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Monday, September 7, 2009

i'll call her Flora

Susan @ Phantasythat posted about a marvelous teacher.  i think really gifted teachers are a rare thing.  far too often we see people molding our children with hands that are rough and harsh, with no care to the tender matter they shape, nor to the damage they do.  a very dear friend of mine is one of the gifted ones.  i'll call her Flora. 

Flora has been through the wars, so to speak. not the 'great war' or anything involving invading armies.  her wars were waged within the walls of impeccable upper class residences. Raised by an aristocratic and cruel mother, she has some issues.  Self confidence has never managed to take root in her troubled psyche.  Though she has a brilliant intelligence and a sparkling wit, without fail, she defers to the opinions of others.  she often recognizes that those she submits to are dull and uninspired. she can even say so, to a trusted friend.  but she cannot stand up to them, or stand her ground.  she lives in constant fear of recrimination.  she cannot bear criticism, and she she cannot assert herself.  

what she can do, is art.  she's a gifted and prolific artist.   what she cannot say in words, she speaks most eloquently in clay.  she's especially fond of raku.  she loves the unpredictability of it, the excitement of pulling white-hot pieces gently from a fire and nestling them, through clouds of smoke, in combustibles.   her life's breath is the suspense of waiting for them to cool, and the miracle of wiping soot-blackened lumps, to reveal  hidden secrets - brilliant, gleaming irridescence that can never quite be duplicated.

and Flora is a gifted teacher.  she discovered this gift with an after school program for 'problem' kids, run through the local fine arts program.  Flora understood these kids, because she was one of them.   she could look into their eyes and see their hearts.  there were bullies and troublemakers in that class.  and in the seat across the table from the bully, was the victim of bullying.  how does one spend 2 hours, twice a week, in close confinement with predator and prey, and not let anyone get hurt? Flora knew how.  and no one was going to hurt anyone else on her watch.  Despite her outward lack of confidence, Flora knew she was an exceptional artist.  she knew that there were people who admired and respected her ability. i think it was this knowledge that enabled her to find,  somewhere in the folds of self-preservation and caution she wore,  the courage to say to those troubled teens, at the beginning of her first class, 

"this is an art studio.  We are all artists here." she looked bullies and victims alike, in the eye, and said, "every one of us in this room is an artist. real artists treat each other, and themselves, with respect. nothing less than that is acceptable while you are in this room. that means there will be no put-downs, no poking fun, no negative remarks of any kind about the work anyone does here. that includes your friends, people you don't like, and yourself.  and that's the only rule here."  

it took some persistence to make them do it, but Flora was not backing down this time.   she treated them with respect, and gave no indication that she expected anything but respect from them.   when they forgot the one cardinal rule, or thought they could sneak some sly retort by, she corrected them, gently but firmly, and made them rephrase the comment.   because she sincerely liked them and obeyed the rule herself, because she taught them using the materials and techniques that she used herself, they came to sincerely respect and trust her.   and they produced good stuff!  parents and teachers were incredulous at some of the results. one teacher accused her of doing the work accredited to a particularly difficult boy herself, and letting him put his name on it.  but she hadn't.  she would have considered that sort of behavior an insult to him. when the class term was over, they held a show in the art gallery that the clay studio where she worked was affiliated with.  every item had either a price tag on it, or a tag saying "Not For Sale. from the collection of_______."  nothing was priced at more than a dollar or 2. the day of the opening gala, the gallery was filled with bodies of varying sizes and shapes. siblings, cousins and friends of the artists were delighted to learn that they could afford to buy real art from a real art show in a real gallery.   money raised went toward purchase of studio materials for the next session.  i think they made something in the neighborhood of $56.25.  

Flora's first class, those many years ago, with all of the town's 'bad' kids, was such a success that it evolved into a 10 week session for every grade 4, 5 and 6 child in town. the program continues to this day, as part of the local school system's art curriculum.  they all go to a real art studio, are taught by a real artist, and their end-of session show begins with a gala in the art gallery.   

the first thing kids taking their first class hear their teacher say  is, "this is an art studio.  We are all artists here......"