A Professor’s Dream

Last night I dreamt that I was teaching math to a college class.  The lesson involved finding a way to analyze cargo manifests to determine how a shipment had been packed.  I didn’t fully understand the formula myself until I went through it with them for a third time and was pleased when the light fully dawned on me.  And suddenly I realized that this was my last class with them and began to give a closing speech.  I told them that I was really pleased by all the hard work they had put into learning the course material and that I had enjoyed our interactions, but half way through the speech they grew restless and began to talk among themselves.  I raised my voice to regain their attention, but was interrupted by a young man who started to complain loud and long about the treatment he received when he bought, say, shaving cream at a local drug store.  He grew increasingly vehement and wouldn’t let me finish the class.  I yelled at him, told him to shut up, but he kept going.  I walked toward him and explained that I had nothing to do with the drug store and his purchase of shaving cream, but he refused to stop.  I snapped my fingers and turned him into an apple pie.

The apple pie began to rant about shaving cream, however, so I put it on a picnic table outside.  The students were still friendly when I returned to class saying that Brian, the ranter, had been acting like an ass.  Snacks had appeared during my absence, and everyone helped themselves to a treat.  One woman said, “I’d sure like to have some of that pie.”

I realized that I hadn’t turned Brian into an apple pie, but had merely entrapped him inside a pie someone brought for our celebration.  I decided to retrieve it and release Brian, but they were no longer directly outside the classroom.  It turned out that I had placed the pie in a location far away.  I hopped into my car and drove down a highway.  I spied a pie sitting on a table at a roadside park on the opposite side of the road.  I turned my car around but didn’t drive all the way back to the park.  I got out and began to run.  I took off my shirt (it was hot) and noticed that my chest and belly had become chiseled and that I had the endurance of a twenty-year-old man.  I sped up as I saw Brian (freed from his crusty prison) near the pie.  I feared that he would eat it.

When I arrived, I saw that all that was left was a bit of crust and a smear of filling.  I carried the dish up a hill to return to class, and students milled about on either side.  Buildings sprang up around me, and I took for granted that I had instantaneously returned to campus.  I plotted ways to flunk Brian or give him a much lower grade, but realized that he had hurt himself by eating his way out of the pie from the inside.  He had consumed most of his body and spirit and greatly diminished himself.  There was no need to punish him further.

I woke up with an ache in my lower back.  I had fallen asleep fully clothed with the lights on, and the alarm clock read 5:30.  I knew that I wouldn’t be able to fall back asleep and blearily stumbled off to the bathroom to take my morning piss.  I sat on the toilet, thought about the dream and realized that “Brian” looked a lot like Brian Ferguson,  a guy who attended Fairmont East high school with me forty some years ago.  High school Brian had never treated me badly.  His appearance as a rotten student in a teaching dream must have been the odd byproduct of reading Facebook posts about our recent fortieth class reunion.

The Instructor

Once upon a time there was a drawing student named Henry.  He worked at Disney and believed in Jesus.  He drew Bibles, crosses and mouse ears when given the chance, and he hated the instructor.  He knew, just knew that the man had no faith in Christ or Walt Disney.  And the instructor frowned every time Henry brought out his pictures of his lovely wife and two darling children.  Didn’t he like children?  Or didn’t he believe that Henry was their father?  Why couldn’t he be the father?  He had the right equipment and knew how to use it.  The instructor didn’t care that Henry did his absolute best, had put his past permanently behind him.  Jesus saved him, and then he found Lisa, and now he was happy.  Really, really happy…What did the instructor know about anything but drawing bottles and boxes?  He could talk all day about perspective, but did he have any?  Did he understand true suffering, the suffering of Jesus for mankind, the suffering of mankind trying to be like Jesus no matter how much it hurt?  That smug bastard was the king of his classroom, but not King of the Universe.  Henry wanted to be there when God gave the instructor his Final Grade.

Helen sat next to Henry.  She hated the instructor too, but wasn’t sure why until Henry told her that the instructor was arrogant.  Helen hated arrogant men, and this teacher (He wasn’t a real professor, was he?) was dirty minded too.  The instructor had asked her if Robert bothered her and didn’t believe it when she told him that she liked Robert.  Robert was funny.  The instructor said, “I saw you bend over to pick up your back pack off the floor, and Robert bent over your back, hugged you from behind, and whispered in your ear, ‘See you next Tuesday.’  You’re okay with that?”  Helen was fine with that.  Robert just kidded around, and she hadn’t felt anything sexual.  The hug had been funny and nice, and she didn’t care whether Robert had pressed up against her butt and his hands accidentally grazed her…The instructor was the real pervert imagining filth when grown people were just having a bit of fun, horsing around.  She wasn’t a weak woman like her mother who let men do what they wanted and pretended to like it.  Helen could take care of herself better than some fake professor who saw harassment in one harmless little hug.  Arrogant bastard.

Robert sat two easels away from Helen, but he’d already decided that she wasn’t the one for him.  Too old and lean.  Stringy blond hair.  There were several girls in the class, younger, juicier, who deserved his attention.    But one stood out:  Charlotte.  She was a tough chick who wore work boots, skinny jeans, tank tops, and pink lipstick.  She smoked cigarettes with him during break.  She liked his jokes, dirty girl, and paid close attention when he got close to her and touched her shoulder and told her about his mother, the artist.  Most girls thought that he was weird when he went on and on about Mom, but Charlotte listened…Mom knew that he was a special and had lots and lots of talent.  Robert didn’t care that the instructor gave him Cs.  He knew that it didn’t matter if he drew abstract textures while everyone else drew still lives.  Real artists didn’t bother with anything but abstraction and the human form.  He loved the human form.  And it didn’t matter that Charlotte asked him to stop touching her arm, her shoulder, to stop bumping his hip against hers (“Oops again, hah-hah!”) when he passed by her easel.  She pretended to be pure but acted like she had plenty of experience.  He could tell.  Girls liked to put up some resistance at first, but gave in eventually.  Most did.

Joseph knew that the instructor didn’t respect him.  The instructor was annoyingly tall and walked around like the giant god of the world.  But Joseph had talent, more talent than the instructor, and he would show the man how good he was once the instructor brought in models.  Joseph had signed up to draw nudes, but that man made him draw bottles and boxes, toys, a doll and a beach ball.  Junk didn’t inspire him, and an artist needs inspiration to do his best work.  At midterm that prick had given him a D and told him to do some homework in the second half.  He might get a B if he applied himself.  Joseph did not do B work, but he did choose what kind of work he did. And he didn’t do homework.   Homework was boring.  Homework was useless practice when he, Joseph, already knew how to draw his hand, a still life, the interior of a room.  Couldn’t the man see that?   Maybe he was too tall to look down and see Joseph.

Mary was tired, really tired of being told what to do.  She worked as an airline stewardess and took the class for fun, as an escape.  She spent the week slaving for people who acted as if she were a servant, and now she wanted things to follow her terms.  She’d paid good money for this class, and technically, though he’d never admit it, the instructor was her employee.  And he was so rude to her, never saying anything nice about her work when it was obvious that she was the best drawer in the class.  Oh, he gave her As on nearly every assignment, but he always slipped in some nitpicking criticism about any little mistake he could find.  He must spend hours finding a line that wobbled a sixteenth of an inch, a tone that smudged slightly.  Why couldn’t he tell her just once how good she was, and then shut up and go away?

The instructor could tell that half the class hated him.  Henry was meticulously polite but sneered at him when he thought that the instructor wasn’t looking.  He whispered like a conspirator with Helen during breaks.  Helen glared at him as if his very existence offended her.  Joseph stared stone faced whenever the instructor looked at his drawings.  Nothing he said made an impression on Joseph.  Mary thought that she was running the show.  She lectured him on his duties as an instructor.  She told him one day, “First you have to greet me, say ‘Good morning, Mary.’  Then you have to praise me.  Then you can tell me all the things you think I’ve done wrong!” Robert oddly enough, thought they were buddies.  But Robert was a loon and a lecher who had taken the class to harass women.  And Robert’s sketchbook had odd little poems about suicide, about using a piece of glass to slash his wrists.  The instructor had reported him to the dean’s office, but they were worried about legalities and seemed to think that the instructor showed a negative bias toward Robert.  Thank God there were a few students who took him seriously, who worked hard and tried to improve.

The instructor’s wife pretended to listen when he complained about the class.  He joked, but wasn’t really joking, when he said, “My quest to be loved by everyone at all times has failed once again!”  She sighed and said what she always said at times like these: “There’s always another class.  There’s always another semester.” Continue reading

Naked People

DSC_0132 (2)Hillary (charcoal, 20 minute pose)

I took a Drawing I class at the University of Dayton, and we drew boxes the first class.  The second we drew a model wearing a bathing suit.  By midterm the models wore nothing, but by then I had become habituated to seeing nude men and women on the modeling stage.  The problems of figuring out basic proportions and drawing hands and feet outweighed any shock I felt from seeing body after body.

I took a life drawing class the next semester.  The process was familiar, but the instructor demanded more.  And my classmates drew on a much higher level.  I felt intimidated, so I learned to steal from the best.  Gary drew like an angel–I couldn’t figure out how he captured a human figure and it’s surrounding space with a few lines.  But I noticed that he always included a rug or the section of the stage on which the model stood.  He showed a bit of depth that way.  I stole that.  Dave made bravura marks for emphasis after he had the main forms down.  I stole that.  Violet accented junctions where two planes came together, pop-pop-pop all around the drawing.  The accents created points of tension that countered the long lines flowing along the length of an arm or a leg.  Beautiful.  I stole that.

The models had varying attitudes toward their work.  One emaciated woman cringed before dropping her robe.  She slumped onto a cushion at the shadowed back of the stage, stared at the floor the whole time she posed, and answered the professor in monosyllables.  I felt guilty drawing her.  A short man with a muscular body held his head high and relaxed into his poses.  He lost his detached composure once when he caught me glaring at his groin.  I was trying for a third time to correctly draw the juncture where the thigh inserts into the hip, but he mistook my frustration for an odd reaction to the sight of his privates.  I shifted my gaze and drew his knees after I saw him frown back at me.  A redhead struck long, languorous poses.  Her lips curled in a lazy smile as she directed inappropriate jokes at the male students.  She’d say, “Well, boys, what are you looking at?” and “See anything you like, boys?”  During breaks she’d don a robe and walk around the class to inspect our drawings.  She didn’t bother to use a tie, and her garment gaped open as she stood next to us.  She had a crush on Gary and lingered at his drawings.  One day she exclaimed, “You make me look so beautiful!”  After she returned to the stage Gary slowly, deliberately erased her face off the drawing.

I eventually became an art instructor and taught life drawing with nude models.  I learned from painful experience to give my students a lecture about art room etiquette before a first lesson.  I say, ” One:  the model has not come to class to socialize with you.  I am not running a dating service, and you will not ask for a phone number.  Two:  you will not touch the model.  Three:  you will not make personal remarks or jokes about the model.  Four:  you will not photograph the model.  Five:  treat the model with respect.  If you cannot follow these rules I’ll kick you out of class, and you’ll have to find a way to make up for the missing drawings on your own.  That will cost you time and money.”  Then I give them examples of bad behavior.  “A student stood three feet away from a model and told me that the model was too ugly to draw…A woman in a figure painting class made a bad sketch of the model.  When the model returned to the stand after a break the student tried to twist the model’s arms and legs to match the mangled contortions of her drawing…A student, an older woman wearing a baggy sweater and bifocals, confronted a model on the first day of class.  She shouted, ‘Jezebel!  Jezebel!’ when the model opened her robe.”

I believe that the close study of a face and body (scars and all) is a way of honoring an individual’s history and humanity.  But some of my beginning drawing students refuse to draw from a nude person, even if the model is of their gender.   Religious faith trumps acceptance of the human form.  I give my moral protestors an alternative.  I send them out of the classroom to draw nudes from old master prints and paintings.  They never complain about that form of nudity–it’s second hand nature doesn’t compromise their principles.  I no longer bother to tell them that Raphael, Rubens and Da Vinci drew directly from models, that Western Art is based on the unembarrassed study of naked people.  If I did they’d only think that I was making excuses for my sins.

DSC_0133 (2)Joyce (oil on canvas)

Teach, Breathe, Relax

dsc_0122

My wife, Judy, gets worried about me when I come home after teaching a rough class. My reddened face tells her that my blood pressure is elevated once again. She speaks to me in a quiet voice suitable for calming an angry dog and steers the conversation toward topics having nothing to do with teaching.

Lately I’ve been encountering students who do not listen to instructions, fail to understand instructions but do not ask questions, cherry pick one part of the instructions while ignoring the rest, and who do random things unrelated to the assignment even after getting further instruction and clarification.  This occurs after I’ve shown them examples of correctly finished drawings and done demonstrations of techniques.  I’ve sometimes had to sketch the beginning steps on their drawings to get the basics established.

They think that I’m odd and damaged when I show signs of irritation and frustration after they self-sabotage their work by further acts of blind incomprehension or bored indifference. One student cannot follow any verbal instruction.  I told him last Saturday to start a tonal painting by working from dark tones to light tones.  He responded, “Okay, light to dark.”  This was the third or fourth instance of communication failure between us within a few minutes.  “No,” I pleaded, “dark to light!”

The other night a student nodded along when I gave her instruction, and then proceeded to do the opposite of what I had told her.  She advised the women next to her to follow suite, and I had to deal with a minor insurrection.  She began to do the assignment correctly after I gave her a series of increasingly curt orders.  I relaxed as the class began to go as planned, and she asked me if I felt better.  She spoke to me in a patronizing tone as if illness had been the cause of my irritability. I suffered a relapse when I growled in response, “Don’t worry about how I’m feeling.”

I’ve been talking with Judy about all this and have realized a few insights about teaching and my frustration:  1. I get a sense of personal satisfaction when a student learns something–I’ve made a difference; 2. my classroom is a place where I feel in control; 3. I put a lot of effort into preparing and presenting a class.  When students fail to learn my sense of satisfaction disappears.  When students react randomly to my directions I get anxious because I feel like I’m losing control.  When my efforts are ignored I feel disrespected and unappreciated.

I realize that it’s a fool’s game to rely on others for self-worth.  I can only do my best and let the results come in as they may. Getting churned up over a weak group of students is pointless.

A few months back I tried the technique of watching my breath during times of stress.  If I slowed down and paid attention to air passing in and out of my nostrils I had a chance to relax and reset my emotions.  Recently I read a passage from Yogananda where he advises his devotees to keep their calm throughout the day, and to watch for the instances when they fail.  He says that progress can be judged by how well we live in peace with our surroundings.

And that sounds like a good goal to me.  If my focus is on maintaining a sense of peace and calm while I teach, and not so much on ego driven ambitions (control, accomplishment, praise), I might be a lot more effective…I need a tattoo on the back of my drawing hand that says, “Teach, breathe, relax.”  And on the other it could read, “Keep the calm.”

Teachers’ Disease: The Scourge Refusing to Remain Silent

 

No automatic alt text available.

No one warned us about this malady when we were children, but we were exposed to it every day.  I remained largely blind to its insidious effects even when I was an undergrad in college.  I should have realized that an American Art History professor was a sufferer of Teacher’s Blathering Disease (TBD).   She droned on after one of her students fainted in front of her and never bothered to help while another student caught the stricken man and propped him up in his seat.  The professor simply couldn’t stop herself from making one more point, one more appeasement to her anxiety to be heard and understood.  Or perhaps the sound of her voice had become so sweetly intoxicating that she simply could not cut off the flow.

Years later when my children started to attend grade school I noticed another symptom of TBD:  a kindergarten teacher at a school gathering could not distinguish between students and parents.  Her daily communication with five year olds had created habituated neural pathways that rendered her incapable of complex speech.   She talked to us adults slowly…with…simple…words…that she carefully spaced so that we had time to comprehend their meaning.  She used big, enthusiastic gestures and facial expressions even when talking about mundane topics (REMEMBER to bring in BOXES of TISSUES and extra PENCILS!!!).  She repeated herself several times as if concerned that her audience couldn’t remember and follow simple instructions:  “The Thanksgiving Holiday starts on Wednesday, not Thursday, next week.  So don’t bring your kids to school on Wednesday…or Thursday or Friday.  No one will be here on any of those days, you know, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.  Have a happy holiday next week on Wednesday, Thurs–”  (The principal led the poor woman away at that point.  The kiddie chorus jumped in and sang about a Thanksgiving turkey who wanted to live so that he could achieve his dream of learning how to fly.)

And I encountered a variant of TBD mostly found in the retired professor host population:  the need to be the most knowledgeable person in the room.  I attended a church in a university town that was lousy with white bearded coots who suffered from an insatiable desire to impress any victim who came within earshot.  And they didn’t rant just about subjects in which they had been trained.  They could bloviate about sundry topics while basing their arguments on hearsay they had just read in the local paper.  A few catch phrases and some unfiltered facts were all they needed to construct a tower of biased opinions held upright by the will to assert their intellectual dominance.  A correction by an actual expert in the field being discussed did not humble the blowhards into silence.  They would simply bend the discussion away from the damaging point or question the breadth and authenticity of the expert’s knowledge.

The sad thing is that TBD sufferers rarely know that they have a disease.  They remain blissfully  unaware that they have cleared out a room or drained all the joyful energy from a gathering.  They even follow after their victims as they flee out the door.  They want to give the desperate escapees a few thoughts to take with them.

I too suffer from this disease, but have become aware of my condition.  I use simple words, repeat myself, and suck the air out of a room when my need to dominate a social gathering takes over.  I can hear myself rattling on, interrupting others, saying the same damn thing over and over with slight variations in the hope that the latest iteration will capture the fine distinction in meaning that hovers in my mind.  I suffer from the delusion that its elusive elegance must be communicated at all costs.

But I am in recovery.  I will never truly kick my teachers’ disease habit, but hope to learn how to live a productive life that will do less harm to myself and others.  Teacher’s Blathering Anonymous tells us that we are powerless over our addiction and must surrender our thoughts and speech to a higher power.  Now, with God’s help, I am able to fight the urge to babble and can wait patiently while someone else speaks.  Now I can use three syllable words and give my audience time to figure out their significance for themselves.  Now I can go days at a time without hunting down victims and forcing them to listen to me rave on about how I would solve the crisis in Syria or broaden the economic base of Central Florida.  And I can spend time alone and simply keep my mouth shut.

The temptations are still there, of course, and I still suffer occasional relapses.  But the improvement has been real and the rewards great.  My children visit me again.  My wife no longer talks about taking separate vacations.  The neighbors no longer cringe and flee when I happen to meet them at the mailbox.

And I am able to finish an essay without summing up and restating points I have already adequately explained.

You’re welcome.

Little Kid Surprises

In 1998 I stumbled into a part time job teaching art ed at a charter school in Micanopy, Florida.  I taught kindergarten, first and second grade students to use their imaginations while painting, drawing, and making rudimentary prints and collages.  I don’t remember many of the lessons that I taught, but I do recall the many times my kids surprised me.  What I learned was that each one of them was very aware and thoughtful, that they were busy soaking in impressions and information from the environment around  them, and that they understood much more about their lives than I would have expected.

Ronny was undersized for a kindergartner.   The staff wondered whether his mother had lied about his age when she enrolled him in school.  He had the cherubic face of an innocent young child but showed a precocious curiosity about the opposite sex.  When a girl got permission to go to the bathroom I had to keep an eye on him.  If I didn’t he would follow them into the restroom in hopes, perhaps, of seeing something unusual.  He also liked to defy me in little ways to test my reaction.  If I told everyone to get up off the carpet and find a seat at a table he would put his hands on his hips and give me a challenging look.  If he refused to comply I simply picked him up, tucked him under one arm, and hauled him to a chair.  He didn’t mind.  I got the impression that he liked the attention.

James did damage.  He would watch me carefully, and the moment I was distracted he would drift off to the side and break a piece of equipment or hurt another boy.  When I located him again he would be slowly walking away from a collapsed painting rack or a boy who was doubled over in pain.  One day we had a fire drill, and he intentionally lagged behind everyone.  I put a two fingers on his shoulder and gave him a gentle push forward.  He flopped on the ground, pointed at me and cried out in fake pain.  None of the other teachers bought his act, and no one accused me of hitting him.  One of the aides had noted his penchant for trickery and sadism and predicted a future in crime for the him.  One day his father came in for a visit, and all the teachers cringed.  We were used to having parents blame us for the bad behavior of their children.  (One mother had even defended her little boy after he attempted to bite a teacher.)  James’ Dad told us that his son was reacting badly to his parents’ recent divorce, and that he was aware that his son was acting up at school.  He apologized for James and promised to take him in hand.  He was as good as his word, and James calmed down considerably and began to make good progress.  He gradually became a much more motivated kid who no longer attempted to make the rest of the world as miserable as he was.

Shandra transferred to Micanopy about half way through the year.  We heard that the school she had formerly attended had been rough, and that her parents wanted to give her a better chance of getting a good education by moving her to Micanopy.  The first day I had her in class she stirred up a minor ruckus.  Jim came up to me and showed me a cut on his palm.  He said that Shandra had stabbed him with a pair of blunt scissors.  I asked her if she had done that, and she said, “He ain’t hurt.  He ain’t bleeding.”  I told her that she couldn’t stab other students or hurt them in any way.  She stuck out her lip and glared at me.  I told her that everyone in class had a pair of scissors, and that she didn’t have fight to get her share of supplies.  Her shoulders dropped and her expression changed.  She learned eventually that the art room was a safe place and began to enjoy the class.  She became very frank and open with me as the year went on, and once explained to me why she had an urgent need to use the bathroom.  She said, “My butt itches and I have to scratch it.”  I stood aside and waved my arm toward the bathroom door in silent acknowledgment that having an itchy butt was a very good restroom excuse.  I reminded her to wash her hands before she came back.

Mary’s social life was a concern of mine.  She walked up to me one morning and demanded that I take action as her advocate.  Rachel had promised to sit next to her while they painted, and now she was sitting by Charlotte instead.  Mary insisted that it was my job to make Rachel sit beside her and didn’t accept my explanation that mandated seating arrangements weren’t in my lesson plan.  According to her the world had to be fair and true, and everyone had to honor prior agreements.  And she was determined and sure that it was my solemn duty to make it so.

Abdul would look up at me with adoration at random moments, would throw his arms around my hips and give me a big hug.  I couldn’t figure out what came over him as I had not done anything extraordinary to earn that much affection.  But I would give him a pat on the head and wait for him to release me.  He seemed to become overwhelmed at times by a wave of love that needed immediate expression.

Some of the kids felt that my marriage vows were not that important.  One boy in first grade gave me his mother’s phone number when he came by my table at a school festival.  He  said, “You really should call this number,” as Mom stood a few feet behind him and blushed.  She seemed oddly willing to entertain the possibility of a relationship of some sort, and I hemmed and hawed until I managed to thank him for the number and to say that I would take his advice into account.  The children called me Mr. Dennis or Mr. D., and another teacher named Derry was called Mrs. D.  She was divorced, and we were on friendly but professional terms.  One day a group of children began to point at Mr. and Mrs. D as we did our playground duty, and they suggested that the two of us make the obvious move of getting married.  Then we would become a unit:  Mr. and Mrs. D.  I was embarrassed once again, but Derry gave me a strange look that definitely was not an outright dismissal of the idea.  Who knew that tentative opportunities for infidelity could be brokered by little kids?

A first grade girl named Sharon sat down at my table at the same festival where I had been given a mother’s phone number.  We weren’t in class and felt relaxed with each others’ company, and she began to tell me about her life.  Her mother was a single mom who worked at a local motel out by Interstate 95.  She worked double shifts some days as a maid and was often away from home.  Sharon told me that she couldn’t stay long at the festival because of her Mom’s schedule, and that she was lonely.  She looked down at the ground.  Her speech was simple and direct, and it eloquently told me that she was a very sad little girl who was looking for more love and attention.  She had appeared to me before that to be a dull, callous child.  But I learned during our five minute conversation that she was a sensitive person who saw her world without any illusions:  life was hard and showed no signs of getting better.  She accepted this with philosophical detachment, but seemed relieved that she could tell someone how she felt.

I decided after my year at Micanopy to give up my ambition of becoming an elementary school teacher.  I realized that I was much better suited for dealing with adults, and that the strain of learning how to react calmly to the irrational and unpredictable behavior of little kids was a bit too much for me.  But I knew that my year’s glimpse of teaching them had been a gift, and that each child I met was precious and had the potential to do wonderful things with his or her life.

 

 

 

 

The Nicest Guy?

 

Trust him.  He means no harm.

I told a drawing class this morning that my goals as a professor are to teach as many concepts and techniques as possible, and to deliver the material in the most direct and easily digestible form available.  I want them to succeed.  I said that some students inexplicably believe that I’m trying to block their paths to success by making things difficult, by arbitrarily throwing up road blocks.  I countered that by saying that my life is much too complicated at the moment to take the time and energy to come up with diabolical schemes.  I’m 100 percent on their side.  Really.  I am.

But I’ve been told on a number of occasions that I’m considered to be a tough teacher who is very blunt.  I think that I’m just the nicest guy around, very kind and diplomatic, but when I say that to my adult children they snort and roll their eyes.  Their opinion is probably prejudiced by memories of a few times when I laid down the law when they were little.  At odd moments I channeled my father’s parenting techniques and gave them high decibel orders while staring down at them with a Wrath-of-Godlike glare.  They fail to recognize that I disciplined them purely out of loving concern, and never out of annoyance and impatience.  My brother has reported that one of my “special looks” is like a slap in the face, but he must be mistaken.  Sometimes folks confuse an expression of nearly violent concern as one of angry contempt.  Go figure.

When I went to Quaker Meeting several years ago I noticed that some of my more vivid stories and colorful language made my listeners cringe and withdraw.  I learned eventually through trial and error to avoid talking about traumatic childhood experiences, painful operations and current symptoms of undiagnosed diseases during coffee hour.  It’s uncouth and jarring, apparently, to introduce such topics immediately after congregants have left behind the ineffable peace of meditative worship.  Live and learn.

When I was a child my family sat around the dinner table and discussed Uncle Ralph’s bouts of alcoholism, Aunt Betty’s shotgun marriage as well as Grandpa Bob’s body odor and psoriasis.  Tales of death, misery, misdeeds and moments of tragic miscalculation accompanied dessert and coffee.  I grew up believing that folks discussed these matters frankly while in company, and that adding a few snide remarks as editorial commentary was also in good form.  Who knew that other people avoided such topics and hid awkward moments in family history in repression closets filled to overflowing?  I discovered these tactful people when I left home and Ohio, and it was as if I had crossed over into another dimension.

Now that I’ve seen the error of my ways I strive toward gentility, to an aristocratic sense of restraint and dignity.  Lord Grantham in Downtown Abbey is my role model.  Not his blood vomiting ruptured ulcer scene, of course, but the moments where he absorbs yet another blow to his standing and reputation with barely a murmur of protest.

I tell my painting students that painting is a process of making mistakes and learning how to fix them.  My life has been a lot like that, but I live in hope that one day my nature will become less erratic and explosive and more docile and tranquil.  I want to guide my ship through rough waters into a safe port.

But if that finally happens I may have to deal with one more problem:  my wife’s expectations.  She has become accustomed after 32 years of marriage to the vagaries in my mood and character, and any true sea change in my personality may cause her undue distress.  She may have to go through a period of withdrawal not unlike an addict kicking meth.

I remember one morning several years ago when we sat down together at breakfast and I took pains to conceal my residual anger from an argument we had the night before.  After ten minutes of polite conversation she put down her spoon and demanded, “What’s wrong?”

I said evenly, “I’m being a perfect gentleman.”

She answered, “I know you are.  That’s how I can tell that something’s wrong!”