Tuesday, May 26, 2009

My Teacher Mr. Parrish

When I went to high school I endured all my classes the first half of the day just for one class,
sixth period art class. Mr. Parrish was a thin birdlike man with pale dreamy blue eyes in a much too thin face with a much too high forehead, pale and hyperactive. Mr. Parrish never called roll, never wrote down that anyone was late, and in general didn't seem to keep tabs on his students at all. This was not to be as it appeared to be, for Mr. Parrish knew very well who was there and indeed, every thing there was to know about us. Here was a teacher unlike any other teacher I had ever known, and he was teaching us things that I didn't know had anything to do with art.
Mr. Parrish would ask us questions like why does a painting have to be square, why can't a painting be round? He told us that if we liked putting graffiti on the bathroom walls then why not put our original graffiti on canvas with acrylic oil? He showed us how to throw glaze on pottery already wet with glaze to make interesting designs, and how to batik fabric with iron and an ironing board and dye and beeswax. He told us to think outside the box before we knew there was a box, and he taught us that there were ways of thinking before we knew we could think. He was teaching us more than art, he insisted on being polite to us, and insisted that we be polite to each other. If we got stuck on anything he dropped what he was doing and was just there instantly, totally interested, happy to have been asked. If he minded dropping whatever project he was working on to help us he never let us know, I think he was just a natural teacher and was happy being where he was and doing what he was doing.
Mr. Parrish did not have the same approach to every class. He did not start out telling anyone to do anything, merely saying that paint and canvas and paper and all those things in the classroom were ours to use any way that we wished. When we did not jump in but rather sat around talking in small groups then he changed and gave us assigned work to do. He recognized that we needed this, that we had always been told what to do and didn't know how to discipline ourselves. When he asked us what we wanted to do once again we did not know, we had no suggestions, we had never been asked before in school what we wanted to do and were puzzled by his questions. Then he gave us a list of things to do, everything from playing with dye and fabric to painting to sketching to modeling with clay to still life drawings of a table piled up with fresh fruit. He was trying to cover all the bases, trying to give us a taste of everything so that we might find something that we liked doing. If we had no talent that was besides the point, he stood at his desk and acted very much like the teachers we had known and said that we had to do the work if we were to pass his class. Now that we understood! I understand now that he was putting on an act for us, that we wanted the familiarity of the teacher and student structures that we had known all our lives. He knew somehow, that he had to play the bad guy to get us going.
Mr. Parrish had said something he deeply believed in when he was pretending to be the kind of teacher that we were used to. He said that talent was besides the point. It didn't matter if we had one artistic bone in our bodies. What counted is that we express ourselves, that we do something representative of our identity, something that he said says, “ME”. He told us that art is personal. He told us that it didn't matter if he didn't like what we did, and in fact it didn't matter if anyone liked it at all. He told us to start working whether we felt like it or not and inspiration might come to us and again it might not. It didn't matter. It was, however, very important to try and if we tried we would not fail his class.
As I look back I now know there was a bit of a genius in Mr. Parrish. He had much more on his teaching list than Art. He was teaching us that conventional rules can and should be disregarded if they don't work for us, that being ourselves was the only way to get to good art, that it was okay to express negative emotions like anger, fear, or even fear of death in our art and he even encouraged this much to my amazement. He told us that we were already grown-ups even if the rest of the world didn't know it yet and that with freedom came responsibilities and his number one rule was NO WHINING.
The last time I saw him he was telling a story about how his wife always nagged him to take out the garbage and how it had become a pattern with her and him to have problems with his forgetfulness when he came to garbage removal. He made us laugh saying, “Honey, let's burn the garbage today. Let it be our day, garbage day, a day to celebrate together. Darling let us take out the garbage together, nothing says married like fighting over who is going to take out the garbage. Yea! It's garbage day.”
He was doing a little dance, making a holiday over taking out the garbage in this imaginary scene he was telling us with his wife. I will personally never forget seeing a teacher do a dance in the middle of the classroom on a fine May afternoon of my senior year in high school.
Mr. Parrish I think was trying to tell us that art is important for everybody, that this creativity of artists was something that everyone had if only just a little, and art is for everyone. He was telling us to be no one else but exactly who we are. I think that is pretty much the best lesson a teacher ever gave me.

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