My teaching duties are coming to closure for the semester and I was monitoring my students and talking with them about their final projects in a classroom last week when I had an unexpected visitor. The door to the classroom was partially open and a large, young black man appeared there, stopping motionless for a moment. He had a quizzical expression on his face, as he seemed to be remembering something.
“I think . . . did you . . . have you ever taught art theory for University of Maryland, College Park?” he finally asked.
“Yes, I did,” I said.
“I knew it! I took your class! It was great!”
“Thank you!” I said.
As I walked over to him to shake his hand, I said, “Forgive me if I don’t recall your name . . . but there were lots of students I taught at Maryland.”
“That’s okay . . . my name is Ode and you changed all our ideas about art in that class. I remember when you took a chair . . . ” He reached out and grabbed the back of a nearby chair, pulling it toward him. “And blew our minds explaining what that chair meant.”
“Ah, yes! ‘One and Three Chairs!’ You remember that?”
“Yes, yes! How could I forget?”
The young man had caught the attention of my students, I noticed, as some of them were listening and watching us. Ode saw this and turning, he addressed them now:
“If you ever have the chance, take Professor Boyd’s art theory class . . . it will change your life!”
“You’ve made my day, Ode!”
We chatted for a while longer and I learned Ode had finished his baccalaureate and gone on the take his MFA at Howard University. He was now teaching, as an adjunct at this college, too. We talked a bit about the role of an educator, the rewards and challenges of teaching. I recall telling Ode that making connections with students like him was “empowering” for me and kept me teaching all these years. But I also spoke about the “moments of despair” when the frustration of teaching became impossible and students’ personal lives interfered with their ability to engage the subject matter.
We parted after exchanging contact info and I returned to my class and the duties at hand. Later, about 15 minutes before class ended, a young black female student entered. She approached sheepishly and I could see that she had been crying.
“Well, hello, K. Did you finish your project?” I asked.
“I . . . couldn’t finish . . . it’s been a difficult week and I couldn’t . . . ” Her voice choked and she stopped speaking. She handed me a crumpled paper. “This is as much as I could get done.”
I motioned for her to sit down, that we would talk after class.
After the last student had left, K was still sitting there, waiting. I had looked over her project briefly and already knew it was hopeless. K had already told me of her personal situation at home, sharing the stress she was having with her immediate relatives and not being able to study or work on her school assignments.
I walked to where she sat and addressed her:
“I’m very sorry that you weren’t able to finish your project. I know that you’ve had a stressful semester and I wish things had been easier for you.”
At this, she broke down, bent her head into her hands that was now clutching a tissue and faint, wet, wrenching sobs were her only answer. Her pain was palpable and desperately real. She couldn’t even respond to me, instead, she slowly got up, collected her things, and left the room.
All I was left with was a sense of what this loss may have meant for her. Her hopes for this class and, undoubtedly, for all of her classes, were undone by these situations obviously within her control but out of her experience. The opportunities for a successful semester were now lost to her.
I imagine that most professions do have these kinds of extreme moments; moments of success and fulfillment, coupled with other moments of failure and loss. But to have these kinds of experiences occur within a couple of hours in one day was stunning. The act of teaching is a constantly evolving profession that strives to reach other people's hearts and minds with conveyable knowledge and a connection to life. It is a rewarding occupation, but it can also be draining.
My brief encounter with a young man who took my theory class nearly 10 years ago reminded me of “why” I teach: to engage someone’s heart with the awe of existence and to excite someone’s mind with speculation and cognition. But there are those other pedagogic encounters, rife with despair not only for the student but for the teacher as well. It is during those losses that I have a keen understanding that knowledge, or our attempt at both knowing and conveying ideas, are resolutely vulnerable to the student’s real, on-going life. And this makes it clear to me that life, and knowledge itself, is both a relative and conditional experience. To continue teaching effectively, one must develop the ability to function in these polarizing and extreme moments of existence, to maintain humility in those rewards yet remain strong through these failings.
IMAGE: "One and Three Chairs" (1965); wood folding chair, mounted photograph of a chair, and mounted photographic enlargement of the dictionary definition of "chair"; © Copyright 2013 Joseph Kosuth / Artists Rights Society (ARS).