From Preschool Predictions to Eavesdropping Elders
THE MOTIVATION BEHIND THE MISSION
“What kind of preschooler doesn’t like to color?”
After a particularly exasperating day of losing the battle of wills to a 5 year old, my son’s Day Care Provider greeted me with that question one afternoon. You see, my son, Isaac, thought little of coloring and even less of the math worksheets the provider demanded he do. With amusement I tried to stifle, I listened carefully as the Provider asserted that Isaac would never amount to anything in life unless he started following the rules by doing what he was told. Of course, two years prior, the same provider indicated concern that Isaac was possessed because he had an equally strong-willed imaginary friend named Mena. Occasionally, Isaac’s blankie would find its way onto his head and he would “become” Mena.
With a solid background in clinical child psychology, I felt pretty safe not condemning Isaac’s future from such an early age. My wife and I did, however, support the Day Care banning Mena at certain times of the day. Mena fancied showing up at naptime, ready to go, and wanting to play. Needless to say, once Mena arrived to get the party started, Isaac and his young friends held little chance of, or interest in, settling down for a snooze.
So, what kind of preschooler doesn’t like to color? Well, the same kind who crawled early, yet choose to do so backwards. For whatever reason, backwards proved more efficient to Isaac than forwards. He seemed in no particular hurry to go forwards when the skills he possessed sufficiently met his needs. In fact, I believe he started to walk before he crawled forward with any regularity. I may be misremembering. The point – from the very beginning Isaac seemed biased towards function over form as he charted his own path forward.
Isaac’s artistic interests emerged early, with music being his first love. Baby Einstein and Kindermusic classes gave way to becoming intrigued by the violin due to his Grammie’s love of Andre Rieu. An early morning guest appearance by Laurie Berkner on one of the morning television shows ignited what has become a permanent interest in the guitar.
Additionally, outdoor Brewer Hometown Band concerts gave Isaac the opportunity to dance in the aisles. A band member once approached Isaac after the concert and gave him a dollar to buy ice cream. The performer wanted to reward Isaac for always being such a respectful, yet entertaining, dancer as the band played. Of course, the arts proved not to be all “soft serve with sprinkles on top” for Isaac as an elderly usher once ejected us from the Maine Center for the Arts for no reason other than being offended by two young parents bringing a baby Isaac to experience a live performance. We’ll save that story for another day, but the ending reads, “the embarrassed Maine Center for the Arts Director offered to immediately reseat us, refunded our ticket prices, and assured us that the University of Maine performance theater existed as a place for enthusiasts of ALL ages to experience the beauty of the performing arts.”
When Isaac reached school age, his mother and I opened a photography studio in Downtown Bangor and later built one as an addition to our home. We wanted control over our schedules as we committed to being certain that one parent would always be home when Isaac got home from school. Traditional studio work paired with unique photo projects involving exploding outhouses and golden toilets proved the rule in our household rather than the exception. The roles Isaac would play as model and consultant were bound only by his imagination.
Outside the house, Isaac excelled in the martial arts and music, continued to have an aversion to coloring, and would often ponder aloud about the reasoning behind being asked to do 100 math problems when he could demonstrate proficiency in three. Yet, with the exception of one fourth grade schoolyard scuffle involving an Origami Yoda, Isaac’s childhood progressed in a manner typical of most kids from his generation. He learned. He grew. He played. Like his father, Isaac preferred small groups of close friends rather than large social gatherings attended by the masses. Despite the early predictions of preschool providers, Isaac seemed to navigate Kindergarten through his Freshman year in high school without significant issues or cause for concern.
Unseen, Unidentified, Unsettling
THE WEIGHT OF THE WORLD
I cannot pinpoint exactly when.
I certainly have never understood why.
Something changed dramatically for Isaac during his sophomore and junior years. While coloring and math continued to be non-starters, the rest of Isaac’s subjects seemed to be following suit. Simply surviving the high school experience now required most of Isaac’s energy. Neither bullying nor exclusion seemed the culprit. Isaac appeared to have been simply worn out by traditional educational approaches.
School interest and effort seemed tied to particular teachers over subject matter and future goals. Homework completion rates plummeted, and with them, Isaac’s grades. Making it through the school day consumed Isaac’s energy reserves. Almost by necessity, goals shifted from doing the best he could to doing the minimum necessary to get by.
Looking back now, I believe those two approaches had become one and the same for Isaac. Even martial arts no longer held the priority it once had. Devastating, completely devastating, best describes the impact of watching your son struggle with something nobody seemed able to define, no less help him solve.
At a time when “like pulling teeth” seemed too cheerful a simile to describe Isaac’s school experience, something amazing happened.
Isaac returned from school one afternoon uncharacteristically excited. “Mom, my French teacher is AWESOME! He speaks like 10 different languages and has travelled all over the world. He’s wicked smart too. He’s a member of MENSA.”
Awesome accurately describes Isaac’s French Teacher, Scott Stowe. In addition to Russian being one of the several languages in which he is fluent, Scott holds expertise in fencing. Isaac’s interest in bladed weaponry along with a prior interest in the Russian martial art of Systema, provided an immediate attraction to Scott. But perhaps Scott’s most valuable asset involves his quiet and reserved, yet confident, nature. He didn’t see Isaac as another student in class. Scott saw Isaac’s potential for passion and refused to watch it slip away as part of a good enough approach to life. At a time when Isaac had disengaged from other support networks and activities, Scott managed to draw Isaac out, involve him in a fencing club, and push him to socialize with a group of people Isaac hardly knew.
And Scott’s impact did not stop there. In fact, he doubled it by adding a second Stowe to the equation. Scott’s spouse, Laura, holds her own when it comes to awesomeness. Where Scott is quiet and reserved, Laura possesses seemingly endless positive energy manifested in her naturally outgoing nature – she is one of those people one instantly likes. Together, the Stowe’s conducted week-abroad tours and had their sights set on France for this particular year.
With Isaac inheriting his father’s attraction to the safety of the known, he surprised us all by expressing a strong desire to make the trip. And make the trip he did. Because of the connection to Scott and Laura,
Isaac stood inside the Cathedral at Notre Dame before it burned,
examined works of art housed in the Louvre that many of us will only ever experience through pictures,
and got to experience the magnificence of the Eiffel Tower from the vantage point of its base.
The Stowes even stood in line twice – once for an hour only to have an exhibit close prior to reaching the entry and once the following day – so Isaac could tour the catacombs featured in the movie “As Above, So Below.”
Note the apparent prescience of my comment posted several years prior to the penning of this piece.
Returning to the Reality of High School
SOME OF YOU MAY THINK YOU ARE DONE
We had high hopes. We believed wee had turned the corner on school resistance and held adequate momentum to carry us across the finish line. Isaac experienced the trip of a lifetime with the Stowes and carried that excitement back into school where he would finally be able to take the photography course sequence he seemed excited to undertake.
And then it happened.
“Mrs. Spruce hates me.”
My heart sank as Isaac explained how he wanted to drop photography because he thought the teacher did not like him and had it in for him. “I finished my assignment way early. Mrs. Spruce was complementing the class on the excellent progress people were making on their projects. Then she said ‘and some of you may think you are done, but you still have a little ways to go.’ She did not call me by name, but I know she was talking about me.”
Of course, she was. And so we stood at the crossroads. Would we detour and shrink from the challenge by running away or would we forge ahead without looking back? We seized the opportunity to help Isaac reframe his experience into a lesson that I had learned the hard way from Dr. Barbara Held (among others) at Bowdoin College three decades ago.
Feedback and the way one is treated, especially in ways that sting, sometimes reflect a teacher’s desire to see you realize the full potential that he or she knows exists inside you. We need to celebrate our skilled educators who walk that fine line between pushing a student towards self-actualization and pushing them away. Isaac commented the other day how “cocky” he had been when entering Mrs. Spruce’s class, but that once he reframed the situation, things fell into place between he and his instructor.
Under Mrs. Spruce’s guidance, Isaac went on to score the highest possible marks on the AP – 2D Art Exam, and received the college credit that goes with it; he graduated on schedule and was awarded a commencement prize related to his photography, and the Maine Arts Commission honored him for his photography in a ceremony at our State Capital as well as by displaying his work.
Isaac applied and gained acceptance into the Maine College of Art and Design, but decided to take a year off to recharge his batteries. The hiatus proved useful to help him clarify life goals and find a college program more consistent with his learning style than high school had been. He currently attends an accredited university and is more than half way through a Bachelor of Arts Program. He owns and operates a real estate and fine art photography business called “Off the Path Photo.” But perhaps most indicative of where his journey has led involves a Fall 2021 family trip to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
He thought it a long shot. Isaac expected the expense of the 800 mile trip to Richmond, Virginia to see an exhibit of original Ansel Adams photographs probably could not be justified for the one or two days he could spare due to his business and college schedule. Yet, Ansel Adams work inspired Isaac to pursue photography as a career.
It ended up being an amazing, and telling, experience. As we toured the museum, Isaac skillfully explained various aspects of the Ancient Greek and Egyptian Art that he had learned from his college Art History class. I smiled on the inside as he served as our own “History Channel-like” narrator for our visit. His curation skills clearly escalated to “ready for prime time” status when we entered the Adams Gallery.
In true Isaac fashion, we opted to view the photographs in backwards order as the crowd of attendees mostly opted to follow a counter-clockwise path. Isaac looked so deeply into each original – pointing out details that I certainly had not noticed. Viewing the originals made clear that reproductions in books and in wall art, while impressive, did not do justice to the level of shadow detail existing in the original prints.
Although I do not believe Isaac noticed, he attracted a larger and larger group of distinguished looking elders who seemed content to eavesdrop on the lesson Isaac gave to my wife and I about Adams’ works. Without a hint of arrogance, Isaac spoke authoritatively, confidently, and with passion about the genius of Ansel Adams photography and the technical and aesthetic aspects of each piece.
As we left the gallery, Isaac paused and looked back. He mused about whether he might be permitted to have his picture taken next to a specific Adams’ photograph. We figured we had not come all this way not to ask. The Curator granted our request with the stipulation that flash not be used. With purpose, Isaac positioned himself next to the print shown above We took the picture and only then learned of its significance.
Isaac explained that the reproduction of the that particular print hung in Mrs. Spruce’s classroom. That exposure is what drew Isaac to Adams’ work initially and inspired him to become a professional photographer.
Apparently when Mrs. Spruce received a copy of the snapshot of Isaac, she wondered aloud to her husband if Isaac remembered it was the picture that hangs in her classroom. How do I know? Because she told me during our first Board of Directors Meeting for Photo Perspectives. I dare say when I relayed this story to her, with all its truth, that one could see a tear form in the corner of her eye.
Lori Spruce serves on our Board of Directors as do both Scott and Laura Stowe. They are shining examples of educators, of human beings, who:
identify strengths and talents even in those who may not see them in themselves;
skillfully facilitate the process of self-discovery and positive self-expression by promoting what is possible over what is sufficient.
enhance and enrich their community by supporting others’ outward expression of that which makes each individual encountered special
…That is the motivation behind our mission – photography is simply the vehicle used to accomplish our goal. In the process, we hope to demonstrate the value of choosing an approach to life where one looks, learns, and then sees.