tell several of them how much I learned from their lessons and how I am passing it on to my students. I think they appreciate the acknowledgements.
One of the reasons I became an art teacher was to have the opportunity to make art without having to worry about selling it to make a living. This has worked pretty well for me. Nearly every day allows me a chance to draw or paint with my students without worrying about the laundry, what’s for dinner, or other daily routines that steal time and life out of me. Student artists do not realize how lucky they are to have a specific block of time reserved for the to draw, paint, or create something from nothing. “Enjoy it now,” I tell them, “because it won’t be long before reality will hit you hard with more obligations than you can ever imagine.” Except I don’t say it like that.
I am thankful for my daily playtime in the classroom. I hope those who will become my “former students” will remember the good things they accomplished in my class. Or at least that they received some good advice, like “Enjoy it now, because reality is coming and will hit you like a truckload of bricks!” Except I don’t say it like that.
During the past few months I have seen and heard from a few of my former students. It was nice to know that I had a positive influence on some of the hundreds that I taught. They say I still look the same. (I think they may be exaggerating, but it’s nice to hear) Of course, the twenty and thirty year olds have to remind me who they are and when I taught them. After that, I think they are surprised that I have specific memories of them.
I was contacted by a young lady I taught in the eighth grade nearly twenty-five years ago. She told me that I was a terrific teacher who encouraged her to never give up on her artwork. What an awesome compliment! She wrote, illustrated and self-published a children’s book about learning to overcome negativity to become the person she dreamed of being. The book is Eat Cake by Angie Heard Piper, and it is available at The Book Rack in Prairieville, Louisiana.
As a teacher, one does not always see instant positive results; it often takes years before a student develops into the success we hope for. After thirty-plus years in the classroom, I am finally realizing that my hard work and high expectations are finally paying off. The dividend is hearing, “You really made a difference in my life.”
Note: I recently had the opportunity to see Angie. She is a lovely young woman, married and the mother of two, and is still pursuing her goals of becoming an artist and author.