The First Lesson…

It may be because the it is near the beginning of public school term, or on accout of my preoccupation with preparing a two-hour lesson on Rhythm for the weekly private painting class about to resume tonight. I woke up from a teaching dream.  Every year, starting in the middle of August, I dream often about being in the classroom – this despite being away from teaching in the public school system for the past twenty-one years.

What may account for why this particular memory cropped up today is the recent discussion Martha and I have been having concerning the beginning of her year as teacher of Photography, Media Studies and Art and all the peculiar joys and trials that attend her employment.  This year, it has been disallowed to levy a student lab fee in all courses in this province. Adding to this financial stumbling-block, Martha’s school district has clawed back all unspent department budgets, so those teachers who were relying on a reserve they held back from last year in order to survive the following year’s demands for materials have suddenly found themselves without a means to afford to do with their current classes activities which need added funding. I have suddenly found myself reliving my experience of my very first year as a public school art specialist, back thirty-six years ago.

Renaissance Man, two years old, and I, a callow twenty-five, had transplanted ourselves with our meager belongings and our ancient Austin 1100 heap to this small northern community of 7000+ souls in August of my first year as teacher. We took stock of our new surroundings, familiarized ourselves with where to obtain provisions and services, explored the countryside with its wilds of lakes, logging roads, rivers and mixed boreal forest. He came with me to the school where I was to take up my first teaching post and there he made big drawings with crayons on rolled out long sheets of white bond paper while I busied myself with arranging and re-arranging tables and stools and, in disbelief, counted and recounted the meager supplies with which to occupy over 240 students each day during the upcoming school term. RM’s happy background commentary on what he was creating on his large sheets of paper was a welcome distraction to my mounting panic as I realized just how little material I had to work with. In the storage room was a shelf unit bearing several reams of white cartridge paper, some 30 boxed sets of oil pastels, a number of gallon jugs of black, white, red, yellow and blue poster paint, some ratty paintbrushes bound with elastic bands, a terrific supply of clay working tools but no clay and about several years’ supply of various sacks of glaze chemicals.

What to do? This question occupied my increasingly sleepless nights leading up to the first week of classes. No doubt about it, to my mind, colour had to be our first concern for at least several months.  The numerous aspen trees surrounding our small town were turning to a wonderful beaten gold colour, their splendour set off by cerulean skies and dramatically punctuated by the sonorous darkness of stands of spruce. The students were looking forward to a season of increasing darkness, of somber muted earth tones and blanketing white snows. Surely the first week of art class was meant to celebrate the bountiful gorgeousness of our commonly experienced fall landscapes. I obsessed about this in the week leading up to the first formal classroom experiences with my new charges. But how to do this while sequestered inside the bleak walls of a basement art room?

I have always been one to poke about wherever I find myself, picking up bits and pieces – stones, bark, roadside weeds, dried grasses, leaves, pine needles, twigs and branches. So, a couple of days before classes were to begin, Renaissance Man and I foraged outdoors, making a game of finding all kinds of different fallen leaves.  These we took back to our basement apartment and spread around on the green indoor/outdoor carpet of our unfurnished living room.  Here we sorted according to leaf type, laid out sequences of colour changes in leaves, discussed why this might be so and packaged our finds into separate large brown paper grocery sacks.  RM helped me carry these sacks out to the Austin and there they were, ready to be taken to my classroom.

On the first day of formal teaching, I dropped Renaissance Man at his sitter’s, kissed his chubby cheeks and promised to return for him soon. I drove to school with my paper sacks of leaves, hauled them into the classroom and lined them carefully on the floor by my desk.  Then I ran upstairs to fortify myself with several cups of horrid staff-room coffee and nervously paced about chain-smoking and mentally rehearsing how the lesson was to proceed. Mercifully, the seasoned teachers, recognizing a terrified neophyte, lounged about, quite relaxed it seemed, and left me to my desperate internal rehearsal.

Once I had enough caffeine in my system to brave facing the first grade eight class, I scurried down to the class-room and prepared for home-room.  Taking attendance calmed me down somewhat.  However, much too soon, home room was over, the kids left and in straggled a great gaggle of eager faced, scrubbed bunch of shortish youngsters. There were thirty eight of them, perched in clumps on the stools around eight large tables, waiting expectantly.

Introductions disposed of, we did the seating plan and there still was 40 minutes of class left.  I led the class outside and across the street where there was a row of aspens glowing gold and trembling in the slight breeze. We sat down under the trees, the kids very quiet, me squatted down leaning back on an aspen trunk, the students gathered in a seated semicircle.  I stayed silent and gazed upward at the canopy above us and soon the kids started to look upward also.  We sat like this, looking upward and quiet for many minutes.  Finally I started speaking about how I was going to miss sitting under trees for the rest of the school year just looking at the sky winking between the leaves, the changing colour of leaves ruffled by the breeze or wind and  “see, now, those leaves starting to fall down toward us coasting and sailing on the air – following their trajectory, predicting where their movement would take them.” I traced the motion of leaf’s fall, then another, had each student watch for a leaf to detach and draw its passage through the air. “Remember what line this movement makes and think about it quietly while we go back inside”, I said.  We trooped back into the classroom in silence.

There I distributed  boxes of oil pastels,  piles of cartridge paper and a brown paper bag containing leaves to each table and then climbed onto my teachers desk and grsping a handful of leaves from my own bag of leaves.  There I made like a tree, arms upraised and let go a leaf at a time, suggesting in the meanwhile that kids look at the implied rhythm lines made by the leaves and begin to draw their version of tree with falling leaves showing a tracery of motion in a composition. Some of the leaves fell down into my wide dress sleeve, which I admitted tickled and giggled at and that kind of broke the ice and the students laughed. And they busied themselves drawing with their oil pastels like mad.

As the warning bell that signalled 5 minutes to end of class rang, I jumped off the desk and had the kids come up to tape their coloured drawings on the side wall. Some kids at each table collected the pastels and boxed them, while others gathered the reference leaves and piled them back into the paper sacks.  We looked at the drawings and discussed them in a shy fashion and agreed that they were pretty good ways of showing the motion of falling leaves. As the final bell rang out, I was in the middle of reminding them to look at the falling leaves on their way home from school that afternoon.

The kids smiled as they walked out saying their good-byes.  I felt kind of sheepish, even silly, but then I thought, “What the heck, there has to be an ice-breaker with every group of individuals.” And I decided that day to make fun and pleasure a part of the daily art learning experience with students, and that this would not mean any less seriousness in our endeavours together.

4 Responses to “The First Lesson…”

  1. nemoo Says:

    Pretty interesting first day at school as a teacher. I’m certain your pupils like you. This, I gather, happend in the Yukon.
    Bye for now, Enrique

  2. the individual voice Says:

    I thought of you today, writing for your grandchildren. I was having lunch with my son. I will post about it when I’m ready. Nice imagery of twirling leaves in this post.

  3. ybonesy Says:

    A funny thing happened when I read this account. I got Renaissance Man confused with old Remittance Man and for a moment couldn’t understand how the latter had become your 2-year-old son! Then I went back to figure out which RM was which. Whew, glad I worked that one out!!

  4. Deborah Barlow Says:

    G, I love this story. Having never taught, not one day, I hold you in the highest esteem!

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