Aftermath, and a Toast

For the last few days, I have been avoiding writing.

For the last four weeks, I couldn’t write. I was in the middle of making something – what I have come to understand as my craft.

Rule 8: Don’t try to create and analyze at the same time. They are different processes. This from a text I gave to my students, Sister Corita Kent’s Art Department Rules. I shared this on the first morning of class. Twelve high school students looked at me like I was crazy, and perhaps I was crazy to think that I had anything worthwhile to teach them.

I had tried to get out of it, after all, arguing that neither my academics, experience, nor my track record qualified me to teach a group of students who had self-identified as ready for depth of time and experience in a visual art studio. The maniacal pace of 45-minute introductory-level, scratch-the-surface classes during the school year? Sure, I can do that – I even have a certificate that proves I’ve been trained to do so. But three weeks of three-hour-plus long classes, for which students would eventually be able to receive college credit? In media outside of my comfort zone? “Sure” is a word I say a lot – but this time, it felt sticky in a dry mouth.

One evening in March, I paced back and forth in a late-night grocery store cafe, arguing by cell with one of my best friends. He was offering me a teaching role at the summer arts program I had helped him to start and develop, now in its third year. What an odd, tricky spot, to hire one’s friends. At the time, I thought his cloudy judgment blurred from his experience working with me in an administrative role, off-and-on for almost a decade. He first got to know me as an administrator who supported his work as a teacher. With the honesty that characterizes our relationship, he told me that he had seen me as “intimidating,” presenting, “like you always had your act together.” I wonder how many people I have fooled over the years with this facade? I suppose when you practice something enough, you develop enough familiarity to impress. But working in arts administration has always been sort of a self-sacrificial calling for me. If I handled the details seamlessly, teachers were freed from any minutia and able to do their best, meaningful work. The behind-the-scenes work only mattered in that it supported the scene, and the scenes were the classrooms, the studios, the stage.

So when I eventually conceded to try teaching this summer, it felt like a hundred teachers I had escorted to their pedestals were glaring at me, muttering about who would do the photocopying and set up their field trips. Some of those teachers had taught (read: transformed) me. They deserved those pedestals, and who was I to presume I could stand up there in front of a class of students with more artistic potential than I would ever have? And what if – because of my inexperience and lack of qualification – I missed providing opportunities for… well, for a 16-year-old version of me?

I spent my first three days on campus prior to the students’ arrival in a sort of cleaning frenzy, organizing our studios past any sort of necessity. Whenever I would pause to catch my breath, whispers of my inadequacy for this role became shouts. My colleagues were appropriately supportive, but this didn’t help much – because I knew they saw me as the super-capable administrator, not as a teaching artist. To them, these roles seemed to blur; to me, they were impossibly separate.

Three weeks passed. I taught every day, and my students taught me. I blinked, and it was over.

In my mid-thirties, I still call my mom when I arrive safely home after a trip. Last Tuesday night, as I pulled up to my apartment, her voice over the airwaves: “So – how was it?” Silence on my end. A few days later, I thought I might be able to get past the self-effacing introduction and write an answer to her question, describing how it actually was. But I’m not there just yet.

In the aftermath, I’ve been walking around in a bit of a haze, measuring my days by where I was a week ago at this time. That week-ago will soon dissolve, and I’m going to eventually have to find a point of articulation. I’m working on it. (Strategy number one is to stop avoiding writing.)

One afternoon in this week of hazy time, I met my colleague Frank for a beer in the city one afternoon. I was proud to tell him that I’d used a sequence of videos he had helped his organization to develop, in a lesson on arts advocacy. Opera Philadelphia posted eight of these Random Acts of Culture – I’d originally planned on only showing one, but the students loved it so much that we ended up watching several after the sesson. I think several of them left the classroom already scoring multimedia flash mobs for their hometowns. To my surprise and fascination, Frank told me that he’s pretty sure that the company did many as many as eighty of these events – but only eight made it to the YouTube playlist, with enchanted audiences and seamless production values.

Do we ever get something right the first time? Craft tells us no. Craft is about work, and more work, and practice, and revision, and all that is behind the scenes, and choosing what to discard and whether to keep, and being honest about all of it. Craft is about learning from the other seventy-two tries, while Art deceives us into thinking that the top eight appeared as if by magic. If teaching is a craft – and after this summer, I’m more convinced than ever that it is – then it defies the magical thinking of art and talent. I don’t want my students to believe that art happens magically on stage or in a gallery – where’s the fun (or future) in that? In order to make something out of my summer gig, I had to let my administrator behind the scenes clink a toast to craft with the doubtful teacher. We boosted each other, and maybe in doing so we figured out a little more where we stand.

More of Sister Corita’s wisdomRule 6: Nothing is a mistake. There’s no win and no fail. There’s only make.

So, on that note, more to come.

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