You often hear the phrase that “I’ve learned as much from my students as they’ve learned from me.” The problem is, the experience is much more nuanced than that. While teaching others has lead me to push my own work in directions I might not have explored - one of the biggest things I’ve learned from my students is the impact that even casual actions can have on others. My behavior, the environment I created, how I treated others, what I included in my lectures - all of those things had a big impact on students that I often wasn’t aware of at the time.
In class critiques, I always referred to my students as artists - because they are, but I was also inspired by an anecdote from writer and actor Spalding Gray about how thrilled he was when an English film director called the “artists” to the set. Recently a student told me how shocked she was, in our first class together, when I asked for an “artist’s response” from her in a critique. It made her reconsider her long-held belief that she wasn’t a creative person.
Everyday behavior made a big impact throughout the years. Treating awkward students with respect and patience taught the rest of the class that I’d treat them that way also. Of course, I wasn’t always sunshine and light, on the negative side, a very sweet young gal avoided my classes for a year because she’d walked by a hallway conversation I was having with a student who was acting out in my class.
Over the years, my teaching style has changed from macho to (somewhat) mellow. I learned to apologize when I’d been too harsh and use a lighter hand when balancing all the energies in a room. I am always truthful, but I’m now (hopefully) much more thoughtful in my approach.
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Today I woke up thinking about the power of ritual and beauty. One of the significant experiences of my life was being able to have a conversation with one of my mom’s best friends on the day she (the friend) died. She was in bed, drinking water from a very simple glass, when she started talking about how beautiful the glass was. How she loved even the seam on the side and how the light sparkled coming through it. We all knew exactly what she meant and I have often thought about how blessed, and fitting, it was that she ended her life still entranced by the beauty of small details.
This morning, I decided to have my morning coffee in one of my favorite cups. I bought this for a food shoot decades ago and have always loved it - but rarely use it (yup, for fear of breaking it, or waiting for a perfect moment). So, this morning I combined ritual (warming the cup) with beauty because they both honor the moment.
Three weeks ago, within what felt like a few days, my school went from “business as usual” to remote teaching and my state followed quickly with a lockdown. The suddenness was shocking as I scrambled to move three classes online over a weekend. The shock was soon followed by a profound sense of loss - the loss of my expectations of how this next year of my life was going to progress. This was my last semester teaching (after 20+ years) and I was blessed with an evening class full of former students who wanted to be there for my final session. My imagination envisioned our final day as a time of community (we always have a potluck on the last day) and a chance to get one last experience of the energy that a room full of committed, complex students creates. Losing my vision of that has been hard - for me and for them.
In general, my first response was focusing on loss: loss of community, loss of the ability to hold loved ones, loss of my exhibition activities, loss of my freedom and security. I fully understood that I’m lucky to have a job and a home, especially during this time, and I felt guilty when I was consumed by my own losses because so many have it so much worse.
Finally, midway through this past week I noticed a change. I woke up with a sense of purpose and a question: what do I want to achieve during this time? The days have the same value and meaning they always did, so what am I going to make of it? It won’t be the farewell to teaching I imagined, but this time period has so much to offer us beyond loss. There’s gratitude for everyone who’s keeping us alive, learning to strengthen our inner “grit” muscles, developing an appreciation for the small details in our lives (the smell of furniture polish), finding new ways to be creative in confinement, and above all, kindness, as we forgive ourselves and others.
Yes, this isn’t what I envisioned, but it’s here and I want to make something of it.