“What’s the best piece of advice you can give me as a new high school art teacher?” I asked. “Tomorrow is our first day of school.”
I stood before my mentor, the artist who had been my guide and inspiration for 21 years. I had first studied with her when I was 13 years old. When I was in junior high school, my mother had discovered that she lived just down the street from me. I took a class with her each week until I graduated high school. We had remained in touch.
I needed her words of wisdom in preparation for my new position. We were in her home studio, a spacious room with windows overlooking white pines and gnarled apple trees. There were stacks of canvases of landscapes leaning against the walls, a still life in the corner, white book cases groaning with thick artist monographs, a large table covered by a piece of glass dabbed with careful mixtures of oil paint, old Maxwell House coffee cans filled with dozens of long-handled bristle brushes. On the floor by an armchair, her Welsh Corgi napped despite a Beethoven soundtrack.
In the center of the studio was a tall, heavy wooden easel holding her current painting in progress, a canvas of coastal Maine, with sharp granite rocks, choppy ultramarine waves, and an island beyond, framed by pale pink clouds that swept diagonally across the cerulean sky.
Standing there in her navy canvas boat shoes with white socks, baggy cuffed blue jeans, cream oxford shirt, and paint-stained blue denim apron, this middle-aged woman looked straight at me. Without a moment’s hesitation she gave me the best piece of teaching advice I would ever receive:
“Shake in your shoes before you open your mouth to speak. What you say could be remembered for a lifetime. Always be humbled by the power of teaching.”
Startled, a wave of fear ran through me.
“Now I’m scared,” I said. I looked at her face framed by her short, straight light brown hair. Her clear, sharp blue eyes pierced mine and did not waver.
“Think about it, Ginny. Think about the teachers in your life who have said things to you that you still remember to this day, for better or for worse. You want your words to be remembered for the better.”
“That’s not the piece of advice I expected, but it’s really good advice. Thank you,” I replied. “I hope I don’t mess up. I hope I’m as good an art teacher to my students as you’ve been to me.”
I was preparing to go back to teach at the high school from which I had graduated. It was my chance to teach art to them all, the ones who loved it and the ones who thought they'd take it for an ‘easy A.’ The ones who lived and breathed art, and the ones who had yet to discover its gifts. It was my chance to teach the quiet kids-- like I had been—to help them find and celebrate something special within themselves. And it was my chance to teach mutual respect among young adults--each different, each trying to figure out their own life, each trying to understand how they ‘fit in.’ It was my chance to teach them all—through art, the universal language that could enable them to discover the amazing person inside themselves and each other, at a developmentally critical moment in their lives.
More than enrichment, more than a fun class, more than appreciation, more than technical training, more than the making of things that looked nice, I wanted my art room to be a safe and welcoming space where my students could be themselves and explore their unique constellation of abilities, hopes, and concerns. A place where what they had to say about life as they knew it would be honored. I wanted it to be more than the filling of heads, passing of tests, and getting right answers. I did have stuff to teach them, stuff to put into their heads, but I was much more interested in what I could pull out of them. Then I would learn something every day, too. I wanted my classroom to be a place where we were all learners, and all teachers to each other.
So I entered my high school art classroom on that first day, and as the students filtered in, what did I do?
I shook in my shoes.
I told them what my teacher had said to me. I told them that I had thought long and hard about what to say to them. And I wanted them to know that I would do my best to have my words be remembered for the better. For I would never know which of my words, if any, they would carry with them.
Now, thirty-plus years later from that day, every once in a while, one of my former students contacts me to tell me something I had told them one day long ago. I cringe a bit before they tell me, hoping I didn’t mess it up. I really did try my best, and I do hope my students through the years understand that, whatever they remember.
When I hear them recall my words (most often things I have long forgotten), I am humbled by how long those words have lived in memory. And I breathe a sigh of relief that I had been forewarned of the power of teaching.
Even to this day when I teach, I still remember:
Shake in your shoes before you open your mouth to speak.
What you say could be remembered for a lifetime. Always be humbled by the power of teaching.
And because so many of us are teachers in one capacity or another--parents, grandparents, bosses, colleagues, friends-- it's just plain good advice.