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The First Class

My parents drove me to Oshawa and dropped me at the YMCA. I paused in the doorway of McLaughlin mansion that once belonged to the founders of General Motors in Canada. I felt like some wayward teen to be whisked away into the depths of the musty residence. With its crystal chandeliers and circling staircase, that were no doubt once elegant, I might have been some “bad” girl in a sepia-toned movie.

In reality, I was only a student teacher.

When our practice teaching assignments had been posted, we demanded to know one another’s placements. That day, our names were aligned with schools whose names like St. Mary’s, Oakwood, or Summerview revealed no information about the students, associate teachers or even the communities into which we would be hurled like too rapidly formed snowballs. Those first assignments before Christmas were only two weeks long; three longer ones would follow. I pondered that someone had decided that these sojourns might magically transform us into professional teachers.

Beside my name, I read O’Neill Collegiate. O’Neill sounded Irish although I doubted that Oshawa boasted a large Irish population: I had no reason for this assumption. In any case, the only O’Neill I knew was Eugene O”Neil and his saga of the dysfunctional alcoholic family who spat words at one another in “Long Day’s Journey into Night”. Was the playwright’s name an omen to prepare me for my own journey into teaching?

Someone from the cluster of would- be teachers slipped me a phone number, shouting over the din that she was from Oshawa. I pocketed it, thinking, maybe I would call. We were allotted a stipend of $50.00 a week to cover costs and given a list of guest homes.

My “teachables” were art and English, mainly because I liked to draw and read. Once I had stumbled into art history, it had become my mission to see for myself the thousands of slides flashed on the screen, day after day, in darkened lecture halls, year after year. I was mesmerized by sumptuous details and intrigued by bizarre stories that surrounded the painters. I wondered by what foul deed had the fingers of saints been delivered into gilded reliquaries and whether or not fragments of noses or toes were authentic?

I pursued art in Europe: a girl from Toronto, who easily chose the wrong direction when two roads presented themselves. I lived in my head, preferring the intoxicating beauty of things and the lure of the strange to the cold touch of people.

I traveled to Chantilly to examine the Duke of Berry’s illuminated manuscripts, painted by the Limbourg Brothers. I learned many medieval artists had been trained in cloisonné, a multi-step enamel process that resulted in fabulous decorations for the rich. Had eyelashes of peasants been plucked to form microscopic paintbrushes to paint individual blades of grass? Each jewel-like page gleamed with secrets that beckoned and taunted my prying eyes.

I searched the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam to contemplate the numerous paintings Rembrandt had chronicled of himself as he aged. I didn’t much like his portraits of his three voluptuous wives. Too much flesh and flabby thighs that reminded me of myself. Sometimes I sketched, too, but my work was weak, a diversion from traveling and investigating the work of real artists.

At university, I flitted and flirted and flung myself about, unconcerned about much more than satisfying my own passions.Too many late nights and late essays precluded a future in art history. Did anyone really care that I spent nights in third class trains, tracking down lost etchings by the blind Goya? Did tipping my head backwards for hours in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel render me a scholar? My grades deemed me only a voyeur, a tourist in the realm of art, not a serious graduate student. But in the end, the future of girls had usually fallen under the headings of nurse ( I had no science) or teacher ( I did have a B.A. in Arts). So, I applied, at the besieging of my mother, to be a teacher.

At the faculty of education, I doodled during classes on John Dewey, and slept open-eyed through policies and procedures and practical tips on classroom management. Often I imagined myself back in Provence or Heidelberg, unraveling some hidden clue, an artistic gumfoot, hot on the trail of some lost artist’s technique.

Only in my English instruction classes was I alert. My professor instructed how poems and novels sparked paths of adventure into words, format or hidden stories. Words evoked pictures in my head as I imagined images captured by the stiff staccato sounds or cadences of beautifully narrated prose.

I taught my first practice lesson to the other student teachers on “The Naming of Parts”. When I drew the flower in the poem, “Japonica” on the blackboard, I was inside the story of a recruit who wanders- in his head- out of doors on a spring day rather than listen to his commander name the parts of a gun. I must have been passionate or at least, diverting because thirty eyes smiled approval, caught in my presentation, that made meaning for them, connecting them with their own experiences, sustaining their interest to probe the recruit’s psyche through discussion and discourse that was only terminated by the bell at the end of class time.

And for me, it was an invigorating class as we were all participants, driven with the joy that occurs when learning excites personally, extending beyond the self to join in the collective.

In Oshawa, I called the number passed to me from Barbara McFarlane. Previously a face in a class, I soon realized we shared more than just the teachable of English: we were both neurotic, our fingers constantly combing through our hair. I could already see some bare patches on her scalp as she twisted and untwisted bits of hair. My own hair, I assured myself, was still thick, so no one knew my guilty secret. Yet I, too, yanked out those miscreant strands, as ruthlessly as Barbara. We laughed about our obsessive natures, wondering if teaching would be a panacea, finally making us fit with the rest of our smoothly coiffed classmates who seemed so certain of their fate as teachers. I pondered if we would be always be like the recruit in my teaching poem, dreaming of escape, or finding ours in the classroom.

When morning arrived at my first practice teaching assignment, I followed Barbara’s directions and arrived at O’Neill to teach art. My associate teacher seemed young, anywhere from 25 to 40, I thought. He was, smiling, laid back, and said, “You can watch me for a few days, and get a sense of the class. When you are ready, say, on Wednesday or Thursday, you could teach a lesson.” My knees knocked together as I grinned foolishly back at him.

Liam Johnson shared the students’ space naturally and with ease. It was apparent the kids liked him. If the teacher is like Liam, learning really occurs as problem-solving becomes explicit and part of an intriguing game that kids clamor to play. Stretching your brain in innovative ways feels so good. I had experienced that with my peers that day I had taught “The Naming of Parts”.

Yet, Liam was not really their friend, but more like a mentor. He spoke respectfully to students, and they, too, were respectful. He listened; he observed; he taught in a manner that demonstrated he enjoyed what he was doing. He never condescended or patronized, intuitive to the styles and needs of each individual. “No rowdy kids or classroom management problems here,” I jotted in my journal. Even at 20, I knew that Liam Johnson was someone who peppers your thoughts with choices and you want to emulate him as a role model.

Eventually I would learn that art is an easy sell . Kids actually choose art; they work at their own pace; they can be creative; art is an oasis and a relief from the hard seats from which they are not allowed to move in other prescribed classes, or the voices that drone on about subjects for which they care little.

I shadowed Liam until Wednesday, when he inevitably posed the question, “Ready to teach?” Actually I would have been quite content to watch him teach-forever.

What could I mumur, but “Yes”?

He paused, “The kids are ready to begin lino-cutting. You could spend about 20 minutes, explaining the process to them. “ Another silly smile.

That night at the Mclaughlin mansion, I began my research. I read “Lino cutting offers the older child endless scope for individual, creative print making. Linocut is a printmaking technique, a variant of woodcut in which a sheet of linoleum (sometimes mounted on a wooden block) is used for the relief surface. A design is cut into the linoleum surface with a sharp knife, with the raised (uncarved) areas representing a reversal (mirror image) of the parts to show printed. The cut areas can then be pulled from the backing. The linoleum sheet is inked with a roller (called a brayer), and then impressed onto paper or fabric. The actual printing can be done by hand or with a press.” (Wikipedia Free Encyclopedia)

I already knew this; I had dabbled in printmaking and every grade school kid has made a Christmas card from some kind of print relief method. I just wanted to be sure that I had not missed anything.

In deed, I had carefully laid out pieces of tan linoleum on the desks of the thirty students in the chemistry-style setup room before leaving O’Neill the night before my presentation at 6:00. And I knew that placing linoleum on the radiators at the sides of the room would warm the tough leathery slabs and make the cutting easier. I worried, of course, that the students would cut towards themselves, not away and slice into their skin, even severing an artery that would require doctors and stitching. I could even hear the screech as an ambulance pulled up to the front door of the school. I shook my head, allowing the screams to dissipate.

Now for pedagogy. I wrote out the steps on little cards, a card a step. I even created diagrams. I found quaint examples in old art books in the musty McLaughlin library.

I approached the mirror in my bedroom and grimaced. So far at O’Neill I had only moved around the classroom, offering positive comments to the students deeply involved in their artwork. To them, I must have been a minor annoyance as they returned my courtesies, letting me admire their work, or nodding to suggestions made in the form of superficial critique. I saw them laugh with Liam and enter into real conversations that lasted for maybe 10 minutes. I saw trust in their eyes and interchanges that looked meaningful.

I re-examined my reflection in the bedroom mirror and said “Good morning class” , commencing my presentation to my bedroom of silence. I paused to ensure the imaginary students were paying attention. I spoke slowly, enunciating clearly, practicing in my best voice, (that was nonetheless quaking), over, and over again for just the right stance, the supportive appearance, the knowing and intelligent mannerisms. I thought and rethought my 10 simple steps in lino-cutting, reviewing my notes, reorganizing my visuals, and deciding where to punctuate my carefully planned talk for questions.

It must have been midnight and I was soaked with perspiration, but I finally decided that it would be just fine.

I arrived early the next morning, and Liam was already in the class, to welcome and encourage me, “ I’ve seen you with the kids. You will be fine.”

Absolutely. It would be fine.

“Good morning, class, “ I began, just as planned. I even paused in the right spot to turn my head, right and left, to acknowledge all of the boys and girls with welcoming smiles.

“Today, we will do lino- cuts…”

I continued to speak… and I heard my words, but my sentences seemed to pick up speed with every carefully rehearsed phrase. Like a train on the tracks that gathers momentum as it moves from the station, I heard my words accelerate as I began to rush through the steps, one through ten. My tongue, disregarding my brain, had a conductor of its own. My head, then my body were mere attachments to a mouth that was hurling itself at breakneck speed, never pausing for periods and pauses. I stood outside of myself and watched as the student teacher at the front of the class held up visuals, words spewing faster and faster from her mouth.

In spite of my racing words, I still managed to demonstrate how to hold the knife, attach the various blades, draw the image, paint in the negative parts with India ink- at the side of the class- warm the lino, cut the lino, print the image.. .

But, I was held captive by my tongue, that rambling purple snake I could not control. How had an alien invaded my mouth, taking my tongue as ransom for pretending to be a teacher? In horror, I performed robotic-like, a slave to the words that continued to race.

The faces of the students, not two feet away, their cool detachment had turned to amazement. Incredulous at the teacher-impersonator whose words seemed propelled by some wicked spirit, they turned to one another, unsure of what to do, of what to think. They remained glued to their seats, too dumbfounded to move. Perhaps they were awaiting a shapechange or transformation into something more terrible than a rambling student teacher.

I completed my lesson: albeit in 3 instead of 20 minutes!

As if my spring had been totally unwound, I was now depleted and wordless: the train had not gone off track, only driven at breakneck speed to arrive back at the station, its cargo erratically cast off Dejected, embarrassed, eyes focused straight ahead, tears barely contained, I made my way to the back of the room. Heads twisted; unblinking eyes followed me. There was silence in the room. I wanted to flee.

But shortly, the students picked up their tools and started to work.

From a fog of tears, I saw Liam approach. Before he opened his mouth, I surmised my teaching career had ended. I was about to plead.

He said, “ You did very well to-day”.

I knew it was a lie, but it was what I needed to hear.

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