When I was 12, I walked down the stairs into the basement of our brand new middle school, and into the classroom of Mason John, an artist and teacher whose impact continues to influence my life 34 years later.
It was in his room that I first saw anyone paint with watercolors, and he did it daily. After he started the class working on their projects, he would sit down at his desk and paint. We were to come up to his desk if we needed help, and in so doing, got to experience watching a genuine artist at work. What a gift for a shy 12 year old who probably would never have approached, but for the chance to see him work. I witnessed him painting mountains, streams full of river rock and rapids, , scenes of native Americans before white man entered their world, watercolor sketches of Taos, mesas, adobes, and canyons.
Mr John had a condition that made his hands tremble badly. Despite this, he was able to take the tiniest of brushes and make perfect lines and detail, steadying his hand by laying it firmly on his desk, then only his fingers would move the paintbrush- perfectly. Afterwards, if we were still watching, he would put his brush in his mouth to clean it. Oh how we loved to watch him work!
Mr. John was a storyteller as well as a painter. He told stories about his 2 year old daughter, or about his last trip to Taos, New Mexico, where he painted each year with a friend, or about a joke he played on someone once upon a time.
He loved practical jokes, having fun with his students and making them laugh, all the while instilling a deep love of art. That's not a small task as a middle school teacher. A lot of kids are in art class because it's a last resort. To make them care about it in a way that is meaningful to their lives is a gift.
Mr. Johns magic was in his way of making each kid feel recognized and known. He stood by the door, giving us each a funny nickname as the first days of school piled up. Mine was "Grinnin", and I looked forward to seeing him there every day with a smile or funny comment. In class, he kept it interesting- he could be in a very Zen-like state painting one day, and the next, pretend to sneeze as he flung a bit of rubber cement on your desk. He told us about his favorite hole-in-the-wall fast food places, and played Willie Nelson over our grumblings on the boom box in the window sill. He said Willie would make us paint better. Each day was an adventure, but at the heart of it, we were creating, learning about art, learning about ourselves, and watching an artist who loved what he did. To this day, I listen to Willie's greatest hits when I'm in my studio painting.
We all had a great respect for Mr. John as a professional artist and teacher, but also knew he was approachable, and would laugh with us or listen to something we had to say. Our 12 year old selves were not invisible to Mr. John, in fact, he sought us out. He saw us, he saw through our puberty ridden selves to the people we were growing into. The kids coming out of his class were more confident, more self actualized, having found a place to fit in and flourish, even if for just 45 minutes a day.
Mr. John had one rule, which was that no one could use the phrase "I can't". You had to come up with some creative way to tell him what you needed help with. He would walk away, and you had to raise your hand again to have him come over after you had figured out another way to ask him for help. This was effective for clarifying the process you were in, as well as confidence building, but it also reinforced the lesson that Mr. John taught every day with his shaky hands and beautiful, detailed paintings- you can do this, you are more capable than you know, and you are important. You CAN do this.
We did many of Betty Edwards "Drawing on the Right side of the brain" exercises, and I remember him going into great detail about the book and it's lessons. Allowing the right hemisphere to take over by drawing something upside down, by listening to music, or by drawing a blind contour, where you never glance at the what you're drawing or lift your pencil until it's completed. One time specifically when I had been trying to make a little painting of a barn in a field look right. I was incredibly frustrated and went to his desk, where he magically added a dark shape to the roof and on the ground, making it sit perfectly and beautifully in that field. He told me I was looking to hard at the barn. That instead I had to train my eye to look for the light and dark shapes. I realized that he was showing me that I knew it all along, I just needed the confidence to truly see what was in front of me
One of the legends in Mr. Johns class was the "Back Room" and "the Theme". This was a lecture he gave the first day of class, a day everyone left and went home to tell mom what a mean and terrible art teacher we had. On introducing us to art class, he said that if we were too loud, or not listening or paying attention, we would be assigned a 10,000 word theme, due in one week. It would be over a subject of his choosing and we would fail the class if we didn't complete it. I still remember the terror I felt hearing this, and wondering what exactly " a theme" was. Needless to say, we were never given this fabled assignment, and he did actually smile at us the following day, so we eased into that first week a little frightened, but also feeling a little more grown up. After all, he apparently thought we were capable of writing a ten thousand word theme.
When someone did act up in Mr. John's classroom, and it didn't happen often, things got interesting. The "back room" was the art storage room, in the back of the classroom and around the corner. One day a shaggy haired kid named Lynn made a really rude, sarcastic comment, loud enough for everyone to hear. What happened next has made me forget the exact comment. About two seconds after the words came out of his mouth, Mr. John said " IN THE BACK ROOM, NOW" ! , and followed poor Lynn all the way. Next we heard a thundering slam as the storage door shut. We heard muffled yelling for a little bit, then another slam, and only Mr. John re-entered the room. No one was breathing. About 10 minutes later he went back, retrieved a silent, bowed head Lynn, and escorted him back to his seat. Lynn never said a word about what had happened to anyone. Later that year, another student who made fun of someone else's work got the same exact treatment, went back, came out silently, and also never said a word about what had happened in the dreaded " Back Room".
Thirty years later, in a Facebook group page honoring the memory of Mr. John, the truth about the back room finally came out. The back room was a staged event, meant to scare the life out of anyone who was being a jerk in class, and prevent misbehavior from spreading in his class. But Mr. John also used it as an opportunity to help the kid and form a bond with him. After he took them back and told them off a little and had them sign a contract of good behavior, he pulled out buckets of candy. He told the misbehaving student that he could hang out and eat all he wanted, but never to breathe a word to anyone about what happened. Or Else. Apparently it worked. The year was 1983. No one breathed a word until 2010.
I was lucky enough to have Mr. John as my teacher in 7th and 8th grade as well as having him as a coach for our volleyball team. He instilled hard work, energy, dedication and sportsmanship in us as volleyball players, just as he did in art class. Most of all, he was an example of how to live life and not sweat the small stuff. I think he knew if you could teach that to middle school kids, it would stick with them. He was right.
In 1992, when Mr. John was in his early 40's, he began feeling ill and was taken from school to the hospital, where he died of a heart attack.
No one in our small town could believe it as we gathered at the middle school in complete and utter shock that night. At that time, I was in college, but what I remember most through the blur of that evening, was what one of the teachers said, almost to himself; " If I could experience one day where the kids loved me like they loved him, I would die happy" This teacher was not one you would imagine liked his job, or cared what his students thought. But there were his raw, true feelings, pushed up to the surface by an amazing teacher and human being, whose life was cut short. I think maybe for the first time, he realized the kind of teacher he wanted to be because of Mr. Johns example. An example of living each day to the fullest.
Mr. Johns influence stays with me even today, as I paint and teach and explore art. When I taught middle school, I used him as my inspiration and mentor on a daily basis, always remembering his basic life lesson was to teach kids to find out who they are and what they are truly capable of through teaching them to experience art. In the end, Mr. John's lessons were not only for middle school kids. He had handed us keys to living a fulfilling and passionate life filled with creativity we should practice every day.