By Adrin Fisher
Let me be honest: I’m getting a little tired of living through history. Pandemic teaching. Insurrection. Racism. COVID variants. A magical quick-change school map. The supreme elevation of opinion over truth. Fear and violence and doubling down on hate. 2021 is shaping up to be a lot.
To add insult to injury, just as back in the before-time, there are the losses that come with living on this circling planet. Just before Christmas, my high school art teacher, Russ Neptune, passed away. Mr. Neptune taught for close to forty years in a huge room with fifteen-foot windows, radiators on the brick walls, and big zinc sinks stained with years of paint splatter. My favorite memory of his class is how he would build an incredible hodgepodge structure out of found objects: old bicycles, rocking chairs, chandeliers, terra cotta pots and bricks, American flags and antique mirrors. He put it up on tables in the middle of the room, and we would sit all around it, scouting out sections for our still-life projects—line drawing, colored pencils, water colors.
But that’s not all we did. He taught us things I’d never heard of, like batik, linoleum printing, and etching zinc plates with acid. I paid tribute to artist Andrew Wyeth. I water-colored the doors of our local mansion, built by a coal baron when the Titanic was new. I mashed up my parents’ 1960s album covers. I drew my Converse sneakers. I took Mr. Neptune’s class for three years, and many years later, when I returned home, I became his colleague.
When he passed in the plague time, his family asked that former students post pictures of their artwork with the tag #UncleRuss. It took me almost fifteen minutes to find my work. Fifteen minutes to locate a garbage bag full of art I made almost 30 years ago—after four moves across two states. Fifteen minutes.
Why have I carried my bag of art all these years? It’s because, like any great teacher, Mr. Neptune taught his art students more than techniques or terms. He taught us to trust our eye, to think outside the box, to experiment. He gave us freedom and autonomy and a chance at self-expression.
He made me feel like an ARTIST.
In past times, people would put a candle in their windows. Maybe it was a sign of good news. Maybe it was a beacon to a family member journeying home. Maybe it was a sign of a friendly welcome for a traveler. In all cases, it was a sign of hope. It reminds me of a song by Creedence Clearwater Revival (from one of my parents’ old albums): “But I won’t, won’t / Be losing my way, no, no / Long as I can see the light.”
So, teacher-friend, here is my New Year’s offering to you. I’ve got no lists of self-care ideas or teacher resolutions or easy technology tricks. I just have one thing.
It’s a candle for your window. Make it your goal to make your students feel like a—
Well, whatever it is you’re teaching this year.
I want my students to feel like WRITERS.
I want them to feel like READERS.
Maybe you want your students to feel like ATHELETES or MATHLETES or LINGUISTS or SINGERS.
I want them to feel welcomed and competent and confident. I want to point the direction and then set them free. I want them to find their voices and their motivation. I want to remind them to hope.
This is a hard time for an educator. It’s tough for students and parents, too.
Basically, it’s a challenging time to be a human.
But, in the words of Mikey in the 1985 film The Goonies, “This is our time.”
So, instead of giving up or hunkering down or shutting off, I challenge you to light the candles in your windows. Cultivate the good and open your heart to hope. Remember that your passion and your effort (especially in the plague year) are not lost. Remember that some day, even if it’s thirty years down the road, some former student will remember you fondly—for how you made them feel—for what you taught them they could be.
Take it seriously, because it’s a serious charge.
As my parting gift this month, I invite you to share in the hope offered by British indie-rocker Frank Turner in “The Next Storm.”
“So open the shutters, raise up the mast.
Rejoice, rebuild, the storm has passed!
Cast off the crutches, cut off the cast,
Rejoice, rebuild, the storm has passed,
Rejoice, rebuild, the storm has passed…
“I’m gonna step out, and face the next storm.”
Now, go light some candles in your windows. Courage, dear-heart!
Adrin Fisher is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. She wishes you light and hope on your journey. She’s a National Board Certified Teacher, an Arch Coal Teacher Achievement Award Winner, and a finalist for WV State Teacher of the Year. She teaches College English, AP Lit & Comp, and English 12 at Fairmont Senior High School. You can follow her on Twitter @fisheradrin