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Friday, November 18, 2011

Thank You, Mrs. Martz: My Enduring Appreciation for a Teacher's Lesson in Perception

By Carol Baicker-McKee
Mrs. Martz, Second Grade Teacher at Nottingham Elementary School, Arlington, VA
It was one of those ordinary interactions in a school day.  A week later, I doubt Mrs. Martz, my second grade teacher, even remembered it. But though more than forty years have passed, I can step back into the moment as if it just happened. More importantly, the simple lesson from that afternoon has taken root in me and grown in ways that changed my art, my writing, and even my relationships.

It's an early fall afternoon and the classroom is quiet, save for the scratching of fat pencils on lined paper as we work on our spelling assignment. I look up and Mrs. Martz nods her head. It's my turn at the easel! I reach under my chair for the smock my mother has made for me out of an old green towel and pull it over my Brownie uniform.
Me in Grade 2

I slip to one of the easels along the windows at the back of the room. For a moment, I glance out at the monkey bars shining in the October sun, but the smooth, blank sheet of newsprint clipped to the easel commands my attention; to me, painting time beats even recess. I inhale the tang of freshly mixed tempera paint, and pull the thick wooden brush handle from the plastic cup of green paint, carefully wiping the excess off along the side until the weight of the brush seems just right.

With long strokes, I lay a lush lawn across the bottom of the paper, then wait for the paint to dry so as not to muddy my colors. I use red and black and blue to construct a sturdy house with a cheery red door and curtained windows. I top the steeply sloping roof with a chimney, and scrape almost all the black paint off the brush to feather smoke escaping from it.

A few more strokes and swirls and my house is flanked by twin lollipop trees - straight brown trunks topped with circles of green. Almost done. I add a triangle of yellow to the top left corner and streak yellow rays outward from the sun. Finally a line of blue across the very top - the sky above.

And then I notice her standing quietly behind me. Mrs. Martz smiles and nods, and then pulls me to look out the window with her.

"What a beautiful day," she says, gesturing to the playground and hills dotted with houses beyond. "What interesting shapes the trees and houses make. All the branches, and the way the sides of the houses look bright  in the sunshine but the fronts are in shade. And the colors of the leaves now - so bright, so many. But I love the sky especially, the deep blue that fills all the spaces around." She looks at me and smiles again. "It's nice to take the time to really look at the world, isn't it?"

I'm confused, but I smile and agree and walk back to the easel with her. "Do you need a little more time to finish your painting?" she asks.

I'm about to say no, but then I look at my painting - and then out the window. And I get it.


Even though my time should be up, Mrs. Martz lets me go back to work. This time, I glance back and forth between my paper and the view out the window. It's too late to make all the changes I want to, but I add a narrow side with an extra window to my house, frowning because I can't get it to fit quite right. I snake crooked branches from the stick trunks of my trees and I dot the foliage with red and yellow, scatter more dots on the lawn below.

Finally, I add blue. Blue over the sun because I don't see it out the window, I just see what it does to the world. Blue behind everything because now I see that the sky is not just above us but all around.

I finish dissatisfied with my painting even though I'd felt proud of it before. But from that moment forward, my artwork changes. The way I approach my work changes. I struggle to figure out perspective. Mix colors to get the right shades. Try to capture shadows, flaws, details. Take my time and try again when I can't get something right the first time.

Really, everything changes in me. I find myself looking and looking, looking and thinking. Trying and trying to see what's actually there instead of what I expect or want to be there.

I've had many excellent teachers since then, and I am grateful to them all. But without Mrs. Martz, I'm not sure I'd have been able to take advantage of everything that they had to offer me.

Thank you Mrs. Martz.
Apple Tree in My Backyard. Painted from life the next spring

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