Meet the Bon Vivants: Nirmala Thangam Thomas -- on Catherine Sylve

Meet the Bon Vivants is a series that showcases my favorite thinkers and good-lifers, all personal friends with important ideas and interesting musings.

Welcoming back Nirmala Thangam Thomas, who here marvels at her friend Catherine Sylve’s artistic self-reinvention after a career in teaching.

Nimi's profile photo alongside Cathy's pot in progress

Nimi's profile photo alongside Cathy's pot in progress

My Mug, Your Pot by Nirmala Thangam Thomas -- on Catherine Sylve

Cathy and I shared the same turf at Hazelwood Central High School. We lived in classrooms across from each other at the end of Hall D.

For years, we chatted and laughed and cried and vented for seven minutes at a time, Monday through Friday, with forty-five minute intervals during which we taught our respective subjects. We were friends.

We were unlikely friends:  Cathy was the brainiac AP Physics teacher. It was rumored that she had engineered a NASA space program that would send people to Mars, or was it Saturn? Cathy built robots for fun. No kidding! And her genius students won national robotics competitions every year. 

I, on the other hand, was the airy fairy across the hall, head in clouds of poetry and prose, living in a world of fiction and drama. I had some of her geniuses in my AP Literature class, those robot builders. Many of them went off to Stanford and MIT and Purdue. One even graduated as a rocket surgeon or was it a brain scientist? Many a night I lay wondering if any would cross that fine line between the genius and the.....Seriously!

I had to convince Cathy's students, those students we shared, the 5.5 GPA seekers who would spill over into AP Lit, that literature was just as important as Mrs. NASA’s physics classes:  Here in English class, we took apart (I'd use the word ‘dissected’ to get their attention) passages of prose or poetry and study the different parts under the microscope of literary analysis, then put them back together to see why and how they worked so well together to create the expression on the face of the page. It was a stretch, but I’d add:  “Just like Mrs. Sylve does with her robots."

Yes, we had become teammates and friends. We shared this commonality, our students, our kids, our pride and joy. We'd brag about them, adore them, push them to achieve more than they thought they could. 

But here is also where we differed — no matter how much I loved my kids, when the school bell rang at 2:45, I'd fly outta there like a bat outta hell. Cathy, on the other hand, possibly lived in D hall. The corridor stayed alive after hours with robots and robot builders, their work sometimes spilling into the weekends. I always suspected Cathy had her mail delivered to Hazelwood Central High School, D Hall. 

Then one day she decided it was enough.

A year later, I did too.

We kept up on Facebook. Once every full moon.....Global warming.....Leonardo finding Rose…..Look good tips….To keep pants from getting tight.....don't wear any…..NBA scores….. Pictures of places and faces.....Of mice and men.....My brush with fatwa at Absinthe…..Salman Rushdie.....We traded her St. Louis stories and my Cali shockers. 

And then I started to see Cathy post photos of the most beautiful pottery. In pink and blue and white with flowers and silhouettes. Sheer poetry in pottery! She was an artist! She too had the airy fairy in her. She excelled in two worlds! (Parallel of parallels, I went on to write a dissertation on the privatization of spaceships (Nah! I wish!)). I, too, tried my hand at art. I belong to the old school which believes practice makes perfect. I copied the masters religiously. All that imitation paid off. I have become a master art forger. Not a viable calling.

Anyway. Last month, Cathy FBd me (Facebook messaged, duh):  "Would you mind,” she asked, "May I ask permission to use your profile picture for a design on a piece of pottery? I'm headed out to the garage to trim some pots.”

Woah! Me? Was she really asking moi? Couldn't be? She was? Really? Ah, nah!

Answering her as if it was not the earth shattering, life altering question it was, I replied, “Can’t wait to see my mug on your pot!”

Thank you, friend! Thank you!! 

See more of Catherine Sylve’s art at