A couple of weeks ago, a recent grad walked into my classroom. He was wondering whether I could use Photoshop to put a “painting” filter over a photo of himself and his fiancé. With an anniversary coming up, he wanted to give her something special, but with only a week’s notice, he knew I wouldn’t have time to do an actual portrait of the two of them. Before leaving, he said, “So, do you have any students like me this year?” I laughed and replied, “Alonzo, I’ve never had another student quite like you!”
I first had Alonzo in class as a senior, so there wasn’t the usual rapport developed over 4 years of high school between myself and him. He’s a guy built for playing football, generally friendly, leadership qualities, and definitely outspoken. There were times in class where I’d say, “Alonzo, shut it!” (meaning his mouth) when he’d speak without care of what the other person thought. He’s the kind of kid who will ask you to toss him an eraser or pencil sharpener because he doesn’t feel like getting up to go get one. Yet he’d also stay after class a minute or two to clean up messes other people had left behind.
In spite of the tough or pompous persona, I quickly learned that beneath all that is a big heart and a humble, get-the-job-done attitude about whatever he tackles (no football pun intended). So, I wasn’t surprised to hear by the end of senior year that he had fallen in love with a young lady and her baby girl and was planning to get married soon after high school. He’ll tackle husband-hood and father-hood in the same way he handles most things…probably saying the wrong things sometimes, but making up for it with a caring, humble, get-it-done attitude about daily life and love. I could tell he was already off to a good start. Because, when he walked into my room the other day, baby girl was asleep in his arms. He had made the rounds of the office, showing off this beautiful, sleeping bundle. She looked quite comfy and obviously trusts the strength and provision of the arms that were holding her.
With all that in mind, I decided a Photoshop filter wouldn’t cut it for this anniversary gift. So, I made time for a watercolor portrait. Alonzo was thrilled when he heard about the up-grade and asked if I could include the phrase, “I love you to the moon and back,” below the painting. While I didn’t scan that part for a blog post, I thought it deserved mentioning. “To the moon and back” is quite the measurement! May we all be willing to love that immeasurably: putting our words to action, tackling the hard times whenever they come, and having fun along the way.
30 years ago today, I drew my first portrait. I know the exact date because it’s written in large, tidy letters, on that lined manilla paper you use to practice writing in elementary school. With carefully rounded “o”s, curved “r”s, and very straight “t”s, the 6-year-old Mollie wrote: “A Special Birthday Today is January 15, 1987. It is the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.” MLK has had more of an effect on my life than I’ll ever really know. My mom’s high school was desegregated in the 1960s. Her brother was bused off to another school, while kids from the black school came to join her high school. Because of that desegregation, she gained a lifelong friend named Keith.We still keep in touch with Keith and his family. I got to meet his wife for the first time last summer when we were all at my grandparents’ house in Virginia. Keith is a joyful, honorable, faith-filled man. I’ve gotten to visit with him many times through the years and have always looked up to him.
Growing up in suburban Virginia, skin color wasn’t something I really thought about. The friends that I ate lunch with, played basketball with at recess, sat next to in class, invited to my birthday parties…were a mix of black and white. Schooltime memories are filled with color. I accidentally hit my friend Jackie in the back of the head with my flying loose tooth in kindergarten. Naomi was the quirky friend who loved to crush her potato chips before eating them at lunch. We all prayed for my friend J.J.’s family when his dad died tragically in a fire, trying to save the family dog. Elisabeth was the first friend my dad threatened to take home in the middle of a sleepover birthday party…she was a bit on the noisy, rambunctious side. Tharrin was a big and tough kid, (my hero) who was always standing up for me if boys tried to exclude me from playing basketball. These friendships, and countless memories, would never have been mine if not for MLK and others like him.
The drawing above was done in Mrs. Spence’s 1st-grade class. Even Mrs. Spence is someone I can thank MLK for. She wasn’t tall in stature (perhaps that’s why 1st-grade was a good fit for her), but she taught us respect and honor. And, I can think of at least one major instance where she showed me great grace. A few weeks before this drawing was completed (Christmas holidays of 1986), she gave each kid in class a hand-made ornament to take home and put on their tree. Mine was a styrofoam mouse with a curled pipe-cleaner tail, beady black eyes, whiskers, and red plaid ears. He has hung on my Christmas tree every year for 30 years and is still one of my favorites to hang on the tree today. Now, I teach in a fairly diverse district, where kids of every color, race, and religion come together to learn on a daily basis. As a teacher, I look back on the example set by Mrs. Spence and the classroom atmosphere she created, endeavoring to foster a similar environment of respect and grace with my students.
The same week that I drew the portrait of MLK, we used his “I have a dream” theme as a springboard for discussions on what we’d like to become or accomplish when we grew up. I’m only slightly surprised that at the age of 6 my life’s goal was already set in concrete (or crayon). Notice that the portrait of MLK was much more realistic than the proportions/accuracy of my hands, feet, and table legs. Students, this is why we always tell you to work from a reference photo rather than drawing out of your head/imagination! It was true when I was 6, and it’s true today. Anyway, the point is that MLK’s portrait was an intriguing foreshadowing of my life now. I have always been interested in faces. Shapes of ear and nose and eyes are puzzle pieces that (when fit together properly) can tell the visual story of a life…or if the subject has passed away, trigger memories of a life well-lived. In his famous speech, Martin Luther King Jr. stated: “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” I’m neither ignorant enough nor idealistic enough to say that MLK’s dream has completely come true. Unless the world becomes colorblind, I’m afraid there will always be undercurrents of racial tension this side of Heaven. Newspapers, TV shows, and other media remind us of the broken ideals on a regular basis. But I am ever thankful that he dared to dream. That dream trickled down into the cracks of society, crumbling walls, shifting courses, and expanding into a river whose current continues to erode racism. The more you and I cultivate classrooms, hallways, lunch rooms, office spaces, churches, and neighborhoods where people are not “judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” the more his dream becomes a reality. Each doing our part in the process of erosion, we can help fulfill another lesser-known line from his speech: “With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”
From my 3rd-grade yearbook, here is part of the crew I hung out with growing up. Note: my older sister liked to circle faces with pencil…
How do we process grief? With words? In silence? With anger, action, inactivity? At some point these have all applied to me. Sometimes…I process grief through painting.
As a teacher, there have been times where people asked me what I dislike about my job. I may flippantly reply that I hate when students are lazy, or (when piles of papers loom over my desk) that I dislike grading. But there is really only one thing I hate about teaching, and that is losing students. In 12 years of teaching, I’ve already buried more than I can count on one hand. Four of those were within the past 2 years, and time/experience don’t make that aspect of teaching easier. I still see the back of someone’s head in school or out shopping and think (for a split second) that it’s this or that student I lost years ago. Particularly when they’ve graduated, and I wouldn’t be seeing them often anyway…it’s hard to believe they’re really gone.
A student once interviewed me for a sociology paper about faith and its positive (or negative) effect on modern teens. At some point during our discussion, I remember asking her why death always feels wrong. Whether we’re burying my 100-year-old great-grandmother, a miscarried baby, or a child of any age, the loss pierces straight to the heart. When asked, my student was thoughtful for a few moments and had no response. I told her I think the reason death always feels wrong is that we were not created for death. Before Genesis chapter 3, it wasn’t part of the human equation. And ever since then we’ve fought it with every fiber of our being. We cannot cheat or stop it. And, whether we know the person is going to a better place or not, we mourn it. At night, as tears slide down my cheek, into my ear, and dampen the pillow beneath, I cry out: “Papa, WHY!?” The silence echoes no audible answer. Though, peace descends slowly with the softness of sleep.
Alex Kierstead was one of those kids who brightens a room. Friendly, easy-going, a twinkle in his eye; I’ve seen posts on Twitter and Facebook of everyone saying how he genuinely loved people and would do anything for them. I first met Alex in 6th-grade and had him in various art classes throughout middle and high school. When he wasn’t in my class, he was one of those kids who would catch me in the hallway and check in…ask how my classes were going, fill me in on what he was up to. It was his goal senior year to gather enough students to finally make our Printmaking class run. (For many years no one had signed up for the class, and people practically forgot it existed.) Alex rallied friends and strangers together, spreading word , and encouraging them to sign up. I think about 13 did sign up for it…still not enough to run the class. So, he never got his Printmaking at Waubonsie. But the fact that he had the gumption to try, and the charisma to bring others along for the ride, was typical Alex. I can’t stand to rehash the details of his death here. There are news articles online I’d encourage you to read. They speak of creativity, a love of hiking and outdoors. They speak of a life well-lived and a young man dearly loved.
This is the first time in my life where the advent season and mourning have gone hand-in-hand. This is a hard Christmas. I am not used to crying this much or this often. And, as difficult as this is for his teachers and friends to process, it must be infinitely harder for his family. As I talked with my grandpa on the phone this evening, I asked him to pray for me…and he did, right then and there on the phone. Hanging up after that call, I was reminded of John 1:5, “A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” That night in Bethlehem a new star appeared – bright enough for astrologers to follow it hundreds of miles. That star pointed to a tiny life which could not be extinguished. Emmanuel was here. God was finally physically with us. The darkness could fight, but it could not win. I will wrestle. I will mourn. I will cry out and question why. But darkness and mourning do not have the final word. In tears again this Sunday at church, the words of a familiar carol had new meaning for me: “Mild he lays his glory by. Born that man no more may die. Born to raise the lost of earth. Born to give them second birth. Hark! The herald angels sing: glory to the newborn king.” …Born that man no more may die. Lord, help us. Show us you’re here right now. God with us.
My favorite teacher-movie is the 1939 film Goodbye, Mr. Chips, starring Robert Donat and Greer Garson. (If you’ve never seen it, rent it from the library!!) In one of the final scenes, Chips sums up my own feeling: as teachers we have thousands of kids…many of whom we affect (and are deeply affected by) through the years. For me, “My Kids” can refer to any student I’ve taught, mentored, coached, or worked with at church over the past 15 years. In this particular post, I’d like to introduce you to a few of my Painting 2 kids. These are upper-level painting students. Having learned various acrylic techniques in Painting 1, we work our way through Chinese Ink Brush techniques, India ink, watercolor, and eventually oils in Painting 2. The watercolor portraits below were completed about 3/4 of the way through our semester. The artists have offered to share their work and words here.
My painting subject is my younger sister; since this was a baby picture Miss Bozarth demonstrated for the class and I that in babies and younger children we should keep the edges soft so it won’t have the feeling of an older person’s skin. Another thing I learned was how dark to make the watercolor. With acrylic I can add white to lighten a color, but in watercolor paintings white is not used as much for lightening the color. I learned that it is about how much water I have on my brush and how many coats I layer. For the red blanket I had a hard time keeping the colors translucent. When I was working on the background I made the mistake of going too dark, but I learned to lift out the color with my wet brush and paper towel. When I was coming near the end of the painting, Miss Bozarth told me to go back and darken the shadows in my sister’s hair and shirt. This allowed a better contrast and brought out the highlights in her face and shirt. I look at the finished painting and see how far I’ve come. I am proud of my piece, but I couldn’t have achieved it without the tools I learned from my teacher. I am looking forward to working with watercolor again in my future!
I chose this picture mainly because I didn’t want to do skin tones and facial features. It shows my passion for the Chicago Blackhawks and my favorite player Duncan Keith. While doing this painting I learned that watercolor is terrifying to tackle! White watercolor is basically non-existent, and once you mess up, it’s like Sharpie…really hard to fix. I loved doing the wrinkles in the jersey; at times I thought it was real. This was a great learning experience for my first watercolor portrait.
I wanted to make a piece that had a humorous pun and also involved one of my nerdy favorites. I went through my favorite Star Wars characters and remembered the Scout Trooper and connected it with everyday Boy Scouts. So, if the Star Wars universe ever needed popcorn, you’d know what trooper to buy from!