Remember Your Favorite Teachers?

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.

Mr. Hamilton, photo by Jacki Taylor 1988

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.

The Book of Embraces

The Uruguayan writer, Eduardo Galeano, says in The Book of Embraces, that he walked out of his native Montevideo because he didn’t “like being a prisoner,” and that three years later, he left Buenos Aires because he didn’t “like being dead.” In this way, in the early and mid-1970s, he escaped two military dictatorships, the Uruguayan and the Argentine, and went into exile in Spain, with his wife Helena. Many of his friends were not so lucky.

Eleven years later, in 1984, after the bloody dictatorship in Argentina had ended, and the one in Uruguay was on its way out, he returned to visit Buenos Aires. He writes:

And so I walked for a while, aching with forgotten memories, searching for places and people I didn’t find, or know how to find, and finally I crossed the river, the river-sea, and entered Uruguay… Montevideo, boring and beloved, smelling of bread in the summer and smoke in the winter. And I knew I had been longing for home, and that the hour for ending my exile had struck.

Exile, and the end of exile, on many levels, is a central theme in The Book of Embraces, a work composed of intimate vignettes from the life of the author and the lives of many people whose stories he renders with the equal intimacy and awe. The stories may be equal parts beautiful and painful, illuminating moments that are ordinary or magical, violent or tender, humorous or tragic, but woven together so that none of the qualities can be separated from the others. It is exile, and the end of exile, and when you read a book like this it leaves you naked, so that you are defenseless before all of it, and so that you laugh at your own image.

Many years ago, in the early 1990s in California, I heard Eduardo Galeano read from this book, and speak to its title, saying that embraces were what he wished to create, when writing these stories, because, “we are so alone.”

The audience, one or two hundred people, fell under his spell, dead silent at times, bursting into laughter at others. When the reading was over a mob of people surrounded him, asking for him to sign their books, wanting to say to him how much his writing had meant to them. He greeted each person like a dear friend, and when the mob had dissolved, I, who had hung back until the end, could see he was exhausted. At the risk of bothering him further, I approached him and said I just wanted to say thanks. I think I said it sadly. I was in my early twenties, still a kid, and a person who had never experienced anything remotely like he had, but maybe, like all people since the expulsion from Eden, I knew something in my heart about exile. Eduardo, tired though he was, gently grabbed my head, as Uruguayans do, looked me in the eyes and planted a fatherly kiss on my cheek.

Eduardo Galeano left us two years ago, at the age of 74, but leaves behind a magnificent body of work. Every time I read The Book of Embraces, which I do every several years, I have the feeling that this great writer, through his words and stories, gently grabs my head, looks me in the eyes, kisses my cheek, and leaves me naked, with my petty defenses burning in a heap, with a fire that keeps me warm.

 


Jenny Jaeckel’s forthcoming book House of Rougeaux is coming out April 24th, 2018. Here’s what readers are saying:

I love a good family saga, and this is an excellent example of a well-written one. -LibraryThing

Love, love, love it! -Goodreads

At times the book is sad and heartbreaking and at other times inspiring and triumphant. -Goodreads