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Why I Paint: Part I Part 1: Thank a Teacher

Updated: Sep 22, 2020

I don’t really even know how to convey this thought, but I never ever imagined I would be writing about teachers when I was a student. It never even occurred to me to thank teachers when I was subjected to them in grade school, high school, or even university. I don’t even think I was grateful at that time. I don’t remember most of their names, a few, maybe, one in particular.

I didn’t even really become thankful until about age 36 when I took some transformational workshops. At that point someone sat me down, made me think about some life things, and other people in general. Through those workshop, I made a conscious choice to become an artist. At that same time I became aware of gratitude beyond just appreciating nature, which had come earlier in my teens. Another story for another time, perhaps…

Two paragraphs in and I haven’t introduced my topic person or even utilized those fine essay skills I learned in high school: state the main point and give three supporting sentences and the go on to expand on those points in three paragraphs and then summarize my point. High school should be addressed another time, perhaps. There really is too much to write about, but it’s (English) relevant to the main topic.

You see it was a dark chapter in my life, I was sent to military boarding school at age 10 and was not happy about it. I’m not a victim of it any more and could go on at length about the benefits of that institution and that period in my life. But like anything, time and reflection have afforded me a different perspective about it. Another story…

There were some bright spots in that otherwise hell I found myself in. One of those bright spots was my 7th grade English teacher, Capt. Brown. Now, I didn’t really know Dennis Brown and there was a certain in loco parentisseparation, and I had a general distrust of faculty; because, they could report you and you would get guard duty, a form of punishment.

The whole place operated under some kind of disciplinary construct… bugles at reveille, marching in formation, uniforms, all rather impersonal. Sports was the only escape really… I recall writing dark poetry in study hall and letters home to my mom begging to be freed. So I’m in this English class studying of all things, grammar, sentence structure, parts of speech (maybe), I can’t really remember much of that part other than I had a better understanding of the rules of my formal written native tongue. I’m sure I’m a better writer today because of it, more literate, certain of it, somehow.

But that is not why I’m writing about Dennis Brown. You see there was more, three things, actually. One of which just now occurred to me. I don’t think I remember one bit of the Truman Capote film we sat in with the 8th grade class. I have never forgotten the name Truman Capote, the title, In Cold Blood, but I have, also, never read anything by him.

The first thing I just remembered was an assignment to think about how we would teach a machine to write, talk in English. I’m sure it was just a mechanism to better instill the rules and definitions of grammar and sentence structure in our minds; however, I cannot just ignore that 50 years later, this AI spoken language thing is coming to pass. Seemed so simple then, seems much more complicated now. The point is that it was a creative exercise.

Then there was the poster, the collage. We were to take a song, cut out some images from magazines, and create a collage about the lyrics symbolically, in pictures. Music was not as ubiquitous to me then as it is now. Music, as it turns out, is not even my forte… but visual imagery was. I think I only had one phonograph record as recommended to me by another faculty member… The James Gang Rides Again. Pitiful really, Woodstock had already occurred and I wouldn’t learn about the Grateful Dead for another 4 years. But I had heard of Jethro Tull, somehow, and chose Aqualung as my project. For some reason, Dennis Brown thought it funny that I would cut out an ass cheek and paste as smile in its place. Like the literal and figurative translation of ‘half assed smile’ was lost on me. It wasn’t. It was just my visual creativity peeking out, unbeknownst to me. Well not unbeknownst, but the first real art that I had created since finger painting in kindergarten, gluing popsicle sticks in third grade, or drawing tanks and airplanes in my school notebooks in the back of class in fourth.

The third project was a film… an 8mm film. Now film, though a visual medium, is much more than just visual. There is talent, dialogue or story (silent 8mm film), costume… but it was fun, creative and a collaborative small group assignment. We parodied Capt. Smith as a frog. It was a terrible product but the memory and experience linger fondly.

So of all my teachers in that six year reformation of my life, Dennis Brown stands out as my favorite and most memorable. I got out for 11th grade and negotiated a compromise with my father to attend a coed boarding school for my last two years of high school, for which I am grateful and is it’s own story… and maybe I’ll share that, too, one day. Capt. Brown taught me to, two, too, by the way, but I never looked back. Never went back or visited. Capt. Brown went on to become the headmaster or dean or commandant of that school. He is retired now in Michigan or Wisconsin.

My parents are gone now, but an interesting thing happened one day after years had passed and the internet had become. I googled myself and people were looking for me from military school. Whatever happened to… anyway, I’ve now reconnected with some of my grade school friends on Facebook and Dennis Brown, who invited me to come back for a visit on a parade day before he retired. I didn’t make the parade but I did recently message with him on messenger. They eventually created an art department there and he spoke about how profound it was touching so many young men’s lives profoundly.

I’m profoundly grateful for him touching my life.

Me in my red sash on parade day (circa 1972)

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