Assignments

At the time, I did not fully appreciate how much group projects were preparing me for the real world.

There are three school assignments from my childhood that still haunt me. They don’t haunt me in a sense that I lose sleep over them, I just remember them vividly. Did I do my very best? Yes, there is no doubt about that. The real question is did I do right?

Art was one of my favorite classes in elementary school. Holding our thumbs behind our backs, we would walk single file through the maze of halls to Mrs. Newton’s art room in the back of the school. The sun would shine in through the high windows, casting a ray of light made visible by the dusty air. I loved Art.

One day, my class made the trek to the Art room only to find a substitute teacher. In some situations this may have been welcome, but it was a disappointment for Art. The teacher had big blonde hair and wore lots of make up. I’m sure she was stylish at the time, and possibly even now if you are going for the 80’s Country Singer Sweetheart look. As pretty as she may have been, in my seven year old mind it seemed that she wasn’t very aware of what was going on; like she was a sentence, or maybe a paragraph behind the rest of the adults we were accustomed to at school.

“Mrs. Newton left you an assignment.” She said as we all settled into our chairs.

“She wants you to make a picture using letters.”

I completely understood the assignment. Mrs. Newton had shown us examples in a previous class. She held up a picture of an acoustic guitar that a high school student had drawn. At a distance, it looked like an ordinary picture, but upon closer examination you realized the picture was composed of letters, even words, in varying sizes. I thought it was the dumbest thing we had seen so far in art class.

So I sat there for a moment contemplating this outrageous assignment. I could waste my time and labor on a piece that I detested, or I could put my talents to better use and create something from the heart, something worthy of my signature. I drew a battleship. It was a splendid World War II era battleship with more gun turrets than the Yamato. I was proud of it. Even so, I failed the assignment.

In Fifth grade, Mrs. McManus instructed us to draw a word in a way that enhanced the definition of the word. I was assigned the word “Fat”. Someone who had followed the instructions for the assignment would have drawn the letters F, A, and T with fat rolls. Once again, I fully understood the assignment, but I felt that this was a waste of my artistic ability: I drew a fat man in a tank top and Bermuda shorts. It was magnificent. Not only did I fail the assignment, I realized that my teacher thought I had not understood the assignment.

I took a class called Media Arts in High School, because I had already taken all of the other art classes. Mr. Williamson assigned us a stop motion film group project-which sounds like a good indie rock band name. For the most part, I’ve always loathed group projects. At the time, I did not fully appreciate how much group projects were preparing me for the real world. The idea of a stop motion film was very inspiring, but we utterly failed at creating an interesting plot. There were three characters: A comedian, an old man, and a chef with an unidentifiable foreign accent. In the film the old man is sitting in the audience listening to the comedian try to tell jokes. The old man mumbles a response at each joke before finally ordering a pizza from the chef.

To our credit, the artwork was good. I think we still made an exceptional grade, but we wouldn’t have won- nay, even been nominated for- an Academy Award in the short film category. For some reason, this assignment still bothers me the most. From time to time, I come up with better plot ideas and I think back to that project.

In a sense, life is about following instructions and working with people. There are some areas in my life that I wouldn’t dream of not following instructions; principally, my faith. On the other hand, I have often scoffed at any attempt to set boundaries on creativity. Furthermore, I have a hard time completing an assignment that fails to inspire me, but if I find the work inspiring I’m hardly ever satisfied with my efforts.

Mr. McGraw

Do you remember an influential teacher? What were they like? How did they influence you?

In my Senior year of High School I stayed in my Chemistry class long enough to realize that it was going to require more math skills than I cared to exercise, so I asked the guidance counselor to place me in a different science class. I ended up in Zoology, which was decidedly less academically strenuous. Furthermore, it was on the middle school side of the school. Vincent Middle/High School is in one building with two wings separated by a courtyard, which may not have made the class easier but it seemed like it did. We also had a new teacher, a recent college graduate. This was his first teaching job, and we were his only Senior class, the rest were seventh grade science class. I guess the administration just wanted to feed him to the lions. He had a rough go with those seventh graders, and we watched him grow more frazzled by the week. He only lasted about three weeks before he walked face first into the edge of partially opened door, which broke his glasses and cut his face so severely that he had to go immediately to the hospital and I never saw him again. The principal, Mr. Minnick, came in and finished the rest of the class teaching us about vernal equinox and summer solstice, and the seasons. Which I guess could be tied somehow remotely to zoology. Even so, he did a really good job and it was eye opening for a few of my classmates who had missed or forgotten our science teacher, Mr. Byrne, a former NASA employee, give a far superior explanation when we were in the seventh grade.

We went through a slew of substitute teachers. There was one particular guy that was very rude and liked to embarrass students in front of the class. I hope he got a job somewhere that didn’t have good air conditioning. Mr. Minnick, our principle, sat in a few more times because there must of been a shortage of substitute teachers.

Then one day we had substitute teacher that I recognized as a frequent shopper at Smith and Son’s Grocery where I had been gainfully employed the summer before, and as one of my Dad’s turnip green customers. He drove a mint green Cadillac and had gold rimmed glasses. This was Mr. McGraw, one of the first graduates of the newly integrated Vincent High School in early 70’s. He had come over from the segregated black school to join the football team with Harold Garrett, who had the misfortune of teaching my 8th grade sex education class. Anyway, apparently they had been a dynamic duo of quarterback and receiver, or at least been good enough for me to read about it in the newspaper thirty years later, and for the school to name the football stadium for Mr. Garrett.

That first day Mr. McGraw introduced himself as our permanent substitute for the rest of the year, informing us that our original rookie teacher had quit. We learned that Mr. McGraw was originally from Vincent, but didn’t make any boasts about football as I recall, and that he had recently retired from teaching in Ohio and moved back home to be with his mother.

Mr. McGraw was not in the least intimidated by the unruly seventh graders, having spent the past thirty years teaching High School in Toledo, Ohio. I believe that he also understood that for the most part, our senior Zoology class did not consist of overachievers and that we did not have very high expectations of him. Or rather, he didn’t have high expectations of us. 

I realized this after we spent a week studying ungulates and he wheeled in the TV from the library and we watched, “Mysteries of the Deep” a documentary about ocean life. We watched that film about five times that year. No one complained, we were all just ready to graduate.

The only lesson germane to Zoology that still stands out vividly from that class is when we learned about marsupials. “When I was kid, we caught a possum and dipped it in kerosene. Then set it on fire.” He offered this information in a matter of fact tone as a side note while he was teaching. It kind of took the class off guard. He followed it up by saying, “It took off through the field running.” He chuckled as his memory took him back to being a kid. It was not a chuckle of sadistic delight. It was a older man reflecting back on his childhood and chuckling at poor decisions. I don’t blame him though, there wasn’t much more to do in the rural Alabama in which I had grown up. 

We probably learned more about life and being an adult from Mr. McGraw than we did about Zoology. He was no nonsense, without being rude. He lacked that thin sheen of professionalism that greases many transactions in the corporate world. He was the same person in the classroom that he in the grocery store. That was probably more valuable than anything we could have learned in a cop out course. 

It’s often amazing how strange events can bring you into proximity to people that make an impression on you. After all these years I can still remember minute details about Mr. McGraw. The gold ring, and gold chain around his neck. The torn rotator cuff that was giving him trouble. The inflexion of his voice. How he pronounced certain words. But I’ve forgotten our original teacher’s name.

 

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