Friday, December 24, 2021

Christmas Television

 This time of year, most television stations go heavy on the holiday programming.  We are going to get rerun anyway, so they will sometimes show older episodes with Christmas themes or scenes.  Late last night I was catching an old episode of the original Twilight Zone (there aren't any new ones of that series that ended before I was born) and this week they have shown some of the episodes that had something to do with Christmas.   This was the episode called "Changing of the Guard", and it stars Donald Pleasance, playing much older than he was at the time.  His character was a very old literature teacher at what seems to be a prep school for boys.  He learns on Christmas Eve that he was being laid off from the job he'd had for many decades, due to his advanced age.  This causes a bit of depression, as he decides that his life was wasted- the boys he taught didn't care much for the old poetry he was teaching, probably got nothing from his classes, and he now had no future.  (he would be given enough money to cover room and board the rest of his life, but his teaching days were over) He takes a handgun from the drawer of his desk, and walks out into the snow.  

He runs across a statue of Horace Mann, which included a quote from him. "Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for mankind," or something to that effect.  This further puts him in a black mood, deciding that he had no victories, that his students learned nothing from the rote teaching of poetry he had been doing for many years, he had wasted his life.  As he is about to put the gun to his head, one of those metaphysical moments common to the Twilight Zone happens.  He hears bells calling students to class, and not knowing what it's about, goes to his classroom.  There, a whole bunch of former students fades into existence, and he recognized many, but the young men he recognizes are all dead.  The former students we meet had died heroic deaths, in the military, or doing deadly research that benefited many, etc.  And they mentioned having learned such things as courage, ethics, commitment, devotion, etc, through the poems and poets he told them about.  They talked of particular achievements, showed medals awarded posthumously, or just mentioned what qualities they had learned.  And with that, they faded away again.   No problem, lesson learned.  The teacher goes back home, in a much better mood.  Now he's accepting of his imminent retirement.  Perhaps he never won a great victory for mankind, but he seems to have helped those who did, and can claim some partial credit for those victories.  

So why bring this up here?  I've had many students go on to military service, and a bunch who were in the sciences, but none have come back to see me and tell me I have made a difference in their lives. However, I know that I have made a difference for some students, just for doing my job.  I was mostly dealing with first year students, and most had received little art training before my class.  Let's take shoes for example.  This is a very common exercise for beginning students, and as such I have used drawing from shoes as a regular exercise for many of my classes.  Some didn't like it (would have preferred to draw from a photo pulled up on their smart phones instead of an actual shoe) or thought it too hard, most probably didn't think about it ever again.  But some were astonished by what they had done.  Many never had tried to draw something real, and some discovered that they could.  Had evaluators (outside the department) who visited my classes, I gave them materials to participate, and they had gone home and drawn more shoes, having discovered this new ability.  Or once I had an intro student, who brought me in a new shoe drawing she had done, several weeks after we had done this activity in class, but now as good as she could do.  She was very proud of it, and she said her mother wanted to frame it. What I saw was a pretty good drawing, but for her this was a major achievement.  In those same intro classes, I had students learn some very basic color mixing, making secondaries from primaries, but this was something they had never seen before, and were excited to learn it.  Or combined compliments and white to create a variety of colors, astounded by the results.  In a true drawing class, I had a student get thrilled by realizing that he could draw a complex still life, that he understood now where to put all the objects.  Or a woman I recognized as having taken the class years earlier, and when I asked her if she could get credit for taking the class again, she said it didn't matter, because she was there to learn, and having taken all the other instructors at that school, she decided I was the only one who was teaching "real drawing", whatever that is.  I always required museum visits for my North Jersey students, and for many this was their first time in any museum, and it turned out, museums had some really cool things in them, and this experience was available to anyone who wanted it. A few people who have done woodcuts in my classes went on to do more, prints, exhibitions, even careers. 

So I probably have not won any victories for mankind, or even participated in a few, but I have taught a few students to appreciate art, to do the basic skills of art, and to want to make art on their own.  So I know my time in the classroom was not wasted.  Where they take it from here, is up to them.   Unfortunately, there is not much of a demand for art, so this knowledge may have no way of leading to a living, but I have done what is in my power, and hope it makes the lives of all those who care a bit richer.


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