Monday, June 28, 2004

On Friendships

A man, sir, should keep his friendship in constant repair.

Samuel Johnston

In everyone's life, at sometime, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.

Albert Schweitzer

A friend is someone who allows you distance, but is never far away.

Noah benShea

Maintaining Friendships

I am still thinking about a conversation I had this evening with my friend Tony about friendships. We talked about phases that our friendships go through over the years, how they develop, and how they are maintained.
Always curious as to how people perceive me, it was interesting to learn that I am considered rather low-maintenance, dubbed a "spontaneous" friend, ie. no planning. I am the one that will say "yes" to the phone call that asks, "Hey what are you doing now? Can you (go out for breakfast, help me with..., meet us at..., stop over?)"
Now, I understand that in the context of this conversation, spontaneity and low-maintenance were being used as compliments, but I couldn't help but wonder at the implications of that perception.
Where do the lines between low-maintenance and no-maintenance blurr and a person becomes taken for granted?
Do high-maintenance people have different types of relationships, since people have to work harder to accommodate them?
Can my spontaneity ever work against me?
This is definitely worth more thought.

Friday, June 25, 2004

People have to learn sometimes not only how much the heart, but how much the head can bear.

Maria Mitchell

dark side

My dark side took possession of my spirit today. She is the muse of the barbed wire, the mad dogs, the screaming faces, the rusted metal, and the thunder storms that appear in my paintings. Sister of Sylvia Plath, who mourns each fig that falls to the ground, every path not taken, the dreams destroyed.
Dawn struggled to pull itself out of an endless insomniac's night. Dreary, cold and wet, the morning matched my mood. In the gray were no distractions to refocus my attention from the pain of a personal life that begs a burial.

Today was a hard one...

Sunday, June 20, 2004

Failure is a detour, not a dead-end street.


A Lesson In Humility

On my first day of kindergarten I was given the distinction of being "Best Artist in the Class", and the title has pretty much stuck with me, in one way or the other, thoughout the course of my life.
I have been blessed with that fine-motor-skill dexterity, eye/hand coordination, which enables me to render a likeness with my hands, of the things I observe with my eyes.
(Ironically I am also mildly dyslexic, constantly confusing my left and right, making it impossible for me to play a musical instrument)

I've always been pretty cocky about my skills, and so was totally unprepared for my own reaction to the sticky, crumbly, brown medium I was given to work with, in preparation for the bronze casting class I was to start the next day at the David Davis Studio.
The wax came in a flat sheet with directions to soften it in hot water, then form it into a small, three-dimensional sculpture, ready for gating. I've worked a little with wax before, but it never reacted like this. It was either too sticky, or it cracked and crumbled. The more I worked with it, the more frustrated I became.
So I cursed it out, wadded it up, stuck it in a baggy, and threw it in the car to take to class the next day.
About 15 minutes later my daughter, Maureen, pops her head in the kitchen door and yells, "Mom! Somebody threw a bag of dog crap on the front seat of your car!"

The next morning I walked into the class with my baggy, and looked around the studio. Everyone else had lovely little brown sculptures, and I had a big brown turd.
I was suddenly struck with the same feeling that I get when I'm having the dream where I go to work without my clothes on.
I'd expected everybody else to have the same problem, but it turned out, I was the sole incompetent. Making matters worse, I was the only person in the group who made my living as a visual artist...How humiliating!

Resolutely, I got back to work on my brown sticky lump. I was starting to make a bit of progress turning it into a Celtic-style zoomorphic creature, when it cracked in half. As I attempted to weld it together, it broke in two more places. I felt like calling it quits.
My drive home had me questioning my own talent. Maybe I wasn't as good as I thought I was.

Then I remembered the rats.

Earlier this year I had a couple of wax models of rats in the back of my station wagon. They were part of a sculpture one of my students had cast. I was transporting them from an art exhibit across town, and parked my car in the school's lot. It was a hot spring day, and the interior temperature of my car with the windows closed, rose enough to melt the rats into softened blobs of their former selves.
The student didn't want the misshapen rodents back, so they remained in a box in my basement. That evening, I put the rats in a double boiler and melted them down completely. When the wax block hardened, I started to carve it. The texture was perfect. I stayed up until three o'clock in the morning completing a lovely little bust of my son Brian.

What a relief to realize that it wasn't was the medium. I still had my skills.
But as I look back on my feelings of inadequacy during the class, I am thankful for the lesson in humility. Sometimes it is good to be reminded that our talents truly are gifts.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

The first and great commandment is, Don't let them scare you.

Elmer Davis

Sunday, June 13, 2004


While sipping white wine and admiring the decorated ceramic dogs at Hector Vega's new cafe/gallery opening Saturday night, I was introduced to a well dressed, quietly refined and obviously cultured woman. Just the sort of woman one would expect to meet at such an event.
When she learned that I was a high school teacher in the Cleveland Schools, her face clouded momentarily, and she exclaimed "You must be very brave."
"Huh?" was my very uncultured response.
"Oh yes. You are so brave to work with those kinds of kids."
"Oh no. They're just kids. My job is great. I get paid to make fun of boys. It's my childhood fantasy come see, I was raised with brothers."
She continued to insist on my heroism, which forced me to strain my memory to recall any moment in my career when I was afraid.

I can only remember one.

I was teaching an eighth grade art class at Garrett Morgan Middle School, in Ohio City, on Cleveland's near West Side. At that time, there was a school policy stating hats must not be worn inside the building. That day I noticed a black leather baseball cap perched on the bent over head of Eugene as he worked on his drawing assignment.
Eugene was a big, over-aged kid, with a surly countenance and a bad complexion. I must have asked him three or four times a week for the last four months to take his hat off in class. His usual response was to either ignore my request, or take off the hat for a few moments and then put it right back on. This time I walked up behind him to remove it from his head personally.

When I lifted off the hat, Eugene spun around and snapped angrily at me, "Give that back!"
"Pick it up after class." I retorted, as I walked to the open door of the storage closet, and tossed the hat on a shelf. The locked clicked as I shut the door behind me.
"You can't take my hat!" he bellowed, "That's my brothers cap! You can't have it!"

Eugene ran to the closet and pulled at the door. As he cursed, ranted, and raved, I noticed his eyes. They had the unmistakable glassy appearance of the chemically impaired.
"With this behavior, you can forget about getting your hat back from me after class. You'll have to pick it up from the principal's office." I said, and pulled out the pad of referral forms.

Eugene leaned across my desk, and glaring, leveled his face with mine.
"I'm gonna off your white ass!"
"Excuse me?" I asked, eyebrows raised.
"You heard me. I'm gonna off your ass!"
"Hmmm...Just wanted to be accurate." I said, and continued to write.

The bell rang, signaling the end of class. When the students got up to leave, Jannessia, a quiet girl with a head full of beaded braids, stayed behind. In a voice barely audible she whispered, "He said he's gonna kill you. That's what that means."
"Thanks Hon'. I'm not worried."
After all he was just a kid. Fifteen, maybe sixteen, tops; and it was just a hat.
This time she raised her eyebrows, and shaking her head, left the room.

I finished writing the referral, and with the baseball cap in hand, headed downstairs to the office. On my way back to the third floor, I met Bruce Edwards, a retired Army captain, who'd taken the position as our school/community liaison. He walked with me to the art room and I related the baseball cap incident, expressing my concern that drugs might be a factor in this student's overreaction to a trivial situation.
Suddenly, the captain's attention turned to the hallway.

Eugene came bounding up the stairs, his face contorted in anger. He paused for a moment at the top and growled, "I'll kill you!"
Then he lunged at me where I stood just inside the doorway.

Before he could reach me, Captain Edwards jumped onto Eugene and wrestled him towards the stairwell. The two of them were nearly matched in both height and weight. At the edge of the top step, Eugene lost his balance and tumbled down the thirteen stairs to the landing.
Upon hearing all the commotion, two security guards came running up towards the third floor. When they reached the landing, Eugene stood up, pushed past the guards and ran out of the building. Security radioed for the police.

My heart was racing as I walked over to the window and stared out over the parking lot. For the first time in my life I was truly scared.
A young man had just tried to kill me...and he was still out there. Somewhere.

I'd experienced a few close-calls with death before; accidents and near misses. This was different. Someone tried to kill me. Somebody wanted me dead.
If not for Captain Edwards, the police may have been investigating a teacher homicide rather than an assault.

The next day, Eugene was arrested on assault charges, suspended for 10 days, and removed from my class.
I would pass him in the hallway from time to time throughout the remainder of the school year, always avoiding eye contact.

Everyday teachers are assaulted in the Cleveland schools. Most of us come back to the classroom.
Are we brave?

Yes, I believe we are.

Friday, June 11, 2004

It has been my experience that people who have no vices have very few virtues

Abraham Lincoln

Thursday, June 10, 2004

School's... Out... For... SUMMER

The joy of students as they race out the classroom door on the last day of school cannot hold a candle to their teachers bliss as they turn in record books and sign out on their last day.

Today was the last day of school for the 7,000 teachers in the Cleveland Municipal School District. I spent the afternoon celebrating the end of the school year with my Max Hayes colleagues at Tremont's Southside (great food, marvelous martinis, and gorgeous patio) then it was down to the flats for the Cleveland Teachers Union annual celebration. The Beachcomber was packed; wall to wall, door to deck--dancing and drinking, shouting and singing. Even the recently laid-off were there, to toast the end of classes and the start of summer vacation.

We pause for a moment to catch our breath and gather new fortitude. August will be upon us in no time. This coming year will test the schools as never before as we work to educate Cleveland's future with 1,000 fewer teachers, and vastly depleted resources.
But...I won't think about that right's summer.

Sunday, June 06, 2004

Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten

B.F. Skinner
As an educator, I am compelled to learn.
Whether I learn from the mistakes of others, or from my own foibles, I've discovered that insight can always be gained by an examination of failure.
Of course there are also great lessons in success, especially if we backtrack to how and where the seeds were planted.

Let me toss a couple of questions out to my readers:

Through out your career as a student, from preschool to grad school, did you have any extraordinary teachers?
What made them good?
What did you learn from them?
What did they do or say that motivated you?
Do they know today how they influenced you?

Think back to the most miserable teacher(s) you ever had.
What were they like?
What did they do?
What effect did they have on your development?
Were you able to salvage anything good from the experience?

Think back on your classes.
What is it that you remember most clearly?
Was it the content?
The atmosphere?
The characters?

Your stories will help me as I plan a professional development workshop for teachers. Your comments are appreciated.
Thanks to all.

Follow the path of the unsafe, independant thinker. Expose your ideas to the dangers of controversy. Speak your mind and fear less the label of "crackpot" than the stigma of conformity. And on issues that seem important to you, stand up and be counted at any cost.

Thomas J. Watson

P.S. are welcome. mb

Saturday, June 05, 2004

Memorable Students, Memorable Teachers

Again, he put two fingers in his mouth and let loose a shrill blast.

It entered my right ear and seared through my brain to lodge painfully above my left temple. For a kid of twelve he certainly seemed to know most of the graduating seniors.
No...more likely he just wanted to whistle.
When the last of the sixty Max Hayes graduates received his diploma, and the senior class president reached for his tassel, the fingers once again entered the mouth.
This time nothing came out.
The boy saw me looking at him and grinned.
"I think I've used up all of my whistles."
"Really?" I asked hopefully.
He tried again. I prepared to wince...
I murmured a silent prayer of gratitude.

When the faculty gathered at Hornblowers later in the evening for our own celebration, we concurred that Graduation 2004 was by far the noisiest commencement in any of our memories, and lucky me was privileged to be sitting next to the loudest of the loud crowd.
One cosmopolitan later, the pain in my brain was forgotten, and the conversation turned to memorable students and memorable teachers.

Earlier in the afternoon, a young man stopped by my classroom to see me. He was a Max Hayes graduate of the Class of 2001. Now working and going to school in Florida, he was back in Cleveland for a visit. I almost didn't recognize him when he came to my door. Eric always looked young for his age when he attended Max Hayes. Now, at twenty-one, he was no longer a boy. He told me he came to visit because three years ago I wrote a note in his yearbook saying I expected him to come back to see me. He laughed, and apologized for not bringing coffee this time.
Eric was in my Art 1 class as a senior. That year, on more than several occasions, my classroom phone would ring at about 8:30, during my first period class. It would be Eric letting me know he would be late to 2nd period, and could he bring me something from McDonald's.
What a charmer.
Of course, he is studying business.

How lucky we are as teachers when our students come back to let us see how they are doing. An even greater blessing is when a former student tells you that you did something right. When something you said or did influenced a choice they made, or changed their life for the better.

A few months ago, I was being observed in my classroom by the committee from Young Audiences. When the group came into my room, I was very thankful all of my students were on task and busy with their projects. The bell rang, the group left, and the next class of students came in while I was talking to the committee. After about 10 minutes of conversation, one of the women said to me, "Wow! All of your students are working and you didn't even have to say anything to them."
At that moment, I smiled to myself and thought, "I have got to write a thank you note to Cliff McCarthy."

Cliff McCarthy was my Art Education professor at Ohio University in Athens,Ohio, back in the late '70s. That comment in my classroom made me recall a discussion I had with him concerning student discipline...I was concerned that he never told us what we should be doing to control their behavior.
His answer to me was this; "If you have good lessons, if your students are engaged with creating art, you will have no need for discipline. Don't concentrate on discipline, concentrate on teaching art."
I have come to discover the absolute truth in his words.

A few weeks ago, I googled Cliff's name and was able to find his e-mail address. I sent him a letter to thank him for his wisdom some twenty-five years ago, to tell him how he influenced my career, and to share the story of my recent success.

Several days later, I received an envelope in my mailbox at school. It contained a beautiful card and a lovely message from Cliff's wife.
Cliff passed away several months earlier. Adele and their children were missing him very much. My e-mail came at a time when they needed to feel some contact. They were all very grateful I sent my note when I did. It reminded them, even though Cliff is no longer here, his life continues to influence others in positive and wonderful ways.

Cliff, you are still teaching me things. How important this work is. How far reaching the effects are of what we do, and how lasting.