A Teacher’s Letter To Her Former Student

By Bronagh Vos. Bronagh, 39, is a home educating mother and writer from Rostrevor, Northern Ireland.

Dear Mr. Green Machine,

The instructions were both concise and clear: a line drawing of a bridge, one large sheet of white paper, charcoal. We discussed and explored line, depth, structure, colour, features and shapes. You nodded enthusiastically in agreement when I asked if everyone understood the task. We looked at the enlarged photographs of the Forth Road Bridge. You even told me you liked it. You loved the rusted colour and shared the story retold from your Grandad, that the bridge was forever being painted. I explained that this was a line drawing, and that we would be using charcoal to create a stark effect for our piece of artwork. You agreed. And so Art class began.

Education is a process, Mr. Green Machine. It involves one person giving instruction and the other receiving it. I endured 12 long years of convent school, have a hard-earned degree, a diploma in child psychology and survived an intense year of teacher training. My planning was exceptional: every box was filled from objectives to outcomes. The resources carefully listed to the side and provided for your use. Assessment questions prepared in advance – I knew what to ask and when. I thought I was good at my job. I once chased a runaway student (from another teacher’s class, not mine), scaled a fence and climbed on top of a garden shed to convince him to return to school. When the police arrested a man in the playground outside our classroom, I saw it all, but made sure my students didn’t. When we studied the work of Michelangelo, I projected the Sistine Chapel onto the ceiling of the classroom, pinned paper underneath my student’s desks and we lay on the floor to paint all day. After the arrest, I thought I had my students’ best interests at heart. After the Sistine Chapel class, I thought I was creative. After runaway shed student, I thought I was prepared for anything.

Nothing prepared me for your Forth Road Bridge, Mr. Green Machine. Not one, but nine sheets of A3 paper and every one of them a different colour. Not joined neatly together so I could display them for Parents Evening, but haphazardly stuck together with a combination of sellotape, several lumps of Pritt-stick and every last staple in the classroom. The desks were rearranged to accommodate the artistic scale of your project. Chairs were scattered in haste. Classmates had retreated to the floor to avoid your sweeping movements but were at the mercy of your dancing feet. Oil pastels were crumbled and mixed in your Tupperware lunchbox, water colours and poster paints scattered to the far corners of your workspace. You had been inspired by random strands of wool to enhance the depth and texture of your masterpiece as you raided the craft box looking for mesh-like fabric to layer upon your work. Time was precious but you were far too busy to remove your sweatshirt (which you weren’t supposed to be wearing in the first place), instead opting to grab your drink bottle and pour it onto your head of blonde curls. The drips fell on your work and merged with the pastels. You liked the effect so you did it again, and again.

This was not the plan, Mr Green Machine and you knew it. I tried to tell you it was not what we were supposed to be doing. This was not, despite your immense personal effort, what I was teaching that day. Your art did not tick any of my boxes and the objectives were well and truly thrown out the window. The same window, might I add, that you waved to me through every evening as you cruised the games pitch on your beloved green machine.

A feeble voice rose from the pit of my churning stomach. I surveyed the chaos of a once calm, clean classroom, stark amid a room of other students, all drawing on a single piece of white A3 paper, in black, as I had shown them. But I was speechless, paralysed and crushed. Your hard work and sweat had led to my tears. In one earth-moving moment you taught me more than 15 years of formal education and it was both devastating and liberating at the same time. I had 24 eight-year-old faces staring at me, waiting for the reprimand to emerge from my trembling lips. It never came.

The indoctrinated were enlightened, Mr. Green Machine. You saw it too, and beamed from ear to ear. Your art was the greatest lesson of my lifetime.  The power of your creativity spoke to me so deeply, that in that moment, I realised that the Arts do not have a role in education: deep-rooted, fundamentally part of, and intrinsically bound to the other, the Arts are education. They are the lifeblood that has been sucked dry by people like me. I want you to know how deeply sorry and very grateful I am: you saved me from myself. You saved us all that day.

Twelve years have passed since ‘Staple Gate’. I don’t know where life took you, Mr. Green Machine but I’d like to tell you where your lesson took me. I’m married now and we have three young children who have a green machine of their own. I understand now, like I never understood before, that that day was a turning point in my life, in my career. Our children do not go to school; they are all educated at home. They slide down stairs in mermaid costumes, make potions, paint freely and run barefoot in fields. My home is not as tidy as my classroom used to be and I’ve learned to roll with the punches, to be present and appreciate life. Thank you for not listening to me that day. Your fire emerged, and was so contagious that it touched us all. You inspired me: the mess, the enthusiasm, the chaos, the fun, the passion, the intense zest and dedication to your art was so overwhelming and powerful. That is the essence of true education: this is what it means to be human, Mr. Green Machine, and the Arts are at its core.

With heartfelt gratitude and thanks,

Your old(ish) P4 Teacher

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