My brother’s been going to an art class for the past couple of days, and he came home today eager to quiz me on famous artists. It made me think back to the second-grade gifted teacher I had who first opened my eyes to the beauty of the art world. I am by no means an art connoisseur today – in fact, I would actually call myself pretty unappreciative of art, though I do enjoy strolling through art museums snarkily – but I owe pretty much everything I know about art to Mrs. Lovitt. While I’m certain I learned more technical things about art later on – stippling a tiger drawing for days in middle school art class comes to mind – I can’t say that I learned much about artists and famous works that I didn’t already know after Mrs. Lovitt’s class.
Every week or month or something (forgive me these memories that are now 17+ years old), at the beginning of class, we’d park our little plastic chairs in the “foyer” area of the classroom and gaze up at prints Mrs. Lovitt had taped to the wall. She would tell us about them, and we’d talk about them in the way that young children do, excitable and superficial. We were heavy on content, light on analysis. But it was in this way that I discovered Dali, Cassatt, Monet, O’Keeffe (okay, so I definitely learned more about her work after second-grade…); and it was in this way that I “traveled” to the world’s finest art museums from an Orange County public school (just looked it up that it’s Title I today… was it Title I back then too? probably); and it was because of this small, small fraction of class time that, when I saw a Degas exhibition at the Boise Art Museum in high school, I immediately remembered Mrs. Lovitt, and when I finally made it to the Louvre and the Musee D’Orsay in college, especially standing in front of Van Gogh’s Portrait of Mr. Gachet, which I had first seen on that classroom wall, my first thoughts were always, “I wish Mrs. Lovitt could be here with me.”
I had learned from a former classmate years earlier, in middle school, that Mrs. Lovitt had passed away from cancer. It seemed a great injustice, an unfair tragedy, that such a teacher should be victim to premature disease. She was funny, caring, and so, so smart. She was patient with a classroom of precocious seven-year-olds, which I wouldn’t even think of trading for my rambunctious teenagers, and she taught in a way that didn’t even seem like we were learning.
But we were. Because I still remember talking about dripping clocks and creating papier-mâché sculptures and writing about the Statue of Liberty, while I have forgotten thousands of other lessons in the interim.
Hers was a skill I never came close to, and hers is a legacy I can only hope to match even a little, in whatever way lasting impact can be measured quantitatively. As teachers, especially with transient populations (and admittedly being transient ourselves, in many cases), we rely on time to carry the weight of our teaching, and we rely on those “Aha!” teaching moments to be good enough to stick. It’s a testament to Mrs. Lovitt’s passion for art and for teaching that I could instantly recall her and those art lessons by the wall over a decade later.
I have been so lucky to have had Mrs. Lovitt and other teachers who pushed me to “think higher, feel deeper,” as Elie Wiesel says. Teaching was not only a job for them, but an art. If I was Mrs. Lovitt for just one of my students, it would be the greatest compliment, because everything I ever accomplished as a teacher, and nearly everything I ever accomplished as a student, was due to those teachers’ mastery of their craft.