Saturday, June 19, 2010

To Sir, With Love

“If you wanted the sky I would write across the sky in letters, that would soar a thousand feet high, to sir, with love.” - Lulu

I found this phrase scribbled in pencil on a desk today in class:


Seriously, how sick is high school?
It’s the great equalizer of human experience. You may grow up and split an atom or walk the red carpet at Cannes or invent a new solar panel on the International Space Station, but before that you were a geeky spazoid with braces and zits disgusted by your own armpit hair. Oh yes, you went to high school alright, and just like Edison and Einstein, Marlon Brando and Barack Obama you graduated and flew the coop.
Well, speak for yourself.
Some of us never got our cherries popped. In fact, we never left school at all.
I’m speaking, of course, about teachers.
(The following pictures were taken a week ago at the Taichung Fine Arts Museum just down the park blocks from the apartment.)

Oh, teachers.
Seriously, what are we going to do with you?
When my brother got married, Grant being a math and science teacher wedding Christi an elementary school teacher, and I gave their toast (yeah, I was asked to… it’s not like I would just stand up and start talking at a public event you know) I hinted that since these two were educators, the families would be passing a hat around later at the reception because… well, we all know what public schools pay their employees.
Ha… Ha… Ha…
I got creamed. Aunts and uncles and old toothless, gray-haired Grandma Jenny in the tennis-ball walker came out of the woodwork shaking her cane.
“Don’t you know that nobody goes into teaching for the money?”
“Don’t you respect your profession?”
“How could you say that?”
It was a joke people.
But for whatever reason, most of the public expect teachers to walk on water, be saints, miracle workers. You know, keepers of the gates of hope.
I, of course, blame Hollywood.
Hollywood? Seriously?
Oh yes. Speaking of which, the general consensus is that Dead Poets Society is the greatest teacher movie of all time, and it’s hard to disagree. Baby faced Ethan Hawke channeling Walt Whitman. Robert Sean Leonard in green tights as Midsummer’s Puck. Grumpy Red Forman making a grumpy Red Forman appearance. You’ve got lightning bolts painted on chests, secret caves with college chicks, and Robin Williams as Mr. Keating aptly kicking copies of Byron in those preppie boy’s faces.
Best line of the movie is not, “O, Captain. My Captain,” but… “Damn it Neil, the name is Nuwanda.”
Oh, I get it. Believe me, I get it. And all apologies to Ryan Gosling for the truest portrait of a teacher ever in Half Nelson, but my favorite school movie has got to be To Sir, With Love. Sidney Poitier as teacher Mark Thackeray in 1967 London’s East End, with his trim cut gray suits, all that silly British mumbly cursing, and that beautiful scene where he and Pamela Dare dance. Just say that name in your head.
Pamela Dare. Pamela Dare.

Pamela Dare: Sir, would you dance with me tonight?
Thackeray: Of course, but nothing too fast. I’m getting much too old for that sort of thing Miss Dare.
Pamela Dare: We’ll make it something special, promise?
Thackeray: Promise.
Pamela Dare: Sir, would you call me Pamela tonight?
Thackeray: Yes… Pamela.

I mean, you’re kidding me right? It’s just so undeniably sweet.
It reminds me how people look to teacher movies with fondness. As if they remember something from a better time. They look back on their school years and think, “That was pretty good, wasn’t it?’
And, of course, it was.
But seriously,
for most of us, the guiding force in those early school days was not the steady voice or stable hand of a teacher, but actually another person in our lives.
I’m talking about that faceless blob behind the newspaper at the breakfast table. You know, that old guy out in the garage wrestling the Christmas tree into that busted-up stand? Remember, the whiskered face grunting in the morning you pass along the way to the shower? You know who I’m talking about.
Fathers, of course.
(Rebekah in her awesome rain boots and jacket ready to go stomp some puddles.)

You’re going to start talking about your kids now, aren’t you Hartenstein?
Yes. Because I can’t think of anything more cool than being a Dad or no better thing to devout my life to. And as this weekend is Father’s Day, I want to send a special note to all you awesome Dads out there who are killing it every day and especially you Dads who are raising your kids to be, of course, artists.
(Kinu sketching with black marker on glass window.)

You’re seriously an idiot, dude. Artists? You can’t MAKE your kid an artist?
Yes, you can.
No, you can’t.
What if they suck?
They won’t.
What if they really like wearing wife-beater tank tops, drinking Budweiser, and cheering for NASCAR?
They won’t.
What if they love watching WWF inside their boyfriend’s trailer and work at WALL-MART, in Arkansas?
They won’t.
What if they wear scrunches, trade Poke’mon cards in their thirties while living in your basement, and keep an extensive collection of shot glasses from international Hard Rock Cafés?
They won’t.
How can you be so sure?
Because, of course, I’m their Dad.
(Hanging paper tigers from the fine arts museum.)

I take my kid art serious.
This week we dipped soccer balls in paint and rocketed them against blank walls in the apartment just for… kicks.
We wrote poetry on kites and let the strings go high in the clouds.
We left doodles in library books and scribbled funny words behind paintings hung on walls.
I’ve been reading Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki to them at night and now my girls are obsessed with rafts and sea creatures, knots and fathoms. We sketched Easter Island statue faces on Lego obelisks and sailed to them on imaginary flying carpet towels while the rain poured outside. That night Xi’an asked me if our story-time would ever end. She will be turning seven next year and worried that age was too old to be read to by a bespectacled Father prone to silly voices and doing Luciano Pavarotti eyebrow expressions while singing Rigoletto’s La Donna E Mobile.
I told her, of course, a Father’s love is like imagination. It never ends, and she smiled.
(Swinging after school on the first day without rain in a week.)

Seriously, I know you think I’m weird, but I read too many Russian novels in college. All those aristocratic heroines who dance and play instruments and speak multiple foreign languages and travel in carriages in the snow to ballrooms lit by fires. Tolstoy’s Natasha Rostova and Pushkin’s Tatiana Larina, they are different than their British counterparts Jane Eyre and Liz Bennet, these Russian woman embody the soul of a nation. They are what the people aspire to be, naturalistic, spontaneous, liberated, free.
In many ways, I feel that’s exactly how females should be, an ideal, something for man to admire and aspire to understand.
I mean, of course, that women are the spark of the soul’s artistic expression.
I take myself way too seriously, huh?
But I just know this, that I’ve had the pleasure of serving thousands of students over the years, but the one thing I will be held accountable to and measured by is the success and failures of my children.
And life is hard.
But if I can instill in them a desire to seek art as a way to express themselves constructively?
If I can help them to encourage others to be bold and daring in their creative thinking?
If I can persuade them that the development of the soul should be their life’s ambition?
Well, then of course, this Father, will have his own reward.
It's better than a crummy old tie from SEARS that's for sure.

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