Though we all saw our third grade teacher as a pretty lady and wonderfully good-natured, she was also quietly self-effacing and exceedingly proper, so when she was summarily carted off as an unregistered and presumably dangerous foreigner, everyone in the school, nay, in the entire town, was mightily surprised. Of course, when the government interrogation of her was deep in progress and her skin suddenly began to luminesce and the shoulders of her nice dress ripped at the seams as her wings unfurled from underneath, it turned out that nobody could be more surprised than the feds.
It shouldn’t surprise me, as little sense of direction as I have and as seldom as I have an inkling where my path is leading, that I end up in some weird and completely unpredictable spots at times. Take the time I was at a luncheon with the queen and king of Norway. It’s entirely safe to say that they forgot the occasion right about the minute their motorcade zipped off with its Secret Service escort to ship them back to the White House for their next performance. Having lunch with a bunch of foreign academics, even if it’s coupled with getting a doctoral degree (Queen Sonja was receiving an honorary doctorate for her humanitarian work) and having a permanent outdoor sculpture dedicated in your honor is so yesterday. Like that kind of stuff doesn’t happen to royals every day of the week. I, on the other hand, don’t have that sort of thing occur very regularly in my life and found the events of the day pretty memorable.
It was amusing to take part in the bizarre hoopla that takes place when an assembled group of citizens in a country that takes itself far too seriously as being above such things as royal-worship (erm, Have you not looked into the mirror, O nation of celebrity-slavish fools?) gets a chance to suck up to the high and mighty of another nation. To experience the hilariously artificial and probably pointless stiltedness of security instruction from our friends the Feds; to shake hands with other humans who have been designated super-important and wonder why they would bother to shake hands with me–or, admittedly, I with them–and to hear all of the earnest speech-making and watch the well-meaning maneuvers; all of this was really educational indeed. That it was so for me in the context of the university where I taught was certainly not lost on me. I almost felt like I should get some undergraduate credit in sociology or anthropology for being involved in my little way.
But I’ll admit that most of all, it was entertaining to realize that through no particular virtue of my own I had once again stood in a spot that others might envy and reaped unearned rewards that would remain in my memory-book for a long time to come. Just call me Lucky.
When I was teaching, I thought it useful to devote a bit of the informational materials I handed out at the beginning of every term to basic issues of classroom decorum. The idea that so-called common courtesy has to be taught, not just to children but to all ages, is no less ridiculous than understanding constant the need for training and refreshing what is called common knowledge or common sense. Generations have passed since people saw a need to comment on or complain about the uncommonness of all of these virtues.
More significantly, as a teacher I knew that if I didn’t encourage, if not demand, attention to such virtues in my classroom there was little hope of any other sort of learning happening in there. I’m old-fashioned that way. The silly thing is probably that it was only after leaving teaching that I thought very clearly about how much these attitudes mattered in any and every kind of cooperative venture, not only in the classroom but in the boardroom, the living room, and certainly in the places where politics, religion, health care, social activities and civic progress are in progress. At least, if we want actual progress to occur.
THE BIG OL’ HOW-TO LIST
for getting along with Kathryn
I Come to class unless you are dead.
II Show up on time. Lectures don’t always begin on the dot of the class-starting time, but if a deadline is stated as “beginning of class, 18 March” and you arrive one minute late, technically I can tell you that you missed the deadline and so your project is rejected. Flunked. That’s harsh. But trust me, it’s fair. Besides, it’s a safe bet that if the lecture does start on time and you miss part of it, I’m not going to be terribly enthusiastic about repeating myself and your classmates who have just heard the stuff will definitely not be amused to have it reiterated. Be in place, cell phone and watch alarms and headsets off and fully participating in class, and we’ll all get along famously. Hurray for good manners!
III Bring all assigned materials and have them in ready-to-use position when class starts. Written tests, especially pop quizzes, are uncommon in my classes (they do exist), but notes and written critiques can be required at any time. Be ready. Write down everything, and date it. Even if I don’t say you have to. Then you have documentation of what I told you (and when) if I should change plans inexplicably or you have a question. Also, it makes you look attentive and enthusiastic whether you are or not.
IV Flattery will get you places. Forget that baloney about it getting you nowhere. You lose nothing by Making Nice with people and attempting to impress them with your admirable and outstanding qualities; they might even enjoy buying into the whole idea. It’s an excellent tool for impressing others, this making them think you find them worthwhile and fabulous. Conversely, the quickest way to turn a potential ally into a pain in the neck is to belittle, ignore, challenge the primacy of, argue with or antagonize her. Diplomacy and tact mean that you can frankly say, “I disagree,” or “what do you think of _____,” and get a respectful hearing. We are only human (if we’re lucky).
V By the way, if your death prevents your attending class, call and let me know in advance.
VI If you have big plans, talk to me. It’s possible that your previous experience with and knowledge of this topic mean you can quickly “test out” of the class requirements and go forward into a more challenging and personally fulfilling independent project. If so, let’s work together to get maximum use out of your time and energies.
VII If you feel out of your depth, it’s okay to swim over to the shallow end and meet with me privately by appointment. Probably all you need is a bit of individual coaching beyond what’s available or comfortable in class time. Of course, if you’ll kindly risk asking the question in class, there are always others who benefit by having their identical question answered, and probably your learning it together will make it simpler.
VIII Ignorance shouldn’t embarrass you. Holding on to ignorance should. You’re in class, presumably,because you don’t know Everything yet, same as the rest of us. So ask your “stupid question,” please. Real stupidity is avoiding or refusing to try or doing something wrong because fear of lowering yourself prevented your asking the question that would’ve resolved the problem.
IX Be patient. Spend the time. Attempt the highest levels of craftsmanship and professionalism. Pay attention to the tiniest detail.
X Be bold and adventurous. Climb out of ruts. Seek a new perspective on the familiar and become familiar with the alien. Look for connections. Expect the infinite.
In another lifetime I was a teacher. Not a fabulous one, mind you, but one who took what I did seriously and did my best to give my students, if not the actual practice that would make them more productive and skillful and happy in their making of art, at least the idea of what might be possible for them and perhaps the instigation of the will to develop over the longer term. Like every other teacher in history, I knew that most of the burden of improvement fell on my students and had surprisingly little to do with what I could or couldn’t, would or wouldn’t, should or shouldn’t give them. And like every other teacher, I heard from my students every excuse in the book about why they would inevitably fail to accomplish any of this, how they were powerless against the forces that conspired to keep them from making the assigned efforts or finishing their work. Having used most of the excuses myself, I had plenty of fuel to argue my case after spending the intervening years (or minutes) rethinking it all as I moved from student status to teacher. And I knew too that I would have to keep re-learning it all as long as I lived, since every teacher is only a different breed of student and Life is the biggest, craziest, toughest and most creatively optimal classroom of all.
So I made up a little page of possible excuses and a smidgen of food-for-thought responses to them–perhaps mostly for my own enlightenment and prodding–that I shared from time to time with my students if they happened to be getting a little too enamored of creating excuses to spend their creativity on drawing, design, writing, painting, studying, researching, making mixed media installations, critiquing or any of the other topics I was attempting to encourage them to learn. Here are a few items from my little list, because I am well aware that I still need to remember them myself and keep trying to blow past them with determination and, I hope, a pinch of wit.
1 GREAT THINKERS THINK ONLY GREAT THOUGHTS
(and I’m not a great thinker).
If this is true, explain why the Old Masters painted over or destroyed canvases, Einstein was virtually dismissed as a pea-brain by some in his school days and our early experts on astronomy believed the earth was flat.
2 GENIUS IS BORN, NOT MADE.
This may actually be so, but untended and un-exercised, genius has no value whatsoever, and many a great achiever has acknowledged beginning an illustrious career ignominiously and becoming expert through sheer will and work.
3 EXCELLENT IS GOOD, GOOD IS AVERAGE &
AVERAGE IS TERRIBLE.
(Corollary: Good is excellent, average is good, terrible is average!)
Creative and inventive people often have a penchant for self-disparagement and perfectionism that leads them (and often others) to devalue work of quality; it’s also a common temptation to simply fall back on the platitude of ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ and accept mediocrity because one is too fearful or lazy to be honestly critical and opinionated. Accept it and get on with things.
4 IT DIDN’T TURN OUT THE WAY IT WAS SUPPOSED TO.
Oh, come on. Almost nothing does. Sometimes it just isn’t finished yet when it seems to have Not Turned Out. And more often than not, the real result is an improvement on the original plan anyway.
5 IT CAN’T BE DONE.
It’s better to go down in flames of glory, for having tried, than to prove only that you couldn’t (or just wouldn’t) do it. And what if it does work?! Don’t you just love those rare chances to say I Told You So, anyway?
6 ALL THE GOOD IDEAS ARE TAKEN.
All of the good ones haven’t been invented yet, Silly.
7 I CAN’T THINK OF ANYTHING.
You don’t have to. Steal ideas all over the place. Just remember to cite sources, give references, and wherever possible, to thoroughly revise and synthesize things into your own particular combination or version of them.
8 WHY SLAVE TO HAVE IT ALL WHEN YOU CAN SETTLE FOR LESS.
Perhaps because apathy is as dangerous to existence as the threat of annihilation.
9 IT COSTS TOO MUCH.
Some of the same people who whimper over buying a five-dollar sketch pad and two ninety-nine-cent pencils (two weeks’ supply, say) think nothing of adding four dollars’ worth of popcorn and soft drinks to their seven-dollar movie tickets: that’s Whiners’ Math. But most art supplies can be hideously expensive, especially for those productive enough to use masses of them. So it’s a necessary and healthy part of the solution-oriented artist’s life that analogs and alternatives be a constant study. What can legitimately serve as a substitute for the too-expensive? Often the product of such inventiveness proves more exciting than the work as first conceived. Sometimes it’s important to make the commitment to spend the real money for the real thing, too: how serious are you?
10 I’M NOT INSPIRED!
Genuine inspiration occurs ZERO times in the average artist’s life. WHAT!!! Heresy! But truly, if we’re talking spiritual/mystical magic, most must instead rely on a painstaking and passionate process of trial, error, adventure and eventual coalescence to allow artistic completion and quality to arise. Don’t wait around to be inspired, in case it’s not in the cards: deadlines and opportunities wait for no one. If you’re the incredibly lucky one inspiration smiles upon, have conspicuous spasms of joy, make feverish use of the favor while it lasts, and get ready to work hard on the next thing when you become a mere mortal again. We’re lucky enough just to be able to be the real thing, Working Humans. Don’t knock it. There’s joy enough in that.
Stay tuned . . .
In a comment on my gardening post last week, Ted reminded me of the inimitable Mary Poppins, and I was in turn moved to recollect her frank self-description as ‘Practically Perfect in Every Way‘. In the case of that charming fictional character, it was simply and inarguably the truth. The rest of us, mere mortals, can’t quite go that far if we’re honest.
Which is why I like saints. It’s doubtful I’d really enjoy meeting them in person, to be precise: it’s the nature, the character of them, that really fascinates me. Because, as I understand it, what separates the saints from the rest of us ordinary slouches is not that they were born or made saints but that they became saints by rising above the ordinary way they began. Unlike superheroes and the majority of fairytale protagonists, it’s not often a transformation that’s accomplished by the wave of a wand or inadvertent exposure to radioactive substances, but rather is brought about by internal change and will and choice.
There is hope for me in the idea that most saints–and I gather this is true of the heroines and heroes of many significant belief systems, along with many of the major religions–start out as plain, simple, unimpressive and very mortal humans and for one reason or another are moved to do the things they do that gradually re-shape them into extraordinary beings. Some of those avatars, indeed, start out as pretty sketchy characters, if not outright jerks, despots, and other first-rank varieties of meanies. It’s the process, the journey, and the ultimate commitment to do and be something else that makes them extraordinary.
Chances are beyond-excellent that I will never become a saint of any sort. But the real hope and inspiration in the lives of heroes, saints and exemplars is that nearly all of them began their lives as someone or something far less extraordinary than the way they ended them, and if so there’s always a possibility that with a little thoughtful effort I might actually improve along the way too. Don’t hold your breath, but I might just turn out slightly better than expected. Apparently, miracles do happen.
Oh, yes, in my youth I was very much that kid all of you teachers have found so frustrating in your classes. It wasn’t that I was at all obstreperous (a little chatty at times, but then who isn’t), and I certainly wasn’t intentionally disruptive or uncooperative. But since I mostly hated being noticed, thanks to my shyness and social anxiety, and naturally I didn’t want to get in the way of the kids that weren’t perhaps getting enough of the attention anyway, I often found myself wandering the byzantine byways of my brain with the undoubtedly frequent appearance of not caring about the highly significant stuff being generously shared from the pulpit of the teachers’ desks.
Did it really matter that while the doyenne of the desk was teaching the spelling lesson I was counting the holes in the ceiling tiles to see if one tile matched another or perhaps each was hand-punctured by specially trained elfin craftsmen with sterling silver toothpicks instead of fingers? Actually, as a sometime teacher myself, I can answer that query with a resounding Yessirree, but truthfully only because no matter how stealthy the “inattentive” student thinks she’s being, and no matter if she gets a Hundred on the spelling test every time, the other students are bound to take their cue from the least participatory and cooperative seeming student in the room. It doesn’t matter that she did in fact hear the spelling practice being held in the background of her own mental meanderings (or already knew how to spell whatever exceedingly counterintuitive new words were being practiced), what mattered was that she wasn’t supporting the standard of classroom decorum. I get that. Now. But as a kid, I found it rather trying that I had to do whatever everybody else was doing even when I was certain in my heart that I would get the required job done in my own way. I was the poster child for the triumph of Mind over What Matters.
Did I have Attention Deficit Disorder? (Do I?) Would that make any difference? Not really. Despite my demurrals and admissions of inner sloth and self-indulgence, I have always had the ability to be fairly disciplined when it mattered, I just know I have to make a very serious commitment to exercising that particular skill, because it’s simply not my automatic bent. So along the years I’ve tried to train myself up into a slightly more presentable appearance of compliance and conformity when it seems important or expedient to do so.
Yet my mind still flits hither and yon with equally purposeful purposelessness, all the same. I’m simply learning how to be better at a sort of out-of-body transcendence that allows me to look like I’m fully involved in the present action (and I almost am, really, Boss) while a hunk of my inward self can continue its peregrinations in whatever flights of fancy it requires in the moment.
See, there’s just too much loveliness in this universe (and potential in all of the other imaginable ones) not to be exploring it when-and-however I can. The found castoff wing of a dragonfly simply begs to be examined in person and in memory and at great length for its extravagant glassine iridescence. Every minute or magnificent object that comes into my view or my thoughts deserves some serious attention. Shells, shoes, barking madmen and barking dogs, whales and whiskers and whistling trains–if I don’t give them their due, and hopefully in the process also unveil their previously undiscovered secret histories, why then who will? That boy in row six thoughtfully picking his nose with his pencil eraser while staring out the window? Probably, because clearly he (a) has a similarly vagrant brain, the sort from which fabulous inventions and discoveries do spring, and (b) his nose ought to be clear enough by now that his brain will get more oxygen than all of the rest of Row Six put together, so his thoughts will have the added lustre of brilliance that fresh air brings.
In the meantime, I feel it incumbent upon me to keep up my part of cross-pollinating the scientific and romantic approaches toward whatever imaginative ends might finally appear. So please don’t be offended if my attention seems to have drifted just a little off to port or starboard when you’re regaling me with the wit and charm and incomparable genius that I should undoubtedly be diving into with the fullest focus possible. Because I probably only look like I’m off in la-la land when in fact it’s located in me and at one and the same time I’m perfectly awash with what you have shared, O my teachers. I promise I will absorb it, too, subliminally, cutaneously, osmotically and, if necessary, orthotically–right along with all of the goodness I’m already absorbing in my far-off inner world.