Wednesday, January 6, 2010


In which Ms. Bradstreet sees a colleague demonstrate the art of teaching

The Maria Chronicles, #34

Maria has parked her car on a bone-chilling Wednesday morning and is heading for her classroom when she walks by the student art gallery and realizes that she needs to have a look. There was a big "opening" on Friday organized by the parents that she skipped, perversely grateful for the excuse of her period, which now occurred irregularly but at times with great force. She just couldn't bear to perform for the parents, or enthuse about work she guessed would be mediocre. But by making a quick stop now, solo, she could make note of her students' work and praise them in passing, a useful piece of relationship-building. All part of the job, but not one that she minds when she can do it on her terms.

To her surprise, there's someone there when she enters. He looks vaguely familiar, and then she remembers he's a veteran art teacher. "Good morning," he says brightly, his reddish complexion set off by a mop of unruly gray hair and blue coveralls. He's carrying a leather journal with a large pencil, which he tucks under his arm to shake her hand. "Maria, right? I'm Artie Hinklebaum."

"Yes, that's right, Artie. Good morning."

"Yes, God help me, Artie. My name, of course, is Arthur. It's my plight that my natural nickname would be 'Art,' which has caused me no end of grief in the form of dumb jokes. 'Artie" is marginally better."

"I see," Maria says, smiling and genuinely amused, but unsure what else to say.

"You wanted to have a look at the show? Go right ahead. Don't mind me; I'm just making some notes in that I'm going to enter in my gradebook."

"Thanks very much." Maria begins walking the length of the gallery, and sees pretty much what she expects she would: slightly awkward self portraits; wobbly pottery, an almost compelling still-life. Her student Kenny has done a passably good rendition of an archway she recognizes ("surprisingly lifelike," she'll tell him) and Mia has made a charcoal drawing of a middle-aged nude with tiny breasts ("really vivid," she'll say).

It's only when Maria is approaching the far end of the room that she sees the desk, and it stops her in her tracks. Though made of cheap pine, it's stunningly designed: no drawers, but a series of cubbies and shelves that seem quite practical. The desktop has simple carvings in circular patterns, covered by a large piece of glass. The artist clearly labored under some serious shortcomings in materials, and yet has fashioned something striking in its simplicity.

"Is this your work?" she asks Artie.

"No, that's actually a piece of student work, believe it or not. Derek Clark. You know him?"

"Indeed I do," Maria answers. "He's in my U.S. History class. A bit of a challenge." (A bit of an understatement, but Maria is afraid to admit too much, lest she betray a stature deficit with a colleague.)

"Oh the boy drives me crazy," Artie says. "Sullen, uncooperative, you name it. But, as you can see, there's something there. I've got him in a sculpture class, but all he wants to do is carpentry. Whenever I tried to steer him toward working with the rest of the class, I'd lose him, either because he'd check out mentally or simply cut class entirely. Then one day he notices I have a bunch of tools here that I use for various installations I set up for myself and the theater department. So he asks me if he can use them for woodcuts. I figure, why not? Let him do what he wants, we'll see where it goes. Excuse me."

Artie pulls a hankerchief and sneezes. Maria is charmed and moved. She remembers now that she's heard him talked about with amusement and affection. She almost chokes up at the thought of Derek succumbing to the man's unselfconscious, effortless decency.

Artie resumes: "Anyway, now Derek becomes a man obsessed. Half the time I have to kick him out of here because I've got to go home. Endless questions. I really went to bat for him, cashing in some chits with Bob Markham over at the wood shop, and bringing in that piece of glass I had lying around in my shed at home. But of course he refused to come to the opening. I'd hoped Mom would come. But I'm not sure he ever told her. Probably something I should have done myself."

"Well, the important thing is the work," Maria says. "It's great that you're giving him the opportunity."

"That's what we're here for, right? Just in case something takes? The kid's got a monkey on his back. But like I said, there's something there."

"Would you mind if I left him a note?"

"Sure!" He rips a page out his journal and hands over the pencil. "Just slip it under the glass. No need to be gentle; it's a sturdy piece. He'll be by this afternoon."

"Thanks very much."

Artie resumes his inventory of student work mentally, as Maria writes:

Very elegant and practical, Derek. I expected no less. But tell me: What else can you build? --M.B.

"I want to thank you, Artie," Maria says as she hands back the pencil. "This has been very helpful."

"No problem, Maria. Like I said, that's what we're here for."