Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Boy Who Taught Me How to Be a Teacher

Once you get old enough, you start to develop a perspective about how life's random puzzle pieces have come to connect. Some pieces attach by sheer force, some settle gradually; but there are others whose fit becomes apparent only after the passage of years.

Now I was fortunate enough to be hired as a high school teacher at age 23. I had proceeded from high school to college to a fifth year credential program, and duly employed---there I stood, facing five daily classes populated with freshmen, sophomores, and juniors. School's basics were firmly in my grasp: know your subject matter; manage timing; keep track of everyone. It was the ineffable that I had yet to learn.

When I first went to write on the board, I remember wishing a miracle would occur, transforming my printy script into an elegant, disciplined, right-slanting hand. It never happened. In fact, the whole disciplined elegance factor eluded me. But I do know I felt an immediate and deep concern if I saw anyone resting his head on his desk, and very quickly I found just such a one in my afternoon class. What to do? My own brother was in another high school at the time. I knew he was involved in cartooning for the school paper. But I didn't have the maturity yet to try to knit my student into the school's fabric through activities. I just decided to keep approaching the desk-rester in a low-key manner; I presumed he probably viewed me as an over-zealous do-gooder. If he even noticed my efforts.

In that era there was room to act more creatively. I inquired of my department head and learned I could remove this boy from class and instead carry him as an independent study student during my conference period. The boy agreed to the arrangement. We moved forward without asking his parents--it never even occurred to me, again due to my inexperience. We met daily in the English department office. We read literature of alienation, like THE PAINTED BIRD by Jerzy Kozinski and Kafka's METAMORPHOSIS. We talked about our readings; he wrote more and more and he attended faithfully. Somehow we finished that year together. He was a sophomore, though I was but a freshman as a teacher.

The boy moved on into his junior and senior years, joining in school plays, revealing a sensitivity to art and a wonderful sense of humor. Once I asked, "How do you memorize all those lines for a play?" He replied, "It's really like a conversation. And if you think of it that way, it's very easy to recall all the lines in order." After he graduated, we lost track.

Close to fifteen years later, my cartooning brother, who grew up to become a special effects creator, phoned me to say he was working with a man who spoke highly of me and seemed to know me very well. It turned out to be this very same student! Today if you google Spectral Motion in Glendale, you will see the powerhouse work and boundless creativity of Mike and Mary Elizalde. They run one of the top creature shops in the movie industry. Mike has been nominated for an Academy Award. But more significant is his generosity and willingness to mentor other young artists.

Mike came to speak to two of my classes last week. He brought along a gifted young illustrator, Alex Palma, who crafts images to show to producers who have word-ideas of what they want. Many of my current students struggle academically and emotionally. Mike spoke to them about how to pursue work in the arts with a directness tinged by neither a cloying or "bootstraps" tone. He was modeling sincerity and respect for others. It was then that I realized how pivotal Mike had been in my own career development. I finally understood that he had taught me the ineffables, my own sacred trio: reach out to others; meet the students where they are and go forward; and be kind. It is so simple. But it takes all the time we have to master it.

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