Tuesday, January 16, 2007

A Life Without Beauty

Long ago (in high school) I had a Stagecraft class that was taught by the guy who ran the theater program. Now, let me first explain that this was no ordinary school. This is a very prominent private college-prep type school. I was a boarder on scholarship from an inner-city environment, and it was kind of overwhelming. There is a dining hall that looks like the Hogwart's Great Hall in the Harry Potter movies, statues overlooking lakes, a founding manor with a mansion and accompanying gardens and fountains, world renowned architecture, the whole works. So our school had its own performing arts building.

Now, let me explain something else. I was not a very art-minded person, which is ironic when you consider the school. This class appealed to me specifically because of the building aspect. I had to have an art class, and weaving just wasn't my bag (we had our own studio complete with a few dozen looms). Our main job in the class was to build sets for the school's productions (3-4 a year, I think) and, when showtime came, set up risers and chairs, take tickets, man the snack booth, and perform all the various technical things necessary for such an event. My specialty was spotlight.

Dr. Charles Geroux was the teacher's name. In addition to teaching us that you can build anything out of 3/4" plywood, 2x4's and drywall screws, he tried his best to present us with a world full of splendor. He assigned us speeches and presentations. Once per semester he'd bring a banjo and sing us folk songs he hoped we knew, though we never really sang along. He was a thespian, and he did his damndest to bring out the thespian in all of us via the medium of lumber and handywork.

One day during a discussion, the point of art for art's sake was brought up. Finally, I'd had enough. I did not understand the point of it all, and said so. Why does something have to be appealing or decorated or look pretty or invoke thought if it already does the thing it's supposed to to? Fountains, okay. Statues, sure. Paintings and music, brilliant. But bridges? Fences? Furniture? Give me a break.

Doc Geroux smiled calmly. You know the archway between Marquis and the Dining Hall? he asked me. Yes, I think so, I answered. Take a walk up there and read it, and come back and tell me what it says, he instructed. Of course he knew what it said already, why couldn't he just tell me? Nevertheless, it was a nice day, and being given permission to walk the campus during class was nothing I would argue with. So I walked up there, strolling casually the brick walkways, under limestone archways, past the Gateway of Friendship, through the fountained quad, between the statues of twin greyhounds near the courtyard entrance to Marquis Hall, and to my destination. And there on the arch were the words "A life without beauty is only half lived."

Now, all the arches (and there are plenty) are carved with quotations by great thinkers and such, and I'd taken very little notice during the whole of my time there. In fact, the quad, with its central fountain, the bricked walkways, the tower overlooking the campus, the green copper roof of the campus across the lake, the serenity of the gardens, had all escaped my significant notice. I know this now, but walking back I probably felt indignant, resisting the realization that was struggling within, knowing full well the lecture I was sure to receive upon my return. I did not stroll back casually as I had on the way there; I had no interest in enjoying some free time during the rigorous eight-period schedule.

When I did get back, I was asked the phrase, which I repeated. The Doc was an even better teacher than I realized. He didn't lecture me. He didn't present my folly to the class as something punishable or to be scoffed at or rejected. He allowed me to dwell on the experience, he let it soak in.

I recall very little of my childhood, even at the age this occured, but to this day that memory has never faded. I've never had to sit back and tap my chin trying to recall the phrase on the archway between Marquis and the Dining Hall. And since that day the way I saw the campus, and the world, changed. The way I lived my life changed.

Which brings me to today's tangent, a news story titled "Parents question plan to replace school tower." Atop a Dearborn middle school sits a beautiful clock that has fallen to age and disrepair. The district has already approved $416,000 from its building maintenance fund to replace the clock, and yet some parents don't think it's worth it. In one parent's words, "It's not necessary for the students. It's not really important."

What would Doc Geroux say? I think he would be appalled. Honestly, the thing is beautiful. It's even mostly still functional. I give serious kudos to the person who proposed using district funds to replace it, and to those whose approval was necessary to make it happen. The article says that even though the money to repair the clock "come[s] from the district's budget for building maintenance...some parents say they would rather spend the money on something that directly benefits students."

How is this thing not benefiting them? The money is reserved for stuff like light bulbs and contractors, not books and teacher salaries. If the clock isn't benefiting them, what about marching band, or choir? What about the sport's programs? Are they benefiting the students in any way? Sure they are. Are these ways measurable? Absolutely. Turning our kids' brains into calculators is not education. Teaching them to think critically, to see the world and call a kettle black without losing hope, to be charitable and expressive, to better humanity--this is education. Art helps provide that. If parents at Woodworth Middle School realy want to know how their majectic clock might potentially--directly--benefit their kids, they should take more than traditional academics into account.

No comments:

Post a Comment