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.

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