*I wrote this piece today to submit to the ICTE Teacher Writings page (check it out if you haven't!). In the event that it isn't chosen for publication, I'll put it here too. It's not the usual type of writing I do on this blog, but it's important to me. As someone who frequently writes personal narrative, this is topic I've never written (or talked about) before. That probably means I should share it.
The clay walrus that sits on my desk is the most stunningly perfect work of art my hands have ever created. From the sad, half-crescent eyes to the matte gray paint sanded with hints of silver finish, this artifact earned its place on my desk because of the satisfaction it gives me every time I glance at it. It’s one of the most difficult tasks I’ve ever completed, from one of the worst times. It’s a testament to adolescent attitude and the nurturing power of the right teacher at the right time.
To say that eighth grade was a rough year for me is an understatement. I know now from nine years of teaching eighth grade that it’s a rough year for everyone, but the self-pitying magic of memory allows me the indulgence of still believing mine was extraordinary.
My social life was changing. My school was huge, and I never quite adjusted to feel as comfortable in middle school as I had at the smaller elementary in my neighborhood. I cycled through different groups of friends, never popular, but never quite anonymous enough to avoid embarrassment. Two years of feeling out of place led me to the classic outward expression of teen angst: I became one of the “bad” kids. Except I wasn’t really bad, I just hung out with them and became a sad replica of a young rebel. I wore baggy jeans and had questionable hygiene and reinvented myself as a neo-hippy. I listened to Pink Floyd on endless loops and bought my clothes at Goodwill and the Touch of India store in the mall. I spent sleepovers at friends’ houses drinking alcohol and succumbing to the pressure of early sexual activity, leaving me in a spiral of depression and self-loathing. I spent hours sleeping in my room to avoid interaction with my family, and had no true friends left that wanted anything to do with me. I contemplated suicide and even went so far as to pick out a date when I would end it: December 6th, 1996. I picked it because I thought that was Pearl Harbor Day, and that my own tragedy would go nicely with a historical one. I was too stupid to know that a) it was the wrong day, and b) the only thing causing my depression was my own actions.
All of these outside distractions contributed to my grades slipping from A’s and B’s to D’s and F’s. I was in the “gifted and talented” program at school thanks to years of outstanding test scores and a genuine love of learning, but none of that ability was on display in eighth grade. My parents drew the line at my failing Art grade. Arrangements were made: I would stay after school for an hour every day until I caught up on the clay project.
The project was to pick an animal from a National Geographic magazine and use the picture as inspiration for a lifelike work of clay. It couldn’t be that hard, right? Walruses are just fat lumps, not complex creatures that involve a lot of detail. Every day I would sit down with my lump of clay, using an X-acto-knife to attempt to draw the lines into the hide of the walrus’s body. Every day it would look like some maniac was hacking away at the poor beast. The art teacher watched my lack of progress with mounting frustration. We didn’t get along, and having me after school might have been more a punishment for him than me. I accomplished nothing, carving and smoothing over the same wrinkles for weeks, too stubborn to ask for help or receive advice.
One day, he had to leave after school. I was sent to the other art teacher’s room to put in my hours. I liked the other art teacher. He was a kind older man, and I’d had him in sixth and seventh grade. He remembered me from those years, not the person I’d allowed myself to become. He asked what I was working on and I explained the frustration with not being able to carve the wrinkly walrus skin right. He sat next to me at the table, glancing between the open magazine photo and the sad lump of clay.
“What if,” he said, “What if you make the wrinkles pop out instead of digging in?”
And he showed me that by rolling a small ball of clay into a coil I could cover the body in coils and blend them into the larger mass, making them look like raised skin folds. It was genius. I was so ecstatic over this breakthrough that I finished the entire walrus that night, adding the eyes, nose, tail, and flippers. The only things left before it was ready to fire were the tusks. I started to roll them, but they looked like tiny fangs. His eyes glinted and I could tell he had another idea.
“Maybe the tusks shouldn’t be clay,” he said. “What looks like ivory and is shaped like a tusk?” He held up a plastic fork, possibly left over from his lunch and winked.
I handed my former teacher the walrus that afternoon, ready for the kiln. Two days later, it was ready to paint. I used the dark gray and scratched on small spots of silver to add dimension to the body. As promised, he snapped of two plastic fork tines for me to super glue into the allotted spaces I’d made under the head. It was beautiful. My current art teacher wasn’t overly impressed, but he was happy that I’d no longer be ruining his afternoons. My former art teacher somehow had the grace to make me feel like an artist even though the great ideas came from him.
I don’t think I ever said thank you. I don’t think I ever spoke to him again, and I can’t even remember his name. It’s okay. I keep the walrus on my desk because it reminds me of so many things I need to keep in mind each day as a teacher. Eighth grade is a hard year, and I can add to my students’ misery or ease it in some small way. Hard work eventually pays off. Sometimes you need help, even when you are incapable of asking for it. I found success with the help of that teacher. I slowly made better friends and better decisions that didn’t make me hate my life. The Day Before Pearl Harbor Day passed and I no longer felt the hopelessness that led me to depression.
I survived eighth grade. Now I teach it.
I teach 7th and 8th grade English in rural Iowa and hope to reflect, connect, and share with other English teachers. Iowa Council of Teachers of English Executive Board member. Iowa Writing Project superfan. UNI MA:TESS graduate.