“It just doesn't say ‘Africa’ to me,” said my art teacher, looking at my colorful watercolor painting of several stylized humans surrounded by swirls and trees. I wasn’t sure she realized she was visibly curling her lip in disdain.
“You said the assignment was ‘Africa-inspired,’” I said. I pulled out a small book of African iconography and showed her a similar motif. “I was inspired by African art. See, the swirls represent—”
She waved her hand dismissively. “My grade is final,” she said.
I’ve been artistic since a young age, when I endlessly sketched animals, painted miniatures, and made a serious effort to modify my Barbie dolls to look more natural. In school, I was always the one approached by my peers to draw something for them whenever the teacher gave any vaguely creative assignment. Others saw my admittedly not-good sketches and still asked if I had “traced” them.
As with most public schools, art education was a luxury that didn’t help us pass the standardized tests, and so not a priority for the school board. In high school, however, there was finally an art teacher, a wonderful classroom filled with paints, pencils, and pastels, an art club, and an annual art contest. My little creative heart sang with joy, and on the first day of school, when Mrs. Jones asked everyone to stand up and introduce themselves, I leaped to my feet upon my turn and told everyone how I’d been drawing since I could hold a pen, that I loved watercolors and charcoal, and that my favorite museum was the High Museum of Art.
And I saw my teacher’s smile turn to a scowl. To this day, I’m not sure if the High Museum had banned her or if she simply didn’t like overenthusiastic students.
At the end of the first class, she passed around index cards and asked us to fill one out with our name and if we were interested in joining the art club. “Anyone is welcome to join,” she said. “You’ll be expected to stay after school and work on special projects. Only members of the art club can enter the art contest at the end of the year.”
I filled one out and wrote “I’d like to be in the art club,” then happily began my first assignment.
Weeks later, I learned from a friend that the art club had been meeting. I’d not been invited. When I asked my teacher about it, her lip curled into what would become a familiar scowl as she went back on her word: “It’s invitation-only, and I decide who’s in it.” I approached the vice principal with my massive disappointment and he shrugged. “It’s at Mrs. Jones’ discretion,” he said. “She only wants students who are serious about art.”
Apparently, that was not me.
As the year went on, Mrs. Jones regularly ignored me, the not-serious-about-art one, as I eagerly raised my hand in class. Instead, she called on the apparently passionate students who sat there staring at their blank pieces of paper. Despite her general announcements that all creativity would be rewarded and that she couldn’t really grade our assignments because “art is subjective,” she frequently gave me low grades, citing her “feelings” about my work rather than my technique or ideas. While indeed art is subjective and no artist can please everyone, I noticed her praising everyone else in the class and giving them As no matter what they turned in.
I polled my classmates. Indeed, I was the only one receiving Cs and Ds.
That class was one of only two low grades I received in high school. It soured me on visual art for a while, and I ended up joining the drama club. The feeling that I simply wasn’t good at painting or drawing lingered for a long time even though I knew logically that Mrs. Jones was picking on me. The art contest came and went, and I admired my peers’ work with tears in my eyes, hurt that Mrs. Jones had deemed me unfit to participate.
Teachers are powerful forces in students’ lives, even if you only see them a couple of hours per week. While I’ve forgotten many of my teacher’s names and faces, Mrs. Jones’s scowl is burned into my memory, and her consistent rejection of me pops into my mind whenever I’m rejected in any artistic capacity. Perhaps she was trying to prepare me for the real world. Somehow, I doubt it.
I suspect, given her immediate disdain for me as soon as I expressed a passion for art, that she preferred her students to be malleable or even disinterested. Perhaps it helped her feel better about herself. In a way, she did teach me something valuable by being a bad teacher: how to be a good teacher. How to instruct without stifling creativity or innovation. How to critique without criticizing.
The best teachers are those who inspire their students and nurture their interests, rather than flatly rejecting them or holding them to different standards. We see the abusive teacher glamorized in shows like “Scrubs,” but most students do not thrive under constant exclusion or bullying. Although I eventually did get good enough at art to show my work in galleries and teach art classes, I never forgot Mrs. Jones and her scowl.
So, thank you, Mrs. Jones. Turns out, I didn’t need your art club to learn how to be an artist. I only needed myself.
The Weirdest Things My Teachers Said to Me: Part 1
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Rachel Wayne is a writer and artist based in Orlando, FL. She earned her master’s in visual anthropology from the University of Florida and runs the production company DreamQuilt. She is an avid aerial dancer and performance artist, and also dabbles in mixed-media. She writes nonfiction stories about herself and other awesome people, as well as essays on feminism, societal violence, mental health, politics, entrepreneurship, and whatever cultural topic strikes her fancy.