Friday, March 14, 2014

Hour of grace

A demo of guidelines for drawing facial features.
My weekends begin on Thursdays these days, 2:21 p.m. on the nose.

By that time my car has curled off Florin Road onto Highway 99 north, the traffic manageable at this time of day, no artful dodging or engine gunning required to join the flow.

My chest rises then, the way it does for children when they're just about to leave the schoolground on a Friday afternoon, or for you Friday evenings, when you have turned the homeward corner onto your street.

The sturm und drang of the week has rattled its last, and the next week is long in slack. The air is lighter. You are free.

I'm free a day before you. But by Friday my restful feeling dissipates, the slack is gone and the pressure already begins to build.

All for one hour.

I teach art for that hour, 1:15 to 2:15 on Thursdays, to young adults who have developmental disabilities.

Please understand, the hour itself is wonderful. All of life transpires in that hour — wonder and anxiety and creation and failure and reason and frustration and hope and adventure and hellos and goodbyes. Buoyant hellos and heartfelt goodbyes.

That one hour informs my week. That one hour wears me out.

I have taught art classes for three years — once a week during one or two school terms each year — through a program inspired by the Kennedy family's devotion to people with special needs. Each year I have been able to work with the same class, more or less, of young adults, allowed to continue in public education until they turn 22.

In this class they practice living independently — making their way around the greater city, managing households, finding and keeping jobs — and they get one hour with me.

Just one hour. But I don't want to let them down.

In that hour I feel the pangs of my former brief career as a teacher, a profession that demanded the most of my weakest traits, namely planning and organization.

So I hyper-plan and over-organize, or think I do, unschooled as I am, and still face micro-nightmares of the one important item I forgot to bring, or the activity that fell apart for a circumstance I didn't anticipate.

Sometimes those nightmares really happen.

The students' art becomes part of a big festival at the end of each term. After the first show I realized that many of the other teachers, in gentle collusion, teach roughly the same: Introduce a famous artist, spend a couple weeks having students create art inspired by that artist's work, move on to the next artist.

Those teachers' festival gallery spaces blossom with work hinting of Kandinsky, Van Gogh, even ceramics based on creations of glass artist Dale Chihuly.

I keep missing that memo and have worked with these students on process instead. The result is not a garden of art on the walls, but just one or two show pieces for each student pulled out of 20 weeks of working from Point A to Point T.

The first year I taught students how to draw superheroes, which the program director discouraged as too juvenile for the young adults, but which their teachers supported for allowing students to advocate for themselves. It was really imagination-powered figure drawing in disguise.

The second year we worked in water color. It continued the drawing skills we had started the class before, but with the mysteries of a new medium. We went to the zoo and sketched the wildlife, and students turned their sketches to washes and flares of color.

We are on yet another new medium — charcoal and pastel — learning how to draw portraits, self and otherwise. Line and shape harnessed to new purpose, light and shadow, three-dimensional objects, with a lot of messy dust.

Beginning Friday afternoon, I'm thinking of that dust. I'm thinking of ways to get students to moderate the way they press their charcoal sticks to paper so that they can get it to spread where they want it to get and not so much on the tables or their clothes.

I'm wondering how to proceed from the week's lesson so that next week's is meaningful and interesting. I'm wondering why I didn't realize some students wouldn't see that light cast on an object from one side casts a shadow on the other. I'm considering backing up from there, finding a different way to teach light and shadow, before teaching more about facial features, without boring them.

Charge and retreat and regroup and reflect. That's my teaching style. I don't know what I don't know.

Come May, the festival walls need to feature these students' self-portraits and perhaps portraits of famous people. We have a big journey still ahead, and by each Friday I'm worried whether I'm going to get them there.

It's a miracle I managed full days as a teacher, innards writhing with the constant anxiety that I was failing students who needed me most.

My anxiety manifests in sweat, which a principal once told me never to do. I drip all over the students' work. "You need a paper towel?" one of the students' aides asks.

"I need a shower, is what I need."

In that hour I fail. In that hour I find redemption. In that hour hope blossoms. Almost all the students want to do their best, and I encourage them to do as best they can but to enjoy making mistakes because that's a good way to learn how to do something better. I break the precious charcoal sticks to show they're just tools, not jewels.

I draw. They draw. I show. They do. I whirl about the classroom from desk to desk, trying to see progress in the moment, trying to find a different way with each different student to help them find their own way to the next step.

The aides move about in controlled tumult, knowing their students, knowing what they can do, knowing what they can try that they've never tried before. Aides and students help me constantly, distributing materials, helping each other draw.

Their kindness makes me happy, buoying me to my car afterward. Once I was 25 minutes late, working around unannounced road construction, and had neglected to get contact information so I could have warned teachers. Sweaty and unkempt walking into the class, I received a chorus of loud hellos and "Are you all right?"

Though that lesson didn't go very well — you know how sitting idle and anxious for 25 minutes will sap your energy — I learned much from their forgiveness.

Yesterday we all moved forward. Students began to see how a shape casts a shadow, and I began to see ways I can teach that concept better.

It's Friday now. So much to do, so little time. I begin again.

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