“You got an F,” my advisor, Mrs Hyland, tells me as I sit in her office one fine, until that point, spring day. Oh shit. I stare at her speechless. I don’t even want to be in Art Education and here I am flunking my main class. I want to be a Fashion Design major. But when I can’t find the department head in her domain at the apex of a set of tight winding stairs on the top floor of the library, I set out for the Art Education Department.
Mrs Hyland is easier to locate. She holds court above a carriage house in the alley behind the library. “You don’t want to go into Fashion Design,” she tells me. “All they do is cheat and copy each other’s designs.” Mrs H advises me that Art Education (which is what mom wants me to pursue anyway, always a job she reasons) covers a broader range of art. She tells me to take a few fashion illustration courses as electives instead. Her reasons sell me.
My last semester senior year student teaching assignment is at Westhampton Junior High School. An easy car trip from school. But I don’t have a car. Luckily friend Gordon, who is dating dorm mate Frances and has his own apartment near our school, drives to his classes at the University of Richmond TC Williams School of Law daily. He offers to take me and then I catch the no transfer needed city bus back to school. Some of the student teaching assignments will have taken me far afield causing me to spend a great portion of my day getting there and back. I feel really lucky.
I am at home at Westhampton. I started my school career in these very halls. I love the two buildings with huge class rooms and high ceilings. They are joined by a broad window lined hallway. The art room is in the English basement of the smaller building. My meeting with Mr Phil, as I will call my nemesis, is stiff. He advises me to sit beside his desk and observe. He encourages no conversation. This goes on for a week or two. I am to note his style of teaching and means of handling the classes. It is very formal for every grade, kindergarten through eighth. No talking. Everyone draws or paints the same thing. At the end of class all tools such as scissors and pencils must be put away in a very precise manner. During clean up when there is painting, all brushes must be very thoroughly washed and lined up by side by side.
I finally get so bored watching the same routine that I start sketching in my note pad to pass the time. The students are intrigued and look over my shoulder every chance they get. Exchanging smiles is the closest to talking we dare try. Finally the day comes when Mr Phil says that I am to take over and he leaves the room. He never comes back. Later I hear that he sat in the boiler room down the hall taking notes.
I am elated. And terrified. I know nothing about teaching art. But I do know a lot about kids. And art. I gather my wits quickly and we begin. Slowly at first. Simple free hand drawings. Then fill the paper paintings. Who cares if some gets on the desks, they clean up well. The weeks add up. We create papier-mâché masks using balloons for a base. It’s a glorious mess. The finished masks are stunning. I take everyone outside on sunny days for class on the massive front lawn with its huge shade trees. The upper grades make detailed dioramas. The little people write and illustrate simple stories.
We are in love. My students and I. One of my older students talks about me so much that her parents invite me over for dinner. They tell me how she goes on and on about how wonderful I am. The end of my tenure arrives. When the teen boys ask what they can get me as a gift I say a beer. I am teasing. I really don’t want them to get me anything. They meet me at the bus stop on that last day brown bag in hand. I am contributing to juvenile delinquency. We hug goodbye.
Mrs Hyland sighs as I unsuccessfully try to avoid her stern look. “It was a bad pairing. I thought you would be good for him.” I start to rise from my chair of doom, another semester of student teaching hard on my brain. What will my parents say?
And then these words float across the abyss, “I changed your grade to a C. I know you are better than that.”