Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Light in the Castle

Every year, as the days get darker and we creep closer and closer to Halloween, I think about my grade-school art teacher.

To be honest, I never found him that inspiring as an instructor. Emphasizing technique over creativity, he'd begin each class period by explaining the current assignment -- an underwater scene in crayons, a landscape using watercolors, a still life in charcoal. Then he'd grab a piece of chalk and draw a quick example on the blackboard. That was his big mistake. Being, in general, a group of conventional kids, anxious to please our teacher and get good grades, we'd then proceed to copy his drawing off the blackboard. So much of school was like that back then: in history class you'd write down the important names and dates that your teacher discussed and then, when she called on you, you'd recite those names and dates back to her; in English class your teacher would highlight the most important parts of the story you'd just read in your textbook and then you'd repeat her remarks, more or less verbatim, on the next essay exam. Unfortunately, that style of learning even extended to art class, where every afternoon we'd sit on stools studiously copying our teacher's artwork off the blackboard. Even when he set up a still-life tablau, I'd find myself copying his example off the board rather than looking at the actual empty wine bottle, orange, apple, and bunch of grapes on the table in front of me. At the end of every class period, we'd hand in our assignments which, with the exception of a few daring personal flourishes, were basically amateurish copies of whatever he'd demonstrated. Education by Xerox.

However, once a year we'd stray from the prescribed curriculum.

At Halloween our art teacher would always tell us a scary story. He'd dim the lights, then sit down on his desk -- right on top of it, not behind it -- and begin reminiscing:

This happened a long time ago...more than twenty years ago...before any of you were born or even imagined.

A chill went through the classroom, imagining a time when we weren't even imagined.

It was right at the end of the war and my regiment was stationed in Germany, bivouaced right on the edge of a dark forest.

Another chill -- even the word "bivouac" was cool.

About a mile away was a castle, just like you see in pictures, with towers and turrets and drawbridges and dungeons. And all across the front there were jagged walls that looked like a smile...with some of the teeth missing. No one had lived there for decades...maybe centuries...except, sometimes, at night, we heard...or thought we heard...sounds coming from that dark castle. Sometimes it sounded like laughing and sometimes it sounded like crying and sometimes we couldn't tell if it was laughing OR crying. We wanted to investigate, but Sarge said we weren't allowed outside the camp. But then, one night, right around this time of year, I was on guard duty with my buddy and we saw a light in the if someone was creeping around inside with a kerosene lamp...or just a single candle, and I told my buddy, "As soon as we get off duty, I'm going over there to see for myself," and my buddy said, "Don't do it, Frank."

Frank. Our teacher had a first name. How cool was that?

Finally I convinced my buddy to come with me. But before we went, he wanted to write a letter to his folks, and his girlfriend, in case he never came back from the castle. At midnight two other soldiers took over guard duty and, instead of heading back to our tent, we snuck out of camp....

By then the art room, with its wooden floors and bright paintings pinned to the walls and clouds of chalk-dust in the air, had completely faded away as we followed our teacher -- Frank! -- and his buddy through the moonless night as they crossed a field covered in frost and fallen dead leaves and finally reached the huge dark castle, stepping onto the creaky drawbridge, armed with only a tiny Zippo cigarette lighter to show them the way....

Forty minutes later the story ended with our teacher jumping from his desk and bellowing a soul-shaking scream that had all of us rearing back and clutching our chests. One kid fell off his stool. For the rest of the day, it's all we could talk about. We begged our other teachers to tell us Halloween stories, but they refused. And going out trick-or-treating that night was scarier than ever...especially when we passed the occasional creepy dark house and wondered what we'd do if a candle began to flicker inside.

Our teacher told us this story, or variations of this story, every Halloween: fourth grade, fifth grade, sixth grade. And then in seventh grade, the last year of elementary school, he stopped.

"No, you're too old for that," he said, waving away our requests with his hand. "You think they're going to tell you stories over at the junior high next year? There's no time for that kind of stuff in junior high. Junior high is serious business. Now get out your rulers and let's work on perspective."

So we spent that Halloween afternoon -- as we spent every seventh grade art class -- working on perspective. We watched our teacher draw lines across the blackboard with a yardstick and then we copied those same lines across our own sheets of manila paper with a twelve-inch ruler. It didn't feel like art -- it felt more like drafting. It wasn't fun and neither was our teacher, who wouldn't even tell us a scary story. It all seemed unfair.

I never was very good at drawing things in perspective. Or even seeing life in perspective. Decades later, I complained to someone about how mundane and formulaic our grade-school art classes used to be -- just copying down what our teacher drew on the board. "What would have happened if you didn't do it his way -- if you'd just let your imagination go wild and did things your own way?" they asked.

"We probably would have flunked the class," I said, but even as the words came out of my mouth I know that it probably wasn't true. (And even if it WAS true, would that have been the end of the world? Has anyone ever uttered the words, "I'm sorry, Bob, we'd take you on at this law firm in a heartbeat if it wasn't for that little matter of failing fifth-grade art"?) And I suddenly remembered that our teacher even had a few students who came in after school for special art classes. I guess I always assumed those were the kids who did the best job copying his work from the blackboard. But now that I think about it, they were probably the ones who weren't bound by convention -- and what they saw on the board -- and really let their imaginations run wild in their own drawings and paintings.

And maybe there was also a bigger point to our teacher's sudden refusal to tell us any more stories. It seemed so unfair at the time, telling us we were "too old" for a story. It's true that things were starting to change in seventh grade. Kids were showing up at school with braces. There was a lot more swearing in the hallways. Seventh grade was also The Year That Girls First Started Wearing Nylons. Maybe by seventh grade our delight in a Halloween story would have been tempered by a little cynicism for the first time. So our teacher cut us off. Now, from the perspective of several decades, I think I can see the reason why. He really was a great storyteller...and any good storyteller knows you're supposed to leave the audience wanting more. So he finished telling us his story -- but sent us off from grade school hungry to hear more stories, different stories -- a need we'd never outgrow.


Anonymous said...

Do you have this book?.

Charlotte said...

Thanks for a great story!

Anonymous said...

That is a wonderful story. Thanks.

BTW, you were lucky to have so much art instruction! At my grade school there were no art teachers. Sometimes we received one hour of "art" on Friday afternoons. It was always some lame project like cutting out turkey parts and pasting them together. The nuns seemed to think learning the Baltimore catechism to be more important. Silly them. It's also silly how much that still dismays me 40 years later!