Wednesday, February 19, 2020

practical sentiments

“Be practical as well as generous in your ideals.
Keep your eyes on the stars,
but remember to keep your feet on the ground.”

~ Theodore Roosevelt,
from a 1904 speech to the Groton School (Massachusetts)

Teaching has been a professional pursuit of mine, since the age of 22. Beginning at the college level, I was nearly the same age as my students. That didn’t seem to matter, as I already had requisite experience to draw upon, and the vital ingredients that continue to serve very well: energy and preparedness. Just as during my very first semester of teaching, last week and this week have seen the benefits from exponentially more hours of preparation than the actual in-class hours. And that’s just fine; better to have and not want, than to want and not have. During that first year, I had to submit each and every lesson plan for review. Now, a synopsis that speaks for the year suffices. There are many other distinctions as well- not the least of which is that I have many more adventures to recount about the topics, the teaching of the topics, and- very importantly- my continued learning of the topics.

To teach well, one must always be learning well. Being ready with the materials and scholarly sources for my own studies is similar to being prepared for their instruction. I, too, am a student. My teaching philosophy, whether for teaching art, history, philosophy, writing, or archival sciences, can be summed up into three words: We Learn Together. My respect for people around me, the informational resources, and the learning process- is in three integral parts of one entirety. I don’t measure success by clever statements or numbers, but instead whether the people I mentor proceed to mentor themselves and others. My own student experience is that when I’ve been inspired and have enjoyed the aspects of learning, I’ve continued on. Graduations are not so much ends, but beginnings and means to apply toward the greater efforts of following our passions. Transcending the “required cores,” we can freely choose the subjects and motifs for our own appetites.

My old habit of setting up classroom spaces with a lot of time to spare, parallels how I prepare dinners for guests. All needed ingredients have been procured early on, with some things cooked in advance, and there are extra things on hand. The table is set with the essentials for my guests. Placing paper and printed handouts in my classrooms is just like setting down linens and flatware at my dining table. The wish for the food to be tasty is the same as for scholars to enjoy the experience of learning. We savour with our taste buds as well as we do with our minds. Our educational experiences have unique histories. You surely recall the first thing you ever learned how to cook, or the times you learned to bicycle or swim. When my mother taught me how to make an omelette, she said to me, “every Frenchman should be able to make an omelette.” That was when I was about 13. Many years later, she taught me how to bake bread from scratch, during a blizzard that cancelled my flight. The memory of billowing snow remains with me, when I drizzle flour onto my wooden bread board, even now.

Two weeks ago, I taught one of my calligraphy workshops to a capacity class group. It amazes me that people of all ages want to learn how to letter with a dip pen. Just as with bookbinding, if people want to learn, I’m happy to oblige. Workshop-teaching on an as-needed basis means the tools may be dormant for weeks or months at a stretch. For this recent occasion, hearing about the enrollment, I needed to purchase more supplies. To figure out what I already had meant that it was necessary to bring out materials I’ve had since my school days. Collecting and divvying-out what I needed for the group this month took me back to those heady years of art college, back even further to New York’s High School of Art & Design, and further back still to when my mother taught me calligraphy using the Speedball penpoints my father gave me when I was about 10 years old.

My tool box, called an Art Bin, houses more than the instruments of the craft; it also has an effective way of holding the aromas of the materials. The smells take me right back to the enormous art supply emporium Pearl Paint, which was on SoHo’s Canal Street. That street in the 1980s was a wide thoroughfare of urban confetti and cacophony. I loved it. One of my teachers at Art & Design, Henry Garrison, taught me his mantra about calligraphy: He had me watch how he’d ink a pen and follow through with his perfect flourishes, accompanied by his vocal overtone, “think D, write D; think E, write E,” et cetera. Two weeks ago, using the latest digital overhead camera-projector and screen, I taught this to my class, focusing mind upon a letter form, while writing the letter on parchment paper. Our crafts not only jog our memories, they can also compress time, Suddenly I was Henry Garrison to my calligraphy students, and the philosophy student I was, back at University of Massachusetts-Boston is alongside the philosophy students I taught last week, here in Maine. There is inestimable value to “knowing where you came from.”

Encouraging teen students with their fledgling calligraphy skills, I tell them about a job I had as high school sophomore, making hand-lettered menus for the tony Plaza Hotel on 5th Avenue. Yes, they used handmade menus for their dining guests. I’d take their lists of entrées and other delicacies home, showing the courses to my mother before I rendered the fancy names in Chancery italics. Such curiosities, but they paid me! I was just a willing art student, behind the scenes. Thinking of it now, calligraphy has wound its way into every job I’ve ever had, from poster-making to decorative signs in libraries, to place cards, invitations, and certificates- along with teaching the craft itself. As with photography, these skills have gone everywhere with me, always somehow finding outlets and uses. As time passes, the stories grow with the projects and their respective scenarios.

I like to regale my elder students about how the most accomplished Asian calligraphers tend to be upwards of eighty years old. These artisans have the cultivated disciplines of poise and finely-tuned tension. Theirs is an art that comprises meditation and dexterity. Pointing this out also provides encouragement- to all ages. In a sweet sort of reciprocity, I have an Archives volunteer at my workplace, a retiree originally from Harbin, China. When he sees me journaling during my lunch breaks, he points to my notebook and exclaims, “that is so good for your brain!” In his professional employed life, he was a neurobiologist, and that inspires him to explain to me why journaling is so good for the mind’s health. You can be sure I repeated that to my writing class.