(Note: predictably, I've buried the lede.)
Above: a photo from my old classroom in Oregon, IL, a former industrial arts room where I taught high school art for eleven years. This was the biggest class I had ever taught, and my camera was unable to capture the students beyond the left side of the photo and the half-dozen advanced students I sequestered in an unused office across the hall. I somehow managed to teach 40 teenagers during that after-lunch class. The numbers on the photo were added for a long-forgotten Livejournal entry I wrote about my room, and I'm sure it went something like this:
1. Corner of black and white U2 poster, ca. 2001.
2. Old supply lockers we painted to resemble paintings by Picasso. Rumor has it that my successor got rid of them as soon as she moved in, which is a shame because the resemblance was uncanny.
3. Mysterious and giant taxidermied golden eagle (I think) that was in the room when I started teaching; I had the kids draw it every once in a while.
4. Probably uninsulated concrete blocks on two exposed walls ensured that the room was ice cold in the winter.
5. Beloved bulletin board that I always crammed with art, music, and movie posters. (Pink Floyd provided an easy colors-of-the-spectrum visual aid; also on the board that year were The Beatles, Super Fly, The Clash, Taxi Driver, Fargo, and We Can Do It.)
6. Terrible farmer's milkin' stools provided no back support. Somebody donated an old church pew for extra seating under the bulletin board, and I also had a cafeteria table way in the corner, where the bad kids always wanted to sit, thus making it extra hard for me to get to them.
7. Here's one of the busted-up artist desks we bought that fell apart within a few years, unable to deal with the wear and tear this many kids managed to dish out on a daily basis. I made repairs with duct tape.
Overcrowding and underfunding were the main reasons I took the job at Unity High School in southern Champaign County, with its immaculate building and an art room that was designed to be an art room.
I taught at Unity for six years before taking this year off to concentrate on painting. And after giving the matter a lot of thought, I've decided to continue to concentrate on painting. I am going to turn in my letter of resignation to my principal and revisit my now-former students and colleagues this afternoon, and I hope they will understand.
I had intended to return to my job during the 2011-12 school year, but this fall's cancer scare shook me to my core. I've already written so much about it. Suffice it to say that it crystallized my feelings about my need to paint. When I thought about the prospect of cancer and especially dying from cancer, I felt concern for two things: my husband/family and the pictures I would never get to paint, future paintings I had been reserving for summer vacations and my retirement years. I didn't think about the classes I'd never get to teach, not even once.
The idea that I might die before I'd finally get to paint seemed so unfair, not to mention the fact that it might happen during a time of happiness and love after so many years of loneliness. Luckily my cancer scare turned out to be nothing, but before I could know this, I had the entire month of September to meditate on WHAT IF.
I've also been thinking about my relatives. My mother's side of the family is extremely long-lived, but my father's side...not so much. When I remember my uncle Dale, his hands and body plagued by the tremors of Parkinson's, or my aunt Elaine, whose vision faded until she was nearly blind, I am reminded that painting is a physical activity. Obviously it takes a freakishly steady hand and the eyesight of an eagle to produce a painting like this one...
...and just like everybody else, I have been given no guarantee that my hand and my eyes will remain in their current condition for the rest of my life.
(Above: the view from my OHS classroom. UHS did not have a view.)
At its best, teaching is outrageously fulfilling and even heroic. Former students tell me that I changed their lives. I was the only reason they wanted to come to school. I made them laugh and let them know that somebody cared about them during the toughest years of their lives. They see me buying groceries and shriek with joy, fawning over me as if I'm a rock star. They leave messages for me on Facebook in all caps and studded with multiple exclamation points. I've watched these kids go on to become artists and parents and doctors and musicians and even teachers, and I think of these fine people with an aching fondness. (Below, a mural my OHS students and I painted of some of the good kids.)
At its worst, teaching is fraught with a factory-like repetition and even humiliation. As I've said before, during any given school year I learned to expect two events so heartwarming that I'd be moved to tears, and two events so demoralizing that I'd question why I chose to be a teacher in the first place. I've been robbed, stalked, harassed, pushed into lockers, accused of racism and, conversely, had my room ransacked and decorated with Confederate flags by kids who didn't agree with my views about equality. I've dealt with more than my fair share of drug addicts, sociopaths, alcoholics, bullies, bigots, future criminals, and just plain assholes.
And then there are the well-meaning but headbashingly tactless students. A couple of years ago I was secretly mourning the fact that Jeff and I are unable to have biological children. One day I made the critical error of tucking in a shirt that probably shouldn't have been tucked in and standing with less-than-perfect posture while taking attendance. This prompted a cluster of perfectly sweet but mostly clueless 8th grade girls to send a representative to my desk to ask me if I was pregnant. "Um, no, but thank you so much for asking," I told her. Later the girls came to me, very sorry and one on the verge of tears. I turned the whole thing into a teachable moment. But did this little incident screw up my body image for a very long time, even to this day? Of course it did.
My dad was a P.E. teacher and coach. He was (and is) an amazing athlete. He tried out for the Chicago White Sox as a pitcher, but they cut him in favor of a bigger guy. Dad went into teaching for the same reason that I did: financial independence. Sort of. It's not like the job pays all that much, but at least we were able to be around the activities we loved and make an okay living off our somewhat unmarketable skills. (And most importantly, since he was a teacher and a father, Dad didn't have to go to Vietnam.)
But here's the thing that depressed us both: we could demonstrate our unmarketable skills, but we couldn't actually practice them for real. Instead we had to watch and teach other people how to do the things that we loved and could do better ourselves. We were jealous of our students because they were the ones who got to play baseball, and they were the ones who got to paint. We came up with great activities to help them learn how to do things that seemed to come to us effortlessly. And the vast majority of them liked but didn't love baseball and painting the way we did, and lots of them sucked at baseball and painting. And a few of them whined and refused to try, and those were the ones that killed us. It was insulting, and I gave all of my students 17 years of my creative life. Dad gave his students 40.
This fall, as I've finally been able to paint every day for hours and hours, I feel such peace. Life as an artist is not without its own special humiliations, but for the first time in 36 years, my life is not controlled by bells. I don't have to drive 44 miles a day; instead I walk up 14 steps to get to my job. Nobody asks me if they can go to the bathroom. It's blissfully quiet. I don't have to put on a Miss Eddington costume. I can eat an actual lunch. I have windows. My brain is not cluttered with a catalog of 51,000 student art projects and 4,000 names (conservative career estimates). This is exactly what I am supposed to be doing, I think to myself as I sit down to paint. I couldn't do this without Jeff's support, and I thank him so much for helping me take these first baby steps into my life's third act, which I hope will be long, productive, maybe even prosperous, and very, very healthy.