“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” Tao Te Ching
I suppose most of us have a memory from our student careers of a certain educator or two who played a significant role in shaping the course of our lives. Perhaps it was that kindergarten teacher who first brought out in you a joy of singing, the hockey coach who made you realize the ways that individual strengths can contribute to collaborative success, the high school science teacher who bestowed a sense of wonder about the seemingly miraculous workings of the universe, or the comparative lit prof who opened the door to a love of Restoration theatre or French surrealism. For me, one of the most significant teachers in my life was a grade 11 art teacher, who I will call “Mr. M”
I should start by emphasizing that Mr. M was not well liked by my fellow students. Significantly, he didn’t seem to have a visible passion for teaching. He was not an angry, bullying teacher, but he did seem perpetually sullen and withdrawn. Cynical, perhaps. Indifferent.
Each week, he would introduce projects for us to work on, and then seemingly mentally detach himself from the class. He gave us very little feedback or encouragement. Mostly, I picture him staring out the window at the clouds, or perhaps the forest beyond the parking lot. For some of us, most of us, this lack of interaction was a profound turn off. For me, at that point in my life, Mr. M’s after lunch portfolio-based art class was exactly what I needed.
For all that he might not have been an exemplary teacher, I was a much worse student. Going through major upheaval at home, whenever I did manage to show up for class, between unexplained absences and enforced suspensions, I was perpetually stoned. Sometimes arriving after lunch high on acid, almost certainly smelling of weed and vodka from my girlfriend’s father’s liquor cabinet. All too often, mocking, disrespectful, disruptive. At the start of the second semester that year, I dropped out of school altogether for a year and a half. But during those first five months of the school year, that art class was my lifeline, and one of the most transformative educational experiences I’ve had.
For one thing, Mr. M’s obvious lack of enthusiasm for either cajoling or inspiring his students meant that he pretty much left us to our own devices. In other words, apparently having no fucks to give, he let me be. Which was not a great pedagogical approach for every student, of course, but was the perfect scenario for me right then, as I needed lots of time and space, under the radar, to decompress, mope about, work through my adolescent alienation, abuse my mind and body, and, yes, maybe even create some art. I actually worked hard and lost myself in the portfolio work whenever I was there. Despite being generally a mediocre slack ass, I even achieved an A+ in the course, a grade that was as rare as a clouded leopard on my high school transcript.
For another thing, Mr. M had great taste. This was apparent in the music he played in class and the posters of art work on his walls, and the small collection of books he kept on warped shelves at the back of the room. His basement classroom was the first place I ever saw a print of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, or was exposed to the artwork of Henry Fuseli, Marc Chagall, and Frida Kahlo. It was the first time I ever heard Keith Jarrett’s piano improvisations, a Beethoven minuet, Bizet’s Carmen, or Miles Davis’s Bitch’s Brew. I also remember borrowing a copy of the novel A Clockwork Orange, as well as an English translation of Baudelaire’s poetry, from the classroom library.
Mr. M seemed never to set foot in the staff lounge, or even converse with other staff members. At lunch and during spares, he would leave his door open for anyone who wanted to hang out in his room, as long as they didn’t bother him. Sometimes, he would play the cello that he kept in his supplies cupboard. Only rarely would he acknowledge a student’s existence.
With his darkly brooding features, his vintage motorcycle, his air of mystery and melancholy, I confess Mr. M was, for me, something of a romantic, Byronesque figure. I was convinced he had traveled to some otherworldly places on some interesting business. Certainly, a much more interesting person than the embittered, already burnt-out-in-his thirties teacher that my classmates and (I suspect) the school administration saw him as. He was, to my mind, a rebel, an inspiration. Someone too much his own man to play by the rules of the system.
Of course, all things are relative, and so perspective is everything. In some ways, he really was a bad teacher. But for me, at least, he was the right one, in the right place, at just the right moment in time. Although I had hardly exchanged a word with him, I really believe that, without ever knowing it, he might have changed, and perhaps even saved, my life.