Why I teach

Doughnut painting by Yoni Sapadin
Doughnut painting by Yoni Sapadin

I’m late.

I loop around the parking lot, fervently hoping that today, I’ll find a good parking spot. Is there one near the back door, close to my classroom? Nope. How about near the main entrance? Alas, also no. I settle for one in the back. Balancing two boxes of Dunkin’ Donuts and schlepping a bagful of art pads, I scurry into the building.

In my classroom, I drop the doughnuts and art pads on a chair. I grab spools of plastic sheeting and roll them down the tables, protecting the surfaces from shmears of acrylic paint and graphite. I click open my art closet and survey my supplies. Today, we’re studying still life. That’s what the doughnuts are for. We’ll need pencils, erasers, the larger drawing paper. I arrange the materials across one of the tables and wait for my class to arrive.

In the days before school began, there were meetings. Meetings about handling specific classroom situations, meetings that directed us who to contact when certain occasions arose, meetings where we shared best practices for teaching students with various learning styles, meetings on mentoring, meetings about sharing knowledge…in short, meetings to make us better educators.

Scattered among the exercises were stories. Stories of how, from all the occupations an educated young man or woman could choose in our day and age, this person came to be a teacher. As I listened, I thought about my own story. If someone asked me why I became a teacher, what would I say?

I’ve never made much money, but I’ve been blessed in the range and variety of my occupations. I’ve worked as an illustrator. I’ve worked as a graphic designer at a couple of big name magazines. I’ve been an assistant to artists and to the editorial director of Conde Nast. I’ve known giants in the fields of art, illustration, design and publishing. I can’t believe how lucky I’ve been.

And now I teach art at a boys’ yeshiva high school.

My first class of the day is juniors. At the sound of the bell, they crowd into the room. The sound of them dropping their backpacks onto the floor is like thunder.

“What are we doing today?” And then they notice the pink and orange boxes. Excitedly: “Dunkin’ Donuts? For us?”

They grab for the boxes. “Ah ah ah,” I say, wagging my finger. “We’re drawing them.”

The boys are confused, concerned. “But…can we eat them?”

“Yes,” I say. “But only after you’ve drawn them, and I okay your drawing.”

This elicits howls of anguish. They want to eat those doughnuts right now. But they resist. Each student chooses a doughnut, finds a pencil, paper, and an eraser, and sits down.

How do you draw a doughnut? Is it just a circle with a smaller circle inside it? Artists don’t copy whatever they see; artists impose order on chaos. You need to have a system.

I choose a pencil and begin the lesson, glancing at a pink-glazed pastry on the table near the window. Sunlight gilds the frosted top of the doughnut, throwing the sides into shadow. I sketch, demonstrating, on a paper I tack to the bulletin board. “It’s a cylinder,” I explain. I draw an oval for the top, an oval for the bottom, two straight lines connecting them. “The sides are a bit rounder, but if you begin with a cylinder, your doughnut will have volume. Your doughnut will be three-dimensional.”

I put down my pencil. The boys bend over their papers and begin to draw. It’s loud in the art room. I hear a lot of moaning and groaning about how badly they want to eat their doughnuts.

I stalk up and down the aisle between the tables, watching them work. Some boys are immediately absorbed in the assignment, some need to hear the instructions again. As they draw, they chat — about the game last night, an upcoming math test, movies, SATs. Someone puts on music. People entering the building stop to gaze at us through the big picture windows.

A student calls me over. “What’s wrong?” he asks unhappily. I look at his drawing. It’s beautifully, sensitively rendered. The frosting dripping off the side is perfect. The doughnut hole is the right shape, and in the right place, not too big, not too small, just right. But still, something is off. What is it? He made the top oval correctly, yes, but where the doughnut sits on the table, he has drawn a straight line. It makes his doughnut look flat, breaking the 3-D effect.

“Here,” I say, indicating with my pencil. “The bottom line has to echo the curve of the top line. See?”

He nods and makes the correction. Suddenly, magically, his doughnut is perfect. An expression dawns across his face, like a lightbulb turning on behind his eyes.

The class is 40 minutes long, and 30 have passed. “Mrs. Shankman, Mrs. Shankman!” the students cry, competing for my attention. “Am I done?”

I evaluate the drawings. Each student is different. Some are talented artists. For some, this is the first time they’ve ever had art instruction. “Make this line rounder,” I say, or “Draw a shadow underneath so it looks like it’s sitting on the table,” or “Doughnut holes are actually more oval,” or, “Wow. That’s amazing.”

One by one, the boys triumphantly gobble down their doughnuts. They leave their papers in a drift on the table. The next class is more advanced; they’re painting. As they wander in, they admire the work the juniors have done.

It was fun making fashion layouts. It was fun going to gallery openings. It was fun working in an illustration studio. But there is something about teaching — about handing down the steps of an arcane, specialized process — that is unlike anything else I’ve ever done. As a teacher, you are the guardian of knowledge, the knower of secrets. And as a teacher, you are seeing that it gets passed along to the next generation. At the heart of any subject, whether it is math, chemistry, physics, literature, or Gemara, that’s what teaching really is.

If anyone ever asked me, that’s the story I would tell. This is why I teach. To pass along the knowledge I’ve been entrusted with. To watch that lightbulb come on.

About the Author
Helen Maryles Shankman is an artist and author. Her book, "They Were Like Family to Me," originally published as "In the Land of Armadillos," was a finalist for The Story Prize in 2016 and won an Honorable Mention for the 2017 ALA Sophie Brody Medal for Achievement in Jewish Literature. Her stories have been published in many fine literary journals, including The Kenyon Review, Jewishfiction.net, Gargoyle, and Cream City Review. She is a columnist at The New Jersey Jewish Standard.
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