The They

Last weekend, a few of my students had work in a high school ceramics show at Tyler School of Art.  This is the second year we’ve been invited to participate.  The show is a treat – an opportunity to see the sort of work that is being created at other schools in the area, and to tour goings-on in the department where several of my former students have studied.

At the closing reception, I ran into John – a fellow teacher who heads a top-notch ceramics and sculpture program at a suburban public school.  I see him a few times a year, usually at events like this one, and I’m always a big admirer of his students’ work.  We greeted each other, oooed and aaahed for a few moments at each others’ students’ pieces, and then his next question, “So how’s your year going?”

I chirped, “Well – pretty amazing, actually.  We just held an Empty Bowls with over 900 bowls created in our studio.  My classes all have solid enrollment, with great kids.  And leadership at our school turned over this year – really exciting new ideas being explored.  Yeah – so far, this year’s been pretty great.  And how about you?”

“Well,” he replied, “I’ve been having a great teaching year.  I always do.  But we just found out at last week’s school board meeting that we’re all being cut back to part-time next year.”

“Wait… what?  ‘We’ means…?”

“All of the arts, industrial education, and music teachers.  Yeah, the district is in a lot of debt, and they have to prioritize.  The stuff that gets tested… that gets prioritized.”

He paused.  “I get the problem.  And I guess I can’t come up with a better solution.  But I wish they would.”

For the rest of the afternoon – although my students and their parents were excited about the day, and we got to view an amazing 3D printer, and one of my favorite alums, Ryan, who is in the midst of foundation year at Tyler and looking for any excuse to spend time in the ceramics studio, stopped by just in time to help me box the work, and it’s always so good to see him, and we closed out the day with new project ideas – despite all of that goodness – I felt deflated.

I teach at an expensive private school – although far from being the most expensive in the area, its tuition is far more than my family ever would have been able to afford.  I come from a very blue-collar, rural small town where there were two high schools – one public, one Catholic.  The Catholic school – my alma mater – was priced in the bracket of sacrifice but not impossibility for most of the town’s families.  When I first moved to this area, the concepts of “Entrance Exams” and “Open Houses” were as strange to me as six-figure homes.

My current students’ families have great options.  The tax base of the area where I live funds some of the best public schools in the country.  The more I learn about our peer private schools, the more impressive they seem.  Innovative programs, campuses nicer than my college’s, nationally-ranked athletics, outstanding college placement, and boasting the best of everything.  It must be tough to make up one’s mind where to spend four years of high school, and that’s a choice I never would have imagined just one decade ago.

And I know that I am incredibly lucky to have the position that I do – teaching art to these students who have lots of choices, and have chosen to study with us, with me, since my classes are electives that vary with enrollment.  On a day-to-day basis, my job often doesn’t feel like a job.  It’s hard work, sure, but it’s inspring and energizing to teach my favorite subjects, and I admire-to-adore many of my colleagues.

I’m lucky.  But… why isn’t John?

“I get the problem.  And I guess I can’t come up with a better solution.  But I wish they would.”

It weighs on me that my students are the ‘they.’

Of course, they don’t know it yet.

For most of them, study in the arts is a choice – and not one that is going away.  Several students dropped my classes recently, in favor of taking another arts class that they saw as “easier,” or, in the words of two of them, “more chill.”  These are the  sorts of art-related choices they face:   What media would I rather learn – painting?  clay?  wood?  darkroom photography?  or digital music?  Do I want to take a challenging class, or a “chill” one?  Should I take an advanced level of one media, or pursue another?

For their entire lives, they have had options – and they will most likely continue to have options as they grow into adulthood.

So – when one day my students have the choice, as adults, to set the priorities for the communities where they have landed – what will they decide?

When times are tight, and prioritization seems to favor what can be tested with bubbles, will they see the arts as worthwhile?  Will they see enough value to artistry (pride in workmanship, willingness to take risks, desire for connection) in their lives and careers, even if those careers don’t fall under the neat category of “arts”?

Do they understand that these skills and patterns of mind are anything but trivial?  And that the opportunity to pursue and to deepen them cannot be a privilege reserved for people with lots of choices?

When it comes time to make tough decisions – like the ones facing John’s district, and so many others – will they be able to reflect back on what may be the only dedicated classroom time they’ve had in the arts, and see this time for others as worth their advocacy?

Because I am teaching the deciders.  I’m teaching people who are going to have options.  I’m teaching people who are going to have to “get” – and to solve – some pretty big problems, one for which I can’t come up with solutions.

We all have options, right?  At the moment, my own options seem to have a lot to do with how effective I’m getting a message across that I can’t even fully articulate for myself yet.

I don’t think I’ve yet picked myself back up from the deflation of last weekend, and there were many aspects of my week that felt like failures.  And when this happens, that weight of teaching the “they” feels even heavier.  I’m not going to conclude this post with any answers, because I don’t have any – except a caution to myself to keep finding ways to do (and fail, and recover) better.  Seth Godin articulated this caution better than I could, this week.

You don’t own attention or trust or shelf space. You don’t even own tomorrow’s plans.

It’s all for rent, with a cancellation clause that can kick in at any time.

The moment you start treating the rental like a right, it disappears.



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