I recently came across a website featuring paintings by an undergraduate college professor of mine. No, I wasn’t an art major and he didn’t teach me painting—at least, not the kind of art one creates on a canvas. He was one of my tutors at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, where I earned a Liberal Arts degree as a bonus for the privilege of studying the Great Books.
I have always been glad to have had him as my freshman mathematics tutor. From him I gained an insight—through the lens of Euclid’s Elements—that forever changed how I viewed the subject (and in fact, how I viewed all the sciences from then on). I was happy, once again, to have him as a tutor for my senior language tutorial. His responses to my writing—meticulous, detailed, thoughtful, personalized, and well versed in the beauty of the written word (I think now, looking back on it, well grounded in Beauty herself) revolutionized the way I thought about writing and literature. More than that, they inspired something in me, something which is still working itself outward in my life.
His conversation about literature, and his precise, often several pages long, feedback to me about my essays and my writing, impact me to this day. This tutor was not just someone who could convey to students the beauty of mathematics and of language; he was, in a way, an artist with life. Indeed, he was not only a tutor of many subjects but was well acquainted with music…and obviously, also with paint.
I realize now that I was privileged to be included in the media with which he worked; for it isn’t a stretch at all, really, to say that I was one of his “pieces.”
Not the entirety of me, of course, as the person who has gone on to marry, have a family, and learn and work in many fields. Yet in a profound way, he (and so many others like him whom I’ve been blessed to learn from, teachers who loved their work, their art, and their students) created me, just as surely as my mother and father brought me physically into this world.
I wonder if most teachers think of themselves this way? Or if many understand that art is the basis of instruction?
That is not only to say, blithely cliché, that teaching is an “art” (if I think about it, I am hard-pressed to say what human activity is not actually “art”—but that’s content for a different article), it is also to note that the teacher truly creates something in and of his students.
In our materialist culture it is difficult not to think that interactions between people are simply the accidental result of atoms bumping about, hither and thither, now and then hitting one another. This, however, couldn’t be farther from the truth: each and every interaction of one immortal soul with another is a creative encounter, however brief and fleeting. I do believe this truth is one of the bases for the Scriptural mandate that we love our neighbors; there is always much, much more going on than we remotely realize. So I honestly don’t believe there is any such thing as ‘just’ a handshake. And if this is true, how much more creative is the encounter between the teacher and student?
What I am today—whatever that may be, and it is surely more than one thing (a counter-cultural concept if there ever was one in a society that desperately wishes to classify everyone by ‘one’ label, usually that of their occupation)—I owe to all the interactions I’ve had with others all through my life. But I owe it especially to those who mentored me, the teachers who understood that they were artists when they taught me and who loved their artistry—both whatever they taught as well as the objects of their instruction.
As we all probably have, I remember the destructive touch of teachers who were blind, and did not realize that what they were doing was creating “selves.” Nothing they produced in me and out of me, however, could compete with the fruit of those who did realize what they were doing. I owe those latter teachers a tremendous debt of gratitude.
I thank them for their consciousness: for their ability to see their subjects, their students, and their art, clearly. I thank them for their love of beauty. I’m thankful they saw me, and wanted to see me become something beautiful…not just something measurable; not just something useful; not just something that was a means to a pay check and a nice vacation; not just something they accidentally passed by in the course of pursuing their lives; not even as just something through which they hoped to convey the change they desired for the world. Not any of that. Just something beautiful.
I am beholden to them, not because I use what they taught me (which, of course, I do), but because they fashioned me. They enriched my life, and through me the lives of my family and I hope the lives of those whom I, in turn, touch. And especially those whom I am privileged to teach.
Michelangelo is supposed to have said, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” I am grateful to the teachers who sought to discover the work of art that was me; I want to be the kind of teacher who seeks to discover the work of incomparable art that is every student.
I will praise thee, for I am fearefully and wonderfully made, marueilous are thy works: and that my soule knoweth right well (Psalm 139:14; 1611 KJV).