It’s sixth hour at the high school. That translates into roughly twelve-thirty in the afternoon in real-world time. At midday the sun sears the pavement outside the windows of the Fine Arts Department at a school in a big square Western state where the higher elevation brings us closer to the sun and less atmosphere shields us from its rays. What effect that has I don’t know, but it’s a thought that passes through my head like mice under a carpet. I’m on a break — or what they call in the education game a planning period. I’ve got coffee in a styro cup and I’m perched on a stool at the edge of the art studio adjacent to my own.
Tom, the other art teacher and my partner in crime, is talking to his advanced sculpture class about form and plaster, etc. The class, a small group in dusty aprons, is composed of the broadest cross-section of adolescents I can imagine. There’s tall and short, male and female, lanky and rotund. One girl in what looks like a designer dress struggles messily with her plaster block. David, one of our intense art types, is staring at his as if he could carve it with his eyes. Angie, across the room, is a laughing black girl whose hands and face are now coated with plaster dust, becoming a photographic negative.
After Tom’s finished speaking, a few of them start hammering away with mallets and chisels on their large plaster blocks about the size of small TV’s. The chipping and tapping is almost a primitive harmony. One side of the ring of students hammers wildly. Another area is mute and contemplative. The flow surges — one by one, all are chipping on their plaster blocks; then stop, then start again — occasionally talking to friends close by. This girl Amy gets Tom’s attention and says she wants to make her’s into a snake — “So, like, how do I do it?”
Tom says, “Well, you take away all the plaster that doesn’t look like a snake and when you’re done, you’ve got a snake.” Tom has just lectured to the class on how they’re supposed to let a shape “evolve” from the block. “Just look at it as shapes,” he told them, “don’t approach the sculpture with any preconceptions,” so his sarcastic response is lost on her. Amy’s one of the crowd that hangs around my desk in the morning. She likes the art classes but she’s not what you would call brilliant. She tries hard and likes being part of the image we have of being different from the rest of the school.
Next to her, Laura, who’s a lot prettier than any seventeen year-old high school girl needs to be, is talking animatedly to her friend Jodi (with an “I”) as they cut large grooves into their twenty-pound blocks. I can only catch a bit of what they’re saying but you know from the tone in their voice it’s about boys. Because of the din of hammering they’re talking a little louder than they would normally and if everyone stopped working right now they’d be real embarrassed, like when you’re in a movie, talking with your date and suddenly the movie’s silent, and you’re there still talking into her ear.
Anyway, hearing bits of their conversation conjures up images, things I can only guess at: secret dates with dangerous boys, steamed up windows in parked cars. Too mild perhaps? Laura sets down her chisel and cups her hand to Jodi’s ear. Jodi smiles wickedly and I hear her speaking in a suddenly coarse voice, “We’ll never let you live that down,” as various absurd thoughts creep into my mind. I’m thirty-six and divorced so I don’t have a lot of illusions about the world, but for a moment I’m carried back to my own high school in the town where I grew up. In every class there was this one girl, call her Lisa, who seemed to me stunning and vivacious, a doe-eyed goddess to my adolescent mind. You’d look over at her across the history class, risking detection, and just letting her sheer prettiness soak into your eyeballs — a sparkling, pointed moment that lifted you above the numbing boredom of class. Sort of like medieval peasants entering a cathedral from their drab landscape and seeing the sunlight through a stained-glass window for the first time.
I suppose Charles, who across the ring of erstwhile sculptors sees these girls this way. He looks up at the two girls talking, then chips away earnestly. He’s a little too tall and has bad skin but he’s a decent kid and has no idea what’s in store for him two years, five years, twenty years from now. Most of the things I’ve done since I was his age I never would’ve believed if you’d told me then. We really have no idea what’s going to happen.
It hits me. Each of these kids is a sculpture block just starting to be carved. Some are going to let it evolve and love where it goes. For others, preconceptions will distort their longing for happiness and keep whittling them down until they hit a wall of despair. I wish I could warn them but twelve years in the classroom tells me otherwise. They think they’ve formed themselves but they’re only now being formed into something recognizable.
Come to think of it, Mr. Roemer probably did see me staring at Lisa across his history class and ignoring his lecture. Though he was in mid-sentence he probably saw the longing gaze and forgave my rudeness because I was an ‘A’ student. And I’ll bet he remembered momentarily his high school days, when sitting in class he would gaze at a girl and be jolted back to reality by a stern command. Pay attention.
To my surprise I am struck by a wave of… what? Affection? Yes, a fatherly fondness for these kids. Partly formed, seeing themselves as worldly, but really only beginning. They will do important things. I remember Charles once said something about wanting to be a teacher. A cycle continues. As sculpture class finishes sweeping up, the bell rings. I toss the coffee cup into the trash can and walk back to my own classroom.