The keys to the Kingdom…

He was a sage man, Mr. S.. I trusted him to be honest with me, especially since he had been the adjudicator of my entrance portfolio at my interview seeking admission to the Art School. At that time he hadn’t pulled his punches. He had asked me, then, how my parents viewed my desire to attend art school. Since it was in my best interest to be candid with him, if he would be a reliable supportive person for my poorly-formed goals as art student, I had admitted to him that my parents were full of dispair as to what was going to become of me, if I persisted in following my desire to learn intensively about “Art”.

Mr. S. encouraged me to wholly immerse myself in the art school experience. He did say that at the green age of 17 years, and relatively untested, I would come to have conflicting feelings about what all might happen to me during these formative early years. “Come and talk to me, whenever you have difficulties or have reactions which confuse you. My door is always open.”

During those four years, whenever I had doubts and questions, I’d tap on his office door and promise to bring him a coffee if he would spare me a few minutes of his time. He was always most generous and patient. He was my “eminence grise”. My parents had no inkling that there was such a trusted advisor whose opinion I welcomed and valued and weighted far more than their own. Come to think of it, he was indeed a grey, silvery presence. He was small and wiry, pale in complexion with tarnished pewter hair and beard. He seemed to be everywhere; like escaped beads of spilled mercury he could be glimpsed doing his rounds in the art school hallways and studios.

By the end of third year at school, I had paid my tuition and supply costs with a series of low-paying jobs – usherette, cleaning-woman, waitress. Still living at my parental home, I began agonizing over how, in the future after graduation I would maintain my art practice, move out into my own digs and sustain a life beyond mere existence. My parents exhorted me to give up all ideas of pursuing a life-long involvement with art. They considered my four years of art school as an early, but doomed, love affair which held out little hope for a lifetime of sustaining joy. Ildiko had gone on to university, to follow the family plan for her to become a doctor. Surely, now, the penny would drop for me, and I’d realize the fruitlessness of a life in the arts and would bend to the family plan for me to become a pharmacist. At every available opportunity, my parents would attempt to engage me in conversation about going to the U to take a degree in science. They completely and conveniently forgot those angst-ridden nights of my struggles with chemistry and math in high school and my sudden blossoming with joy whenever taken up with studies in the arts and humanities.

In the quiet working hours in the print-making studio, while engaged in preparing plates, applying grounds, working the plates in the acid baths and inking, wiping and pulling prints, I mulled over possibilities  facing me in the future. I realized that making art takes materials, equipment, space and working at low-paying jobs would not afford me the means to do more than just keep a roof of sorts over my head and a few squares to sustain me. Advice from an experienced and trusted mentor was in order. I turned to Mr. S.

One morning, I nipped over to the coffe shop across the street from the art school, ordered two mugs of coffee, slices of cheese and carrots and carried them on a bakelite tray back to the school offices. “Morning goodies, for Mr. S.” I told Mrs Trevelyan, his secretary, breezing by her to tap on his door. Luckily he was peckish and glad for refreshments. He waved me into his office.

“I need your help.” I said, and launched into an agonizing and detailed account of my ruminations about my uncertain future.

He listened and ate his carrot and cheese slices; nodded between sips of the now tepid coffee. He swiveled on his oak teacher’s chair and gazed out the window; turned back and beaded me with his perceptive pale blue eyes. “You are the child of the upper Middle Class; you have learned to expect certain comforts from life. Your experience with people is mostly from that class – that is where you operate most comfortably. You need to attain the keys to that Kingdom, so you can enter it at will. It is only through further education that you will achieve the freedom to do this.” He said this without a trace of pressure. He was simply asking me to think along with him and go down that particular road of thinking. “How can you turn the knowledge and information you have gained so far to your advantage?” he asked.

“I could go and seek a position as an artist’s printer in a workshop,” I conjectured. “Although, there is no possibility of this here as there are no working ateliers. I’d have to research this. Maybe further afield. But maybe I’d not be too content labouring over other printmaker’s images. But of course, this might provide me access to a studio with presses.”

“Have you considered any other possibilities?” he asked.

“I have flirted with the idea of teaching. Am not too sure I have the patience and whatever else it takes to teach.”

“There is a way you can find out if you like teaching, or have an inclination in that direction. You can sign up as a teacher with the School Board and try your hand at teaching an adult night school course in Drawing. You’ll find out very quickly if you have the aptitude for teaching.”

He sent me on my way. As his suggestion made great sense to me, I followed up and engaged to teach a night school course at one of the recreation centres. Eight sessions. Not a huge, long-term committment, so even if I was fearful of being pathetic at this job, people’s  limited exposure to my green inept methods would not harm them in the long term.

A couple of months later, after a wonderful experience with teaching and thorough enjoyment of the persons with whom I shared a limited number of hours working, I bounced into Mr. S’s office and announced my pleasure with the outcome. “It sure is hard work but, man, the expressions of pleasure in accomplishment from people in the class makes the process worthwhile. And working to help someone overcome their frustrations with a process or to unearth an untapped potential is so invigorating.”

“You know, if you have had such an good experience, maybe you might consider taking teacher training at UBC. If you do so, your parents will probably be amenable, and you will have chance to obtain one of the keys to the Kingdom. Think about it, at least.”

I went off and thought about it all. Continued to work in the studio and made the work for my graduation show. My mind was at ease, I had decided on a sense of future direction – to take my degree in teaching and train as an art teacher. Went through the application process at the university, and only when formally accepted did I make the announcement of my intentions to my parents.

“We expected you to follow up in a more worthy discipline,” argued Apu. “To be a teacher is not good enough career for someone from our family.”

“Apu. I need to work at something which provides me with personal satisfaction as well as a way to make some kind of living. I am not at all interested in studying in the sciences. Besides which, having an education degree, will provide me with a little key to the Kingdom.”

“What on earth are you babbling on about?” complained Apu. “What’s this Kingdom ?”

13 Responses to “The keys to the Kingdom…”

  1. TheDeeZone Says:

    Good luck with pursuing a career in education. As for education not being good enough, it reminds me of a poster I saw somewhere.
    “If you can read this thank a teacher.”

  2. joefelso Says:

    Great essay—I read this piece with some interest because I’m the parent of a child thinking about art school. As much as I love art, I confess, I do worry he’d make enough money to live the middle class life he’s used to. However, my own parents taught me that having a passion for something is the chief qualification for doing it, and you’re better off struggling at something you love than excelling at something perfunctory. I come from a family of doctors, and they could have easily looked down on my decision to be a teacher. Maybe privately they did, but no one ever said a word to me about it. I’m biting my tongue and passing my gratitude to my own parents on.

  3. suburbanlife Says:

    TheDeeZone – good point, well made! I have been out of teaching for 23 years now, but it was a good career for part of my life. Thanks for dropping by! G

    D – The whole world cannot all be doctors? Which is a good thing. Your family did you a great kindness in letting you go and discover meaning for your own like in work for which you have passion. However, I think it is probably your practice as an image-maker that normalized an interest in art by your son. I know what it is to bite one’s tongue as a parent, but my own experience as a parent bears out the wisdom of doing so. I hope your son is content with whatever direction he allows his life to take; obviously you will be there for him to be as a trusted mentor. G

  4. Amoeboid Blurry Smile Says:

    As someone who took sciences and married to someone who took fine art, I can say that the training in fine art degrees is far more useful for daily life sorts of activities than the science stuff I studied. I love science. Doing it enriches my life but being able to draw a giraffe (or whatever a child requests) comes in handy. Knowing how to use carpentry tools, mix concrete, and so forth is pretty useful too.

    Teaching is often very rewarding. I love seeing the look on a student’s face when the lights come on.

  5. suburbanlife Says:

    ABS – you are so right that many kinds of knowledge come in handy. In fact, they are essential to survival. I’m thinking here also of the knowledge of animal husbandry and food-plant propagation, to add to your list of useful skills. Are you a science teacher? Beautiful area of knowledge!
    Thanks for your visit and comment. G

  6. redneckarts Says:

    regarding your comment right back at you. I added you to my blogroll, hope that’s okay.

  7. Amoeboid Blurry Smile Says:

    Yes! I totally agree with the animal and plant issue. I’m a little concerned about my own kids in this regard. We live in a city. Our garden isn’t really a significant source of food; food comes from the grocery store — just like money comes from the bank machine. The kids don’t deal with animals much. Aside from not having any concrete picture of where food comes from, they don’t have much of a notion of what death is. At night, only a small number of stars are visible.

    We do go out of the city camping and visiting friends on farms. Still, that part of their world isn’t something they think of as ‘normal’.

    I think you left a comment on my blog. I think I’ll email (not today though) an answer to your question.

  8. ~m Says:

    I understand this post so deeply it scares me.
    My parents never wanted me to go to school and study music (which I did)
    I’m not going to hog the comment section here but suffice to say, the bottom line is to follow your heart.
    Thank the good Lord for Mr. S.
    He sounds like an intelligent man with the soul of a saint.
    At any rate, express yourself however you need to do it.
    If satisfaction comes from teaching one adult how to paint the perfect tree, what the hell is wrong with that? 😉
    Wonderful post.
    If my damn blogroll wasn’t so long I’d stay longer.
    Know that I’ll be back.


  9. ~m Says:

    Oh, and thanks for the comment on the blog today!

  10. ybonesy Says:

    Hilarious, G. I wonder if your parents worried that you’d been tapped by missionaries, perhaps, with your talk of “the Kingdom.”

    That was insightful of your advisor, to truly understand this dilemma, which was as much about finances as it was class expectations. Interestingly, had your parents been aristocrats, they might have encouraged a career in The Arts, knowing that your finances were taken care of for the rest of your life.

    I also wanted to pursue arts, but in my family, only “terminal” degrees were acceptable. Engineer, Nurse, Pharmacist would have been great. Manager (whatever that meant!). Doctor, Nun, Priest. Ugh.

    I have to admit something very silly, which is I hope to earn (through my job and investments) enough money so that my daughters never have to make these choices. Silly because it’s not something I’m likely to achieve, plus it’s probably not even good for them to be unencumbered from making a living. Silly because I want them to live the life I always wanted.

  11. suburbanlife Says:

    ~m – thanks for your comment. It never ceases to amaze me with what regularity people are put into one’s path to help one on the personal quest. They are like blessings, intermittent, but arriving nevertheless. One merely has to recognise them – and then be forever grateful. G

    ybonesy – my parents were totally pissed off with my metaphoric, yet juvenile, way of speaking. No wonder Apu had little patience with me. He was such a pragmatist. I think they would have much more readily accepted a missionary calling ( one of my aunts had been a nun) as it was more a known quantity than a louse-ridden, garret-dwelling and dissolute artist that i was in danger of becoming. G

  12. canadada Says:

    True mentors are few and far between. They truly are though the guideposts on our own journeys forward. Lucky you had the RIGHT one at the RIGHT time, otherwise IMAGINE where you’d be today !!! I also think that one’s heart always leads us to the RIGHT vocation, eventually, primarily because it does FINALLY feel so RIGHT and so TRUE. (Not to say we can’t have an abundance of interest in everything else going on out there too….) Life really is for the CURIOUS, no?

    Thanks for stopping by me blog earlier by the way. I ‘remarked’ there for you too, if interested. Best, C

  13. tysdaddy Says:

    I’m new here, but couldn’t help commenting.

    As one who is working on a “living” memoir in my blog and reexamining many areas of my life, your brief essay on a mentor and a big step in your life was an inspiring read. My favorite part:

    “During those four years, whenever I had doubts and questions, I’d tap on his office door and promise to bring him a coffee if he would spare me a few minutes of his time. He was always most generous and patient. He was my “eminence grise”. My parents had no inkling that there was such a trusted advisor whose opinion I welcomed and valued and weighted far more than their own. Come to think of it, he was indeed a grey, silvery presence. He was small and wiry, pale in complexion with tarnished pewter hair and beard. He seemed to be everywhere; like escaped beads of spilled mercury he could be glimpsed doing his rounds in the art school hallways and studios.”

    As I reader, I immediately had an image in my mind of this man and the impact he would make upon you and your course of study. You took the time to describe him and make him wander the halls of my imagination. Fascinating, and nicely done.

    As a returning student pursuing some of my passions at the university level, I can recall a couple similar mentors, people who have left the door open for me and are willing to discuss anything. I’m sure I tire them, but they are kind and have set my mind ablaze with possibilities. I am truly grateful for each of them.

    My 10-year-old daughter has made it clear that she wants to pursue a career as an art instructor, and we couldn’t be more thrilled. Her smile lights the room when she’s being creative; she holds mini art seminars with her siblings and friends and has a way that is patient yet prodding. She’s grabbing the keys to her own kingdom and we’ll be there for her in any way necessary.

    Peace to you. What a fun blog . . . Keep it up.


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