Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Masterpiece Gift

In getting fired from the bar, the past two months have often felt like being thrown to the ground, or having the rug pulled out from under me, or other analogies that end in the mud. And partly I think this is wrapped up in the idea of failure. It is hard to explain the odd sensation of failing for me, especially in something at which I actually felt successful.

I didn't mean to overstay my welcome at the bar, as I clearly ended up doing. I finished my teaching commitment and needed some kind of income while I decided what came next. The bar was an easy way to make my teacher salary on three shifts a week, and while this in itself was a highly depressing commentary on how little we value educators in America, it freed me up to take on part-time work in various other fields. Some of this part-time work still includes independent contract work for two different teacher recruitment and training programs. For one, I interview applicants over the phone who want to teach in low income urban and rural communities. Mostly, these are people who are highly motivated and extremely intelligent. Sometimes, however, these are people who are not. A sample conversation from last week:

Me: "What do you think raising achievement levels in low performing schools will require of you to accomplish?"

Applicant #1: "Well, just to get them to trust me, show them that I care, love on them..."

Really? That might get you fired.

Applicants do have a chance to ask questions in this process, and the question that I got the most often in the 20 interviews I did last week was "what was the most difficult part of your first year teaching?" Which is kind of like asking someone who is drowning, "what is the hardest part of staying alive?" But, as the interviews progressed, it dawned on me that the warning we first year teachers received was also the best way to explain the difficulty of that first year: that first year would be the first time any of us would ever really FAIL at anything. And by all-caps FAIL, I mean land in the mud FAIL. I don't mean getting an F on a quiz, or bombing an audition. I mean, letting 28 students down who cannot afford to fall any further behind, while knowing that you are fully capable of not letting them down.

So in taking the job at the bar, I was also taking a break from that constant sense of not achieving enough. A break that allowed me to be very successful at something very easy. And then I somehow failed at that too.

Anyway, with this in mind, last night I went to a lecture on the idea of "masterpiece." The senior curator of 19th century sculpture at the Louvre, who let's be honest, is probably the closest thing to a real-life heroine that I could have, was in town and gave a lecture at my favorite place, the Alliance Fran├žaise of Chicago. So this tiny, beautiful French woman who is internationally successful at her job in curating art for one of the largest and most important museums in the world, spoke about what constitutes a masterpiece, and how this definition varies from artist to artist, curator to curator, and generally cannot actually ever have a true definition. But, for her, she said masterpieces always showcase the skills of an artist. All of the skills. Everything the artist does well.

And this made me think of how often the most successful artists in the world have felt like complete and total losers. Imagine the level of FAIL you would have hanging over your head in trying to create a "masterpiece."Imagining this made me feel better. It also made me think of how much easier being successful is when there are no restrictions.

When I was about four or five years old, my mom bought an 8 X 10 inch canvas, some acrylic paints and a paintbrush and let me paint. I have no idea what I was thinking about as I painted, or if I intended it to look like something in particular. I do know that my mom put music on and told me my work was beautiful. The finished product made the perfect Father's Day present from us to my dad, the artist. My dad paints with acrylics and lots of colors, and this painting was several things at once to him: family support for his art, flattery in the form of imitation, and true creative expression. It was also a patchwork of blobs, but it was everything that I did well. It was a masterpiece.

The best part of this gift is not that it is a masterpiece. The best part is how it reflected the success of my dad to become a success in its own right. And this is what I am trying to recapture as I climb out of the mud.

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