The following essay, from the collection Le Midwest: an ode to the noble suburbanite, illustrates the impact of one dedicated teacher on my early professional choices.
One fine day:
1 We all want the same thing, don’t we? A little kid’s picture of paradise looks so similar to a big person’s picture of paradise with a swaying palm tree and a smiley-faced sun. I’ll paint my dreams and forget about making all those statements about war and injustice. Statements are tiresome. I’ll go walking to the market for bananas with my man and go fishing with my babies and I’ll do mehandi for visitors and I won't have to sell my paintings in paradise or do graphic design because we’ll just live off the land. A little garden, some chickens, a boxer dog or two.
“You’ll go far, Michelle, Rani G,” Mr. M— said before he disappeared too far away for me to hear clearly. “Everything you touch becomes gold, you see that, Michelle?” And then he left me all alone. But he gave me a foundation. Confidence in the art that I make, a confidence that cannot be found in any other part of my personality. I’ll go far. What’s far, Mr. M—? Far away? To my pretty bungalow by the ocean with fancy friends and beautiful children, a handsome husband, two boxer dogs, and walls full of paintings?
2 She shrugs her shoulders and bats a little shine into her eyes, sighing deeply, “Ah, you darlings. I appreciate your concern, but we’ve done a thorough investigation into the matter.”
“Did you speak to any students?”
“No. It was a confidential matter.”
“Then what investigation, ma’am?”
Politics labels passion as lunacy. Labels a goodbye kiss as sexual harassment. Discipline as discrimination.
Don’t expect us to get motivated.
A lovely homogeneous family is created with two namesake black teachers who kinda want to bust out but have got to grin and hold on to those good suburban-school-district jobs. The noisemakers are only noisemakers because they know somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody who can get something done. Any other noisemakers are sexual harassers, bigots, or lunatics.
3 As I pulled the oxidized skin off the ink in the tin, that orange, crusty rust off to reveal still moist Vine Black #2, still alive after a year without moisture, I thought of you. Your ink. The ink you left behind for nobody to use. I turned around and all the Mona Lisas gone and the Giacometti sketch, Walking, the “essence of energy and movement and activity,” and the ballerinas and Romare Bearden poster, all disappeared. Ran off with you.
Seniors don’t rush around with mats and erasers and slide carousels anymore, getting ready for the spring contests and exhibitions. Rachie looking a little winded with no one to argue with and all subtlety lost on Mr. K—, the potter. And I’ve graduated to a place muddled in pretension and shaky hot air philosophical abstraction. Shhh. I was anticipating that, but I was counting on visiting you like a jet up for air before another plunge into the deep end again.
My folder was still there with every drawing intact, and the print you promised to mat on the last day I didn’t know was the last day was matted and framed. Complete as promised--“Not neat, not nothing.”
You didn’t touch her.
“Not neat, not nothing,” inside out, outside in. Now nothing left.
The classroom was so still early in the morning with no Drawing I freshmen tumbling in to cram a value scale before 8:00 (no excuses). Just K— in his office and Mrs. S— next door. And I’m standing there not just missing you, but missing my table, waiting for the bell with Jon and Anuj who snuck in from K—’s study hall and the day I first walked in when you proclaimed, “Girl, you’re good, but here you are going to learn how to take on the world.” And the senior with the red button-down eyeing me from across the room, in that seat. And how you never let the silly boys visit me during school study hall except for Sidaker because he was Indian and intelligent and could help me with physics.
Remember Gesture Day Fridays? Drafting tape made from blue-jean lint covered masking tape and, “Draw, draw, draw, 30 seconds left, 15 seconds, two seconds,” a long pause, then, “Aw, guys, I gave you too much time. . .”
You made Mike a true bohemian. At Webster, now he only goes by his Russian name and and he likes to stand on the tables and talk about art the way you did on the day he transferred to North from the Jewish school.
We talked to her. She said you were crazy. “I can’t give you any details, but. . .” Grave smile.
Anyway, I broke all school rules and didn’t get a Visitor’s Pass because I’m not a visitor and I went to our drawing room and I felt you died. I couldn’t feel a clean plaid shirt and braided leather belt and Levi’s and loafers and an oddly matching tie. I couldn’t smell pink erasers. I’m looking around the corners and behind the flat file trying to show you my new piece, wanting to hear, “Rani G, Rani G, (which means the Queen of G[raphite]), you have a Midas touch, girl, you make this job worth it.” And so I went there and missed that buzz so badly and saw the crusty skin on that always wet ink and was tottering around the room, looking in the hallway for Camran or Mr. R—, someone who could share this loss. The wet, moist, fecund ink crusted over like a scab, but when I pulled the dry skin off I found you, and I went about inking the plate with a righteous fervency, knowing I learned from the best. You put me on that hot-air balloon and got the fire red and roaring and then vanished so that when I turned around to find you I choked for a moment but found out I could fly now on my own. What’s it like now? Do you miss us? Teaching at a place where half the students have a universe on their shoulders and no energy to explore?
“Why even bother teaching, Mr. M—?”
“There’s a burning building, Rani G, and you’ve got a choice: Do you save the Rembrandt or do you save the cat? One one now, Rani.”
“No! The cat, the cat! The cat is still alive, it’s still breathing, it’s still got a whole life to experience! Save the cat.”
And so now I’m having fantasies of standing in front of a class and loving every one of those kids and giving them nicknames like Commie and DJ Ho and Cami and Sphynx. I’m having these dreams of standing in front of a class with a gray pleated skirt and an oddly matching sweater, saying, “I’m Miss Thomas,” before I start banging the projection screen with a yardstick, praising the rhythm and balance in a lonely Hopper.
I found you, I found you, I found you when I found that still breathing ink, like a commission to stand on tables and to make them come to class on time and to coax them into a habit of classical music. I’ll drop graphic design in a flash if you say the word. I can just imagine, “I taught you everything you know so now you can help scam America, staring at a blue screen blinking away your regret.”
Today I missed you so much. I missed you so much.