My high school days were pretty strange, and not just because I was a strange kid.
I recently wrote of how my high school career almost began on the wrong path when a guidance councilor advised my 9th-grader self that I should go into the Tech Prep track rather than the College Prep track, even though I was in the top ten of the entering sophomore class for all students in my county (high school covered graded 10-12 back then) and had every intention of being the first member of my family to go to college.
Class, name recognition, money, perceptions running counter to certain test and aptitude scores, IQ's, etc. -- these were powerful forces working against me and many other working class students in my small town, forces I felt but couldn't always articulate. I even recall there being some hubbub about my junior and senior class rank and whether someone who took a lot of arts classes should really be considered at or near the top of his class. While I had plenty of teachers who were pulling for me, it sometimes seemed like it was hard to catch a break, simply because I was me, or, perhaps more accurately, because I wasn't others or didn't have what others had.
I have and always will love the arts. Once I hit middle school, I knew I wanted to be a Renaissance Man, as good as I could be at all things and appreciative of all forms of human expression and creativity.
I saw and still see creativity as intrinsically linked to progress and the ever-evolving betterment of life and society.
In high school, I took band classes, even staying after school for jazz band, and art classes. Somehow having these interests suggested to some that I was taking an "easy way out" rather than simply sincerely following my interests.
I don't know if Mr. Groce, my art teacher, ever felt that way. He was an affable man, prone to be both solemn and joyous. He told me one day that for him, college and teaching became options upon realizing that Vietnam was the only other thing waiting for him. He seemed to enjoy turning us loose to let our creative spirits take us where we wanted. He was pleased to realize I would be going to college in the same part of the state where he did his studies. (I went to Western Carolina, where, by the way, I played in jazz band, orchestra, and marched and earned degrees in English Education and Art; he went to nearby Mars Hill).
I remember the joy on his face when, during a break in my first year of college, I stopped by his classroom and asked him if he thought I had what it took to be an art teacher. Smiling wide, he said, "Sure! You might not ever be a Picasso or a Rembrandt, but you definitely have what it takes!" Faith and confidence, that is what I feel Mr. Groce felt for me, and I have never forgotten it. The warmth of his glow at that moment, the pride I saw him feel for the both of us, it sustains me at times of need even to this day. He wasn't the only inspirational teacher I had in high school -- I don't want anyone reading this thinking that -- but he was a special one for me for reasons written herein. For reasons that not everyone in our little slice of the world could understand.
I never did end up teaching art, per se. My love of literature had started to bloom in 10th grade and carried me through until my doctoral degree, where I began again to mesh my interests in "different" types of texts and arts. While I never gained employment as an art teacher, with every English teacher I talk to, with every up-and-coming English Educator who seeks me out for advice on how to integrate comics into their classrooms, with evert script I write, I am reminded of that high schooler with the lofty goals who only needed to hear that he had what it took to be good; maybe not legendary, but good enough to make a difference in people's lives through creative work and thinking.
Every time I talk about graphic novels -- the fusion of traditional print text and the visual text -- I feel like I am reliving my dreams of living an arts-rich life and helping other young people do the same. Even when I face the stubborn opposition of folks who do not want to accept that two of the 6 English Language Arts are visualizing and visually representing -- opposition which often sends me tumbling into that past where some feel like I'm too different to be good, like my definitions of excellence just don't match theirs -- I feel like I'm fighting the good fight in the face of ignorance and stifling tradition, and I feel Mr. Groce is with me, encouragingly, and proud of my work and his influence on it. As solemn as he could be, I feel like when he is with me, he is always saying "You have what it takes," and he's OK that the feeling might only be shared between the two of us, always joyous to know that we'll give it another best effort the next time.
Larry Groce died on January 8, 2011. But for those of us who appreciated our time with him, he will always remain a guiding force.
Labels: Larry Groce