For Natalia Kormeluk, master teacher, on the occasion of her retirement – and the rest of the extraordinary faculty of The Field School.
Probably two dozen on the way into campus from our house in the country, every day. Some still red but most bleached and desiccated, landlocked driftwood ships whose joints are giving way. Left for gravity and weather to finish their sentences. Tumbling down in slow motion in every field.
The wonder is how they’ll materialize anywhere, like mushrooms. Sometimes standing grandly in the middle of a wide meadow, their prominence celebrated by a quilt pattern on the side. But sometimes hidden up a holler, glimpsed from the road as you round the bend. Anywhere it was needed, there it was. No farm too small of course.
The big ones, for feed and livestock, you notice when you look. The little ones, the tobacco barns, you don’t as much. These are almost invariably square, and the size of a child’s bedroom. They are taller than their footprint would suggest, to make space inside for lateral poles on which to hang the tobacco to cure, with a flue at the top to draw the smoke up and out.
The one right by the road that its owner is restoring to use as a potting shed seems to be putting on airs. Its house wrap-covered plywood from Lowe’s jars with its hundred year-old stone foundation, like a cheap new hat worn with good old shoes. Leaving them be seems consonant with their greater purpose. Seems to be what is supposed to happen in the fields and meadows around here, where the small herds of cattle age and die and are born imperceptibly to all but their owners. They’re just cows being cows, around barns being barns, season in and season out the decades race by. Their beauty and majesty is in their invisibility.
The semester at the university is about to end: the one that seems like it just began. I think I felt this one even less than the thirteen that proceeded it. I have to be honest: the aspect of the teaching life I drive through every day that most arrests my attention is how little of it actually does.
To be sure, many students have said and written things in class that will make them memorable. I think I know something about who they are and what makes them tick, where they are excited and where they are scared, and what they are doing to focus on the first and ignore the last. I know their names now, and will probably be able to retrieve them when I see them next year in the hallways, bustling between the endless curriculum & instruction classes our accreditors will make them endure.
But many I don’t, and will not. And they’ll not acknowledge me, really, when they see me a year hence. Despite my funny last-day-of-class bit where I urge them to, both for their own sense of history in their experience here and my own existential affirmation.
It’s not like this in high school. At least not the one I taught in. The half-life of relationships with those students is much longer. I saw them way more, even when I wasn’t teaching them. Though given the number of non-grade-specific studio arts and athletic opportunities, I tended to teach them again in different settings, across different texts, over multiple years.
There’s something much saner about this arrangement. Maybe because it more honestly acknowledges the parental echoes of teaching work, even with older kids. While we specialize and compartmentalize knowledge and experiences as they age to get them ready for college, teaching high schoolers is still teaching children. They – and we – still thrive within a longer mutual holding of regard and attention. We still establish our depth of field through a longer perspective. I fear that a single semester, atomized and abandoned in its three-ring notebook on the shelf, does little for the long-term health of anyone involved. It just checks a box.
Maybe that’s why the semesters now pass largely unnoticed, racing by the car window. Look up and it’s snowing; turn your attention to the book in your lap for a moment, and when you look up again it’s sunny and warm and the birds are singing and kids are taking photos in caps and gowns by the iconic school gateway. Then it happens again in reverse, every fall.
I have known some of my original high school students for nearly twenty-five years now. I have been granted a place of care in their lives that you only grant to those you trusted before you learned not to trust. I love some of them almost as fiercely as I love my own, flesh-and-blood children, and thrill at their successes and ache at their pain on Facebook almost like I will my own when they inevitably leave and make their own uneven way in the world. How can this be.
Next week, a colleague from my first teaching days will retire after thirty-nine years of throwing pots with middle and high schoolers. Her celebration next Saturday will surely overflow with remembrances: thirty-nine years of grown adults made children again at the memory of the million gestures she lavished on them, the million hours across the wheel from her. Gratitude at being seen and held and shaped and lovingly handed back to yourself.
I remember sitting with her most mornings during the years I was fortunate to work in her department. Drinking coffee from the gorgeous little mugs decorated in the Ukrainian ceramic tradition she mastered. Most Christmases she’d make a whole run of them and present them to us as gifts. My dear friend and colleague, the painter, noted that eventually you’d have a whole shelf of them, if you just stayed around long enough. I maybe didn’t stay around long enough – but I do still have the ones I received today, arrayed proudly in my office like the wonders they are. Remnants of a life spent in ways that vanish, but at the same time become more enduring than any other artifact.
May we who teach learn and conform to Natalia’s great legacy. May we give care, reliable as the passing seasons, in perfect fulfillment of our nearly invisible, but timeless, purpose.
May we find the unique affordances of the medium we’ve been given to work with now, despite its apparent limits.
May we remember that we have the right to work, but never to the fruit of work – and then get to it, with perfect evenness of mind.
May we continue to do what can only be done here, now, today.
I used to grieve because I could not make reliably a close-fitting lid for a canister, a teapot, a casserole. Sometimes the lid fitted, sometimes it didn’t. But I wanted it to fit. And I was full of aggravation.
Then a GI friend of mine who was stationed in Korea sent me an ancient Korean pot, about a thousand years old. I loved it at once, and then he wrote that he thought I might like it because it looked like something I might have made. Its lid didn’t fit at all! Yet it was a museum piece, so to speak.
Why, I mused, do I require of myself what I do not require of this pot? Its lid does not fit, but it inspires my soul when I look at it and handle it.
So I stopped worrying.
Now I have very little trouble making lids that fit.
– M.C. Richards, Centering, pp. 22-23
Image from NCSU Libraries, with thanks.