Remember your favorite teachers? The one who let you drive his van? Or ate chalk? Or taught you how to write a real essay, or, when he spotted the picture you absentmindedly drew of him on your desk, merely lamented the future loss of the rest of his hair?
I’ve had a few, and what they each gave me is hard to qualify: a rich view into the subject they loved, and, equally so, a rich view into myself and the world, since as the world unfolds to a young mind, the mind expands with the view. These teachers also gave me a very special kind of friendship, even if it was of the less personal kind, it was very personal to me. Of all of these, my most favorite was my high school art teacher, Mr. Hamilton.
Richard Hamilton, who passed away in 2011 after a many decades-long career, was the very favorite teacher of a lot of people. After that sad day in 2011, another former student wrote of him, “[He] was the rock star of art teachers, Grandmaster of his little corner of Ukiah High School. He was truly a rare breed. Without him, myself and countless others may never have graduated, made it through the system at all.”
Hamilton took us on field trips to the City. He yelled “Dada!” in the class, when that was the art movement we were studying. He sliced my Frisbee in half in the monster paper cutter. He had a human skull you could draw if you wanted to. When Andy Warhol died, under Hamilton’s direction, we buried a can of Campbell’s soup on Dissident Hill, the grassy rise behind the Art Room.
Buncha crazed teenagers? We must have driven Mr. Hamilton insane. But somehow he took us seriously, he liked us, he called us out when we needed it, encouraged us, but didn’t coddle us. He was steady, but a rebel too, and we loved him. Some great art came out of the collective studio that was his classroom, and a lot of not-so-great art, but the concrete belief in art as something worthwhile and important permeated the space. For me, in the crucible of Hamilton’s class I was in my element. And with a mentor there, as committed and caring and irreverent as he was, I felt upheld, protected, challenged, even loved, in a way I didn’t feel anywhere else in the world. I felt like me.
In high school, I thought bigger and better things awaited me, in college and beyond, and that turned out to be true in most ways. But while I was lucky to have some very good professors in college, and later in graduate school, and some very good teachers in other settings, never again did I have a teacher that became as important to me as Hamilton. Not even close. And isn’t it one of the killers of getting older, that by the time you finally have some perspective, and maybe the ability to thank someone for their role in your life, it’s too late?
I hope he knew anyway. No doubt he heard the kind of things I would have said from many other former students. As the parent of a student, I have many opportunities to thank the teachers in our lives, and they deserve it. I revere teachers. I’m in constant awe of what they do for young people, and I think the job just keeps getting harder.
I’d like to say something cliché, like “Go out and thank a teacher today!” But if I could, I’d rather say something my old art teacher might have said, by way of good bye forever, after a big hug and a pat on the shoulder, and an exceedingly kind smile: “Raise a little hell.”
Jenny Jaeckel is the author of House of Rougeaux, recently published and available in print and audio. Publishers Weekly called House of Rougeaux a “rich tapestry of a novel” in their starred review. Find out more on the publisher’s site.