In a Teacher’s Declaration, Discouraging Words and A Smidgen of Insight

January 1st, 2018 § 0 comments

“Bird on Bench” Photo © Howard Sherman

Of the many criteria one might apply when considering what makes a great teacher, I think it’s fair to say that the ability to see and encourage something in a student that they do not yet necessarily see in themselves would rank high on the list. While this is probably not possible for each and every student, nor every teacher, one often hears stories from successful people about a teacher who really helped them along on their journey of education and discovery.

As I contemplate my education, it turns out that the person who did this for me was not in fact a teacher, but the cantor at my synagogue, when I was probably in fifth and sixth grades. His mentorship was not of a religious nature, however, but rather a cultural one. It was he who took me to New Haven’s art museums and talked me through their collections. He also encouraged me to try my hand at writing, some rudimentary plays all adapted, sans rights, from existing sources. He went so far as to loan me his own electric typewriter to facilitate my writing, and it was mine until it was obvious to my parents that I should have one of my own.

I don’t remember any specific lessons the cantor taught me. Rather, he was the first person to see how I responded to the arts, and at an age when I was decidedly awkward and different from the majority of my classmates, he allowed me to feel that my interests were not odd. As is the case with so much in our childhoods, this mentorship may have only amounted to a few outings, but they loom large in memory.

“I Will Not Be Silenced” Photo © Howard Sherman

In contrast to this experience, the single most vividly remembered moment of my formal education came once I was in college. It was decidedly not a positive one. It demonstrated how potentially damaging the words of an insensitive teacher might be, though in my case, I largely shrugged it off, transforming it into a story of it defying authority, an anecdote I told and laughed about often.

I often tell people that I have absolutely no educational training in theatre, that all I know I have learned from experience. But there is an asterisk that I always append to that statement. While my university did not have a theatre major, there was a nascent theatre studies minor. While I didn’t pursue that course of study, I opted to take, of all things, a single scenic design course. The teacher was a visiting adjunct from a nearby university with a full theatre program; it was not a deeply practical course, but primarily a conceptual one.

This is where I should admit that I cannot draw. I am unable to translate what I see in my eyes through to my hands to create even a passable visual representation of the thing itself. I neither perceive nor judge space and distance well. When I would doodle during classes that failed to keep my full attention, everything was geometric, ordered, symmetrical. When it came to arts and crafts as a child, the ruler was my favorite tool.

“Death in Trafalgar Square” Photo © Howard Sherman

So when, in this college design class, we were asked to sketch out a few ideas, to translate text into a rough setting, I was, I acknowledge, pretty hopeless. I could posit sets of boxes, rectangles and triangles; there were often layers upon layers of steps. Having read about the tricks required to suggest perspective, my ever-present lines and angle might seem to recede towards the horizon.

One day in class, as the teacher reviewed and discussed each student’s work, he came to mine and, perhaps immediately, perhaps after a bit of thought, uttered the phrase I have never forgotten.

“You have no imagination,” he told me.

In the moment, I grew angry. This wasn’t meant to be a practical course but a theoretical one. If I had known I would be judged on my drawing skills, I would have never taken the class. How dare he say such a thing in front of the other students, cutting me down so publicly.

But as it happened, the small class of perhaps eight students was made up entirely of my drama club friends, many of whom I lived with off campus. So I didn’t have to speak up for myself. I remember, in particular, my friend Leslie, who has never suffered fools gladly, putting into words all that I was thinking, with my classmates, my friends murmuring in support of her. I don’t remember how the class ended that day, but neither Leslie nor I suffered from a poor grade at the end of the semester.

“Fulton Street Station” Photo © Howard Sherman

For years, literally for decades now, I have retold this story in order to demonstrate what a fool this teacher had been to me, and how my friends rallied to support me no matter the effect it might have on them. I have, at times, told the story with greater detail, so much so that the artistic director of a regional theatre stopped me only partway through the account to correctly guess the name of this educator, indicating that such pronouncements were not out of character.

Now jump forward some 30 years, to 2013, when I bought my first camera in many years, a digital single lens reflex camera, which has become a beloved possession. Unless I am carrying a totebag with my computer and papers for work, my “good camera,” is almost always with me. Thanks to the nonexistent cost of taking digital photos (in contrast to my days of shooting on film), I use it to record my wanderings around New York as well as my more significant travels. I have threaded through countless New York streets capturing architectural details from earlier eras, and repeatedly visited Times Square and Washington Square to capture images of the street life there. I have had the opportunity to do performance photography, a special challenge that marries my love of theatre with the exploration of what I can preserve in the moment. I have even been paid a few times for my photos.

Now, more than 40,000 frames later, I have come to a realization: that professor was not wholly wrong. The timing of his observation could not have been worse, and perhaps it would never be constructive, but he had semi-accurately noticed something about me. But his observation was incomplete.

What I lack is a visual imagination. My thinking is profoundly verbal, whether speaking, writing, or even creating. When I read fiction, I retain all of the particulars of characters and places the author has given me, but I see nothing in my mind’s eye. I form no mental pictures. The words engage me and can be vividly recalled, even recited from memory, but I do not take the imaginative leap to invent the visual.

“The Bird Man of Washington Square” Photo © Howard Sherman

Yet with photography, I can frame the world before me in what I hope are inventive ways. I can see in the ever changing panorama before me details that might startle, engage or amuse me, and then in turn share that viewpoint with others. I have taken photos of which I’m very proud, but even given a team of craftspeople, I could have never invented such scenes. I am not wired to do so. It is not a flaw. It is part of what makes me, as each of us are, unique.

Some 35 years on, I no longer harbor even a wisp of ill will towards that teacher, though I hope that he learned over time how much damage he could have done to me, and might have done to others. At the same time, I worry that my own ill-chosen words have at times had a similar effect on colleagues or employees, that they remember me for verbal ineptitude or emotional opacity, and that I will never know it so that I might never make amends.

But all I can do to keep trying to express myself as best I can, whether literally or through the frame of a camera and hope that however I capture or even transform the world through my perspective, it will serve to encourage others, instead of summarily shutting them down. There are countless ways to think, to transform, to share and to imagine and we should encourage each person to do so in their own way. Failing to do so reveals only our own limitations, not those of others.

“Taking a Ride” Photo © Howard Sherman


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