My renewed enthusiasm for creating art -namely sketching and drawing – has also brought thoughts to my high school days, and my immersive interest in art at the time. So immersive that any chance I got to get back into the art room during the school day (or even after) I’d grab it without hesitation.
Now that I am much older, and those days have long passed (recent Google searches seem to inevitably end with “retired from teaching in [year]”) I’m finding that perspective wasn’t just a unit in art class.
Another one of those “All About Ethan” history lessons follows – fair warning to anyone who was here for pretty pictures. There will be more, not to worry!
High school, it’s fair to say, is a bubble. Or at least, it was for me. I couldn’t see beyond it, and then couldn’t fully parse out the roles of everyone within it. I’m not referring to the usual buckets, like “the jocks, the nerds, the cheerleaders”, although I think those groups were more clearly defined. I am speaking of the faculty.
My favorite English teacher used to be a hall monitor, conveniently near the art room. For some reason or another, my travels took me to his station, where I’d have to wait for the bell/buzzer to sound before I could proceed on to the next class. My recollection is that he and I were usually alone for a few minutes before other students would start to gather.
It seems silly in retrospect, but truly, prior to our conversations in the hallway I didn’t view the faculty as “working there”. We all had our part to play: Teachers taught, students showed up, buzzers sounded, people moved from class to class, and then everybody went home. At no time did I ever view, say, my English teacher as being an “employee”. He taught at that school because he just did. My art teacher taught there because of course he did. Teen logic dictated that if I had to attend the school as a student, like it or not, then somebody had to teach the classes, and these were the cards we were dealt.
One day the English teacher made mention about the Golden Rule of Teaching: “Never live in your district.” I asked a woman I dated years later once about this rule, and she confirmed it. She lived in her district, had a backyard BBQ one weekend, and came in to work on Monday to complaint calls that she had been seen “drinking in public.” She moved.
It was such anecdotes that began to humanize the otherwise undefined form of Mr. English Teacher. This was a job! With bosses and paychecks! It came into slightly clearer view once I entered the workforce part-time, and even sharper focus as I grew into adulthood.
If high school was a bubble, then the center of that universe for me was my art teacher, Mr. Drake. (Note: I am mentioning him by last name as he is publicly known to be a former teacher at my old high school.)
I’m completely positive that I and my artistic buddies drove him completely up the wall. He did a lot of grinning and bearing it, and depending on how nonsensical I or we were being, he would drift over into sarcastic parent mode, probably on the grounds that if we could dish it out, we could take it.
One such memory that comes to mind was some situation where I kept needling at him about something or other and his response to everything I said was “anywaaaay…” while walking far, far away. Ah, high school.
Conversely, I desperately wanted his approval. I think it was patently obvious then, but now, far removed from the bubble I can see it for myself. I do recall a former student dropping in on class one day to say “hi” and getting an enthusiastic reception from Mr. Drake, ending with a standing invitation to “stop by anytime.”
I wanted that invite.
I never got it.
To be fair to Mr. Drake and anyone else from back then, I vowed never to return to the school after graduation and to this day I have upheld that vow. I did drive past it coincidentally once on the major cross-street a few years ago, but as for setting foot on the property, nope, never. (On a side note, with it being 30-year reunion time, around the time of the 20-year reunion I was contacted by some class reunion company for my interest in attending. “Treat this like I died,” I replied.) I can’t realistically cry over something I never got when I never put myself in the position to actually get it.
When graduation came around, I was done with the place. I think the place was done with me as well. I have zero roots at the school other than being a name on the roster, and I left behind some memorable stories. I did find out recently that at least one (my proudest high school achievement) is still being mentioned, however incorrectly.
Life went on, and now we’ve reached the time that the teachers of yore are now retired, or retiring. Mr. Drake retired in 2008, and the story about his tenure revealed some interesting details, the least of which being that relative to the more “aged” teachers I had for many years, he was fairly young. 36? Twice my age at graduation, to be sure, but “young” compared to the grey or white-haired teachers I had in other subjects.
Thanks to things like the bubble, being an emotional teen, and plain being incredibly self-centered (I wouldn’t say arrogant, but I was all about that spotlight, baby) Mr. Drake was just “Mr. Drake, the art teacher” to me. He was married with children, but that was the extent of my knowledge, other than him getting his BA in Iowa. (He spoke like he’d been in Iowa, such as when he’d “may-sure” something.) Mr. Drake had zero other interests in his life, as far as I was concerned. He was there to teach art and be the central figure in my like-hate relationship with going to a new school (providing the only space that I truly felt comfortable inhabiting), and that was that.
Mr. Drake’s retirement notice contained a tidbit that while he was most known for – wait for it – teaching art, he had aspirations of writing children’s books. Apparently that was not a low bar to clear, to the point that he had to take time off from teaching to return to school, learning about how to be a children’s book author. One remembrance ended with, “he wanted to be recognized for his writing, not just his art.”
I read this while taking a break from writing a book.
It wasn’t just Mr. Drake’s personal aspirations that I was not at all attuned to or frankly, interested in. It was his philosophy pertaining to art instruction. My re-kindled interest in creating art did call into question my prior schooling, and with the understanding that memory fades, I still was concerned that I didn’t recall any sort of “deep dive” into, say, drawing with pencil.
As it happens, his approach was “a little about a lot”. Exposure to different tools and techniques was his angle. And upon reflection I do recall that being the case. Yes, we sketched still life arrangements, or each other, and so on, but we also did etching, lithography, painting, and so forth.
Knowing now how process-minded I am, I suppose that was the best thing ever, from my perspective. Had it been strictly a deep dive into sketching with fancy pencils I probably would have hated art class and done all I could to steer clear. So to that end, I do owe something of a debt of gratitude to Mr. Drake and his approach to the art curriculum back in the late 1980s.
As with anything else I took a serious interest in, maturity and experience were the necessary elements that took time to acquire.
To Mr. Drake: May he enjoy a long, fulfilling retirement.