The Wisdom of a Teacher

Mrs. Birdwell taught Art at my high school. I am unsure how old she was at the time I attended classes there. As students, we learned how to carve lithographs out of linoleum tiles. We used pastels, oil paints, water colors, pencils, and pens, to convey our ideas we thought would benefit the world. There was even a potter’s wheel or two. We were encouraged to use methods like shading, cross hatch, and stippling to create our “master pieces”. Though everyone might be working on something different in each class, Mrs. Birdwell took the time to make sure we were learning something specific to what we needed.

When I think of Mrs. Birdwell, there are three things that come into in my mind. Three lessons I learned from her that had very little to do with any of the aforementioned methods or tools. She may have done it intentionally, or she may have no idea what I learned, but regardless, these ideas have stuck with me thirty years after they were communicated, due to  whatever wise way she chose to convey them at the time. These lessons were about life. These lessons left impressions on the way I live, as opposed to just being something I could be evaluated on at the time. If you are a teacher, or if you hope to leave some bit of yourself with others, these things come in handy. If you are simply trying to get through another day, these lessons are like a life vest offered after falling into a turbulent sea.

Give it a try.

We were encouraged to bring cassettes or records to class (it was thirty years ago) and we would share what we loved about music, and what type of music we loved, with others in the class. She would listen for a moment, and if she liked it as well, she would play it for the whole class to hear as we worked on our individual projects. I am unsure who brought in Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits, but I do remember it playing. It started with Rainy Day Women #35 and I hated it with a passion. It irritated me on all kinds of levels.

Bob Dylan, a few years later, became one of my favorite artists. I learned that first impressions are not always permanent. I learned that my love for Dylan can be annoying to some. I learned that in a group of young people, it is good to have diverse interests shared and that tolerance is something that is taught, more than something that is inherently found in the nature of “good kids”. She taught me to enjoy something. Even though it was not enjoyed right away. I learned that life is not always about what only I need.

Mercy and grace is better than justice and judgement.

In my third year at the school, I had a period of time called “study hall” that was spent in the library, sitting quietly, and catching up on my homework. Most days it was boring, and Mrs. Birdwell suggested that she write a note to the teacher that supervised the time and ask if I might help her with some cleaning in her classroom. She did this from time to time. Then I took matters into my own hands. I got a form that was used for requesting the presence of a student, filled it out, and signed her name. Not to skip class, but to actually go to her room.

When I arrived there, she had already been made aware of my forgery. She was disappointed. As an artist, her signature meant a little more to her than most people, and I had stolen it for my own use.  Her talk with me made me aware that what I did was wrong, and that she was at a loss as to how to handle the situation. How she handled it, was to invite me into the classroom, attend to my normal cleaning duties, and never speak of it again. She had dispensed just the right amount of sternness, explained the seriousness of the matter in a firm way, and offered me a grace that has lasted a lifetime. Sometimes, if we are concerned with others in a real way, we offer grace.

Work back into it.

One of Mrs. Birdwell’s favorite things to say to me, and most likely others, came after I worked on a project for hours. After I thought there was nothing left to do but enjoy, and offer for the enjoyment of others, what I had spent my valuable time creating. I began to expect it each time I would turn a project in to be graded. She never meant what she said in a mean way, but she said it, a lot. The first time I heard it, it crushed my soul and I felt betrayed. As I spent more time with her, I believe I came to understand what she meant, and what a valuable tool it would become in art, and in life. I have said it to my children more than once in relation to a drawing or a dispute they might have been in with their friends.

It was a vague concept that meant to me, that what I had offered was incomplete. That somehow I had failed to meet expectations that I did not know existed. The system was obviously flawed because I had done everything  I could to meet the requirements that were explained, and now all I was hearing was this? But every time I turned in a drawing. Every time I thought I was done. Every time I was ready to give up on the creation process. I heard, “Work back into it”.

What I failed to realize at the time, is that it could just have well as been taken as a compliment. It could have been interpreted as, “this is of worth, get back in there and make more of it come alive”. This is how I use the term today with friends and those who ask me for particular advice. Yes, when asked for particular advice, I often return words that are vague upon first hearing. But the advice of working back into a thing is probably one of the most profound and deep things I have ever heard. And fortunately for me, I heard them at a relatively young age. From a teacher of art, music, life, and so many other things.

Some people impact your life and they never know. I do not believe I have seen Mrs. Birdwell since my last year in high school. I was never one of the cool kids, and really, I never kept up much with any of my teachers, or even friends, all that well. My hope is that she is doing well. My hope is that there are others in the world, that are disciples of her thought. What I do know, is that the world, and especially, my world, are better because of the choices she made to teach in a public school, for a lot less money, than her teachings were worth.

When I am frustrated with a day that I have and am asked about what I will do the next day? Work back into it. When I find something I enjoy more than what I have enjoyed before and wonder how to capture that feeling again? Work back into it. And for us? When we are tempted to give up. Tempted to dismiss our value in a situation. Tempted to leave the world alone. We work back into it. Not because what we have created thus far requires something more, or is somehow incomplete, but because the life we have lived, though not perfect, has worth, and is worth more of the “us” that is  already invested. Work back into it. Because we, most often, are what the “it”, needs.

And so it is with creation. It is why we have seasons. It is why we feel we are connected with all that is, at times, and why we feel so disconnected from everything, at other times. We are not so much created, as we are “being created”. And if we understand that we are also creators of realities, as well as creations, and we work back into it every day, we will make a better world. Both for ourselves, and others. Pretty heavy stuff, all from an eleventh grade art class.  Pretty good stuff for finding what is right with the world and making more of it possible.

Will you share what you think?