My first painting teacher gave me an F. How could my attempts to learn to paint warrant failure? My attendance was perfect. I completed each assignment on time, according to directions. Forty years later, I remember his harsh response to my confused inquiry nearly verbatim: he hoped I did not plan to major in painting, that in his view, I lacked talent, and had no future in it. Crushed, yet unbelieving, I transferred to a different school, and relinquished an entire semester of credit. It meant that much.
At my new school, I excelled in painting classes, was asked to be teaching assistant to a successful Boston painter, completed a four-year program in three years, and won the annual painting prize. After graduation, I began to exhibit my work, was selected to be in the Boston show at the Rose Art Museum, was awarded two Mass Cultural Council grants, got reviewed in Art in America, and had gallery representation. Yet each time I addressed promotional cards for a new exhibit, I polished my grudge, and fantasized about sending one to my first painting teacher, angrily scrawled across the back: “Remember me?! You told me not to major in painting! You said I had No Future in it! Dig this, Professor Stupid!”
A friend who’d become a department chair at my first art college called one day to ask if I could teach a drawing course after an instructor bailed three days before the class was due to start. I said yes, and soon discovered that my former painting teacher and I were now colleagues. I was teaching full time with the man whose F grade was one reason why I sat beside him in faculty meetings. The irony. Did he remember me? I could not tell, and was afraid to ask.
One particularly cold snowy winter, the college sent faculty on a retreat designed to explore teaching methodology, at a remote conference center somewhere in New Hampshire. The first morning, we were paired up to work on facilitated exercises. You can probably guess my randomly selected partner.
The initial exercise had us take turns wearing a blindfold while our partner led us around the wintery landscape. As we walked, the blindfolded person was to relate something that their partner might not know, the objective, to build trust. He wore the blindfold first, and I cannot remember what bit of information he revealed, because my mind was focused exclusively on my incredible pending opportunity: when wearing the blindfold, I could tell him that he was my first painting teacher, that he failed me, and that his F had helped shape and define the trajectory of my creative life.
It was my turn to wear the blindfold. He took my hand, and off we went. Silent at first, frozen by the largeness of the moment, I hesitantly offered, “I took a painting class with you when I was an art student.” “Really? When?” “1974,” I answered. “That was the first year I taught!”
I had not known that. I did know about the first year of teaching though, of saying things I did not mean, and of not saying things I might have, to students only a few years younger and a bit less skilled than myself. I could not recognize what the seeds of a future painter looked like in the work of a first year art student, had not yet grown a third eye for potential. Most certainly I’d made some cry, others angry. Maybe I drove some away from painting, and maybe I drove some to it, with an I’ll show her. I hope so.
“Did you like my class?” he asked. I answered truthfully. “You gave me my start.” There was no more to say, so we tramped through the snow, blindfolded, my mittened hand in his, an experience sweet enough to be called revenge.