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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.


Comprehending Music

I am a visual art person. I have a Masters in Art History. I have always drawn and more recently started to paint. However, although I enjoy music, particularly, classical or what my grandsons refer to as “dinda music”, as my special name from them is “dinda”, I truly do not know how to listen.

My father’s avocation, vocation and passion was the perfection of sound and therefore, music. I rejected this aspect of my early life: unable to understand this link he shared with my musical sister. In any case, my lateral, visual- consuming brain would not have cottoned to the search for the purity of electronic calculations that snaked through circuitry, wires and tubes and out into the world to produce a more perfect realization of sound in installations that found their homes in university listening rooms. He was gifted. I see him in my mind’s eye at his workbench, a watchmaker perfecting each jewel until it became a masterpiece.

Both my sister and I were given music lessons at the piano. I did not practice, possessed no talent and as she demonstrated an ability that landed her in competitions and concert halls, even Massey Hall, I demurred and scowled. One day, I discovered a note from a piano teacher that exhorted my mother to stop wasting her money, that I was a lovely girl, but… When I confronted her, she said that people can be wrong. Well, this teacher was not wrong.

Eventually childish behavior loses its grip and we understand that our bratty actions only hurt ourselves and deprive us of something we may actually enjoy. So it was for me, allowing myself to go beyond silly jealousies and feelings of resentment. Eventually the dial on the radio came to rest on classical stations that attracted and calmed me.And lately I’ve been attending free concerts at the operahouse and exposing myself to a wide assortment of music from Indian ragas to Beethoven’s Hammerklavier.

Sometimes I attend with friends, sometimes by myself. November 19, 2013 . Artists of the Glenn Gould School performed a Brahms Quartet in G Minor, Op.25. I pinched my eyes shut because it helps me concentrate on the music. Any visual stimulus distracts me and the setting for these one hour concerts is glorious: all floor to ceiling windows on University Avenue, the old colour-turning trees in front of Ogoode Hall, people in a rush crossing the street- loiterers, even repairs on the Avenue draw my attention. I am suddenly delighted to pick out a bright red hat or intense yellow jacket in the gray throng that flows on the street. Pop, away from the sound and towards the visual I veer.

In critiquing art, I know the language. I can consider social context; I can examine the physical properties of shape, texture, line, colour, relate parts to whole; I can place the painting or sculpture within historical parameters, comparing or contrasting it with artists or art movements in the day, before or after. I can parse the elements as Albert Barnes did or reject that form of analysis: I can call up the critical interpretations by the Griselda Pollocks, the Clement Greenbergs, the Christopher Humes. Sadly I possess no such compass for music.

So as I listened, I saw things: I translated the beginning disruptive invasive sounds into Kandinsky’s bursts of colour on the canvas; the rising crescendos propelled me upwards towards multicolored stained glass windows in 14th Century Gothic churches,experiencing an almost ecstatic soar; the folkloric repetitions plummeted me back to earth , towards tables of beer mugs and camaraderie that recalled Brueghel’s swaying peasants, dancing and thumping one another on their shoulders. My friend heard motifs. I cannot say that I discerned them throughout the performance. I could entertain a movement from dark to light reminiscent of say,Michelangelo’s Adam parting the heavens in the Sistine Chapel, suggestive perhaps of from chaotic to collaborative from the commencement of the Allegro to the final Rondo all zingarese: Presto.

I wondered how others perceive music. Did they know the language, the arrangement of crescendos and diminuendos; were they were guided by their knowledge of the Baroque? I knew about Baroque in art: all those twisting tornadoes, staircases, oddly shaped pearls, overdecorated room, dramatic contrasts…. Were others like me content to just float on their emotional response? I seemed to be the only one swaying, moving my body to capture and respond viscerally to the instruments. Or maybe they swayed inwardly.

My friend said she enjoyed watching Jamie Parker, on the piano, stretching his stubby fingers to unbelievable octaves. I noted but did not pause on that technical triumph. It did not interest me. I thought, Renoir later in life also strapped paint brushes on his fingers when arthritis overtook his flexibility.

Just as a few weeks previously when Julie Hereish and Michel-Alexandre Broekaert from Montreal recently returned from studying in Vienna to perform here, I ventured they might be lovers, so entwined were they with one another and the music. Interesting threesome! I was transfixed by their faces and Julie’s graceful arms that never stopped lovingly caressing her cello. More emotionally engulfing than practical manoevers- at least for me. That day as at the Glenn Gould Artists’ performance, I reflected, the piano is the spine that supports and holds the music together. It is a champion in its own right, but essential to bringing out and together the music. It is a tender giant with power that dazzles for itself, but also kept gentle and tame as it plays nicely with the other instruments.

And I thought as I did seeing Kudelka’s new interpretation of Swan Lake: that these creators of dance and music are genius. Could my brain even stretch to imagine the difficulties of developing, and executing every single segment( for instrument or ballerina) that makes sense individually and ensemble?

On Saturday night, wise daughter #1 reminded me that there is a language, patterns and traditions that these composers began with en route to departing or reaffirming the precedent paths others had taken. Truly the artistry takes one’s breathe away- even if I do not know a way to officially understand it.

But I know it envelops my soul. It simply makes me feel differently! That’s the message in Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch : art changes you: “ that a really great painting [piece of music] is fluid enough to work its way into the mind and heart through all kinds of different angles, in ways that are unique and particular… it’s a secret whisper from an alleyway- Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes you” (Little, Brown and Company, 2013, p.758)

And because this is my blog, I cannot leave the topic without addressing the impact and importance that art has on our/everyone’s children: for itself and for learning. So here is my naked diatribe:

It is no secret that I love the arts and when I think that schools will not focus on them, or even worse remove them, I fret. My doctoral thesis work demonstrated their importance, particularly for at-risk students: motivating and providing a reason for staying in school. At the very least- administrators might look at the connection between math and piano, rationalizing that music raises those stupid scores that are supposed to indicate how well children have learned.

In 1980, Elliot Eisner , educational guru, wrote an (actually many) article listing what a child learns when she draws: problem-solving, contextual knowledge, relating segments, verisimilitude, physical control of tools, differentiation between real and imagined, competencies in multiple areas— and on and on. One crumby scribble opens up a huge range of learning opportunities. And I am quite sure the same applies to music, dance, and film.

Life without the arts? Unthinkable.

Lucky me to have sat for a blissful hour in a room reverberating and ringing with the resonances of magical sound. Maybe everyone comprehends in their own special way,ferreting out pleasure that makes sense to them alone. Like me.

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