A Teacher’s Thanksgiving: Art, Education and the Power of Belief

For three months in the 2016-17 school year, I worked each day filling in for a wonderful lady who then worked as art teacher at a charter school in Oklahoma City. Her time away on maternity leave afforded me the opportunity to recreate, every single school day, a long-dormant youthful appreciation for visual art.
I can’t seem to find her, and will not use her name without permission. She was both an inspirational artist and a great educator. We had gotten to know each other during my earlier stints filling in with history, writing and art classes when she and the other full-time educators were away. 
As her time to give birth neared, I spent a couple of days at her side, reviewing “rubrics” and particulars for students in middle and high school. When her baby came, I became an art teacher.

Her lesson plans were so good, and her students so thoroughly well-versed in the practice of visual art, that although it was a really hard job, it was a wonderful time.
There was more to the work than simply following instructions, but I have never had a more practical, methodical and helpful set of daily guidelines from an educator for whom I substituted.
The students were of every imaginable background, with a distinct Hispanic flavor. They worked hard and were tolerant of occasional gaps in my knowledge, including for the elective digital photography class.
Water color painting, charcoal sketches, portraits and a few oil paint works came from the group of young artists, and I marveled at the powerful (but modestly paid) time. 
Years ago, a friend gave my wife an apron that was bright red, with a single word in traditional-looking script handwriting at the waist area at the front of the apron. 
After a lot of paint smears on pants and shirts, I began to wear that particular “wide body” apron. My wife said the word matched what she heard me saying about the students. 
After a couple of days, one of the girls, nearing graduation, asked me about the apron. The room of about 30 students grew quiet, making me realize the question was, among themselves, a matter of interest.
It was a teachable moment, you see. I pointed at the apron, and the word. 
Believe,” it said.

So, as best I can recall today, I said something like this: “I believe in you, and I believe in the power of art to lift us up. I believe in the lessons your teacher left for me to give you. I want you to be happy, and successful, to work hard and to do good. That’s it.” 
They listened and nodded. A few spoke words I could not quite understand, in Spanish.
Before the regular instructor’s return, as the end of my “art teacher” time neared, something happened. 
First, the girl who had asked the question about the apron did a line drawing of an apron adorned with the word “Believe.” Then came paintings where they could do whatever topic they wished. Then, in a sort-of-Cubist assignment, almost a tribute to Picasso, the word popped up in the margins or next to their names when they turned in the assignment.
The apron grew more wrinkled and tired looking, like the man who wore it. It was covered with more and more little touches of their paint. 
My time ended just after Thanksgiving. I filled in for a few other subjects before Christmas, but only a couple of times in Art. The students showed me some of their late-semester pieces, and I got a few hugs. 
Nothing all that dramatic. It’s a story like many others, full-time and substitute teachers, can tell. 
Some of those kids are in college, or the workforce, now. From time to time, I see one or another around town. They tell me they are doing fine, and it seems they are. 
And me? 
I still believe – in art, in education, and in the students.
NOTE: A reporter and a teacher certified in 10 subject areas (including journalism), Pat McGuigan has taught at the university, high school, middle school and elementary levels.