I never really expected to reinvent myself at seventy. After all, it took me over sixty years to like myself the way I am. And yet, here I am, trying all sorts of new stuff and being all sorts of new people.
A new/old role for me: Teacher.
Old – because I was a teacher for a brief moment in 1974. I never got much past my student teaching experience. I was an English major in college, intending to be a writer, but at the last moment (I already had more than enough credits to graduate) decided to take the education courses needed for my teaching certification. The extra semester for student teaching in junior high was both fun and horrifying. I had no idea how to teach. Most of the time, I couldn’t engage the students. Looking back on it, I see that I worried more about whether the kids liked me than whether they were learning anything. But there were a couple of moments when it all clicked – and those moments were magical.
New – Here I am 47 years later, finding that I am a teacher again.
This summer, a Connecticut library (not the library where I am currently working) asked me to teach a painting class. The event director had seen my watercolors online, and dreamed up a “Paint Your Pet” class. What a great idea! But I had no experience and wasn’t sure how – or if – I could do it.
But – why not? (which I think is becoming my new mantra.)
So I spent several weeks designing a program to teach a dozen teenagers and adults to paint a portrait of their pet. The library gave me a two-hour slot, which added another level of anxiety.
I needed to practice. My sister, her daughter, and two of her grandchildren offered to take my class, which meant I could practice on folks who loved me. And of course, to see if I could help them produce an acceptable painting in two hours. Oh, and have fun at the same time. I brought a bunch of photos and let them choose.
It WAS fun. Here’s what they painted:
Their ages: 11, 13, 40, and 72. I won’t tell you who did which painting – but I’m fairly certain that if you guess, you’d be wrong.
I was delighted. I COULD do this.
And the next day, the librarian called to say the class had filled up in a matter of days, and they wanted to add a second class.
Sure, I said. I COULD do this.
And I did.
I supplied all the materials, to ensure that everyone had everything they needed. The students brought photos of their pets, and two hours later had a watercolor painting of their babies.
Here are some of their portraits:
I have two more library bookings in the coming months. I think I will contact a few senior centers too. That could be fun.
So far, I have only taught the two classes. But crazily – and perhaps I am reading far too much into it – I think I see a trend.
I taught a variety of students in each class, but each class was also very much the same. They held a good mix of experienced and beginning painters. Both classes were predominantly women with an age range from young adults to quite elderly. But each class also had one man, one preteen, and a couple of teenagers.
And there was a fascinating consistency to their performance.
Let’s start with the men. They were weirdly alike. Although I stressed that they should listen first, paint in the order I suggested, and not jump ahead, both immediately rushed in, and did exactly as they pleased. Then they both got disgusted with their painting halfway through and gave up.
Now, I don’t like to draw conclusions from just two guys, but I couldn’t help but chuckle a little at their unwillingness to listen to directions. And let’s say I was not surprised that they overestimated their abilities and were then disappointed in themselves. But to be fair, one man had come with his wife, and one had brought his teenagers, and it could very well be that they had been cajoled into coming, and were not much interested in the project in the first place.
The younger kids that came were enthusiastic and creative. They were happy to try and also willing to listen. They weren’t babies, so their attention span held up, and they also had confidence in themselves. And they were delighted with their results.
The teenagers were the opposite. Their confidence clocked in at about zero. They thought they were messing everything up, that their paintings were full of mistakes – that their portraits were the very worst in the class. No amount of praise on my part could offset their profound lack of self-esteem.
Then there were the adult women. They represented a broad continuum of age, and they performed along a consistent continuum as well.
The younger women were intense. They were serious and careful. They tried so very hard. They were the last to finish. Look at the paintings above. Pick the ones that are perfect, neat, and detailed. Those are the ones painted by these earnest young women.
My middle-aged students were happy and sociable. They chatted as much as painted. They still wanted good results, and they were proud of their efforts. Each one thought they had exceeded their own expectations. “Look what I did,” one said. “I didn’t know I could do that!”
And the older women! Like the children, they were creative and daring. Their paintings were bold. They laughed at their mistakes. The animals they painted had emotions. These women’s faces – both their own and in their portraits – were relaxed and full of joy.
I am curious to see if these patterns hold up. I think they might. Because in these archetypes and attitudes, I see myself.
I was that confident kid, that insecure teenager, that anxious striving young woman, the accepting middle-aged lady. I even had a moment or two in the man-stage, not having the patience to listen and learn, but still expecting so much of myself.
And now … now I am the old woman. I have given up the self-criticism and judgment. I am focused on the joy.
That makes me a teacher.
- Posted in: Humor