Saturday, September 09, 2006

Grades Do Not Define People

For the first time in my seven years this electronic message about grades is not an explanation to a parent or student copied to a counselor and an administrator about why a student earned an A- or a B or a C or a D instead of an A, which they tend to like to see on their report cards, and the three latter of which they tend to say I "gave" them (because I "hate them", you know--yeah right).

Grades are earned, baby. Grades are earned. I never gave a grade in my whole teaching career. When they'd earn a grade they were pleased to see and said, "Thank you," I always looked at them and said, "Don't thank me, you earned it. Thank you for giving me something good to read."

When Amanda and I signed up for our two summer Extension classes at UCSD--Building a Photography Portfolio and Abstract Figure Drawing and Painting--we were given the option of taking the classes for a letter grade, pass/no pass, or non-credit.

This decision gave me something to really think about. I have Major Depressive Disorder, and therefore a very fragile skin right now (v. the thicker regular skin necessary to take criticism in general), plus I've always been a grade-monger (mom was Valedictorian of her nursing class, shouldn't I get all A's? and if I "get" lower than an A, WHY? WHY?WHY? Plus, I've got this little tiny problem with perfectionism that has caused me to lose countless hours of sleep working on a project or just worrying about something someone has said), plus with my illness I might simply not be able to accomplish all of the assignments to the best of my ability in the time allotted, plus I'd never taken a class in any kind of art but dance and music and I was completely ignoring the prerequisites and jumping into the deep end by taking these classes.

So I signed up for the pass/no pass option. Who needs the stress of a grade? What for? It's not like I am trying to earn a certificate or anything. And then in the art class I earned A's for about four consecutive weeks and my ego kicked in. Plus I realized I was actually good at this painting stuff--and more importantly I LOVE it. And then in the photo class ("the teacher hates me," I hear the whiny voice in my head saying) there was major criticism and I was definitely the one in the deep end with little floaty arm things keeping me from drowning while everyone else was doing fancy synchronized dancing.

After class Amanda would have to talk me into my senses--as I tried to perfect my photos for a showing I had in July and August she reminded me that the guy who was allowing me to show in his shop liked the photos well enough to want them hanging there, which really does say something. And we had to remind me that I bought the digital Canon Rebel XT for this class and was just learning how to use it, and that I do have a good sense of composition and art, it's just the technical part of photography that's tripping me up--getting the lighting right is difficult for me because I don't know how the camera works yet, and then correcting it in photoshop is difficult for me because I don't know all the tricks of the program. Clearly you can see that this class is the one that drives me crazy. (Literally--I come home at 10 p.m. and stay up for hours trying to work on whatever has been criticized until I get it "right.")

At one point the teacher said, "I'm hard on you because I know you're serious about photography and you want to be really good at it."

And I learned what it meant to be on the receiving end of a line I've used with my students; it's a compliment, but there's still the grind and the desire to please the teacher and myself with perfection. Through this class I have learned why my journalism students kept me at school til 1 a.m. sometimes, trying to get the paper as perfect as possible before they sent it to the printer despite my pleading with them to hurry up and finish and let us go home to get some sleep.

Sometime during the class we got to go to the Museum of Photographic Arts library. After we'd all had time to look at books we thought would be helpful to our projects we were given the opportunity to share our new information with the class. Of course I wanted to read aloud, I've always loved doing that and I have teacher voice, and the writer/photographer had written something about mistakes sometimes being beautiful--which couldn't help but make me think of the "Hot and Fast" photo of India that was chosen from three options to be displayed in the Photo Arts Group show at the Poway Performing Arts Center. The spices are crisp, but the people moving have a blur and the photo perfectly tells the story of India, but a lot of people see the blur and think the photo is bad instead of thinking it's artful.

So I read the passage and the instructor said, "We won't be hearing the end of that, will we?" and I said, "You can grade me down if you want," and sat down. I think it was at that point that he said something about being an easy grader (he hasn't exactly been a stickler for collecting our work, and he is very involved in a book he's creating and constantly sharing with us). So I decided to fill out the forms to get the grade. This way at least I'd know where I stood with these art forms, at least in the eyes of these two professors.

And then, for a variety of reasons especially school starting without me, my MDD kicked into high gear. I became paralyzed by the work I needed to do, and when I was called on in my art class to say something about my work I can see now that I went from saying what I intended in the painting the first few weeks to saying negative things about my abilities during the last few weeks--like, "Well, I've never made skin tone before, and I've never..... and I hate that part that you just said you like..." Plus I wasn't making it as beautifully as before. It's rather shocking to look at the obvious decline--it's so clear in art. And I was showing up late because getting out of bed and getting everything ready to go was taking so long for me. I had sad-heart mornings, and I had to get everything perfectly packed and then sometimes even stop at the Garden to get coffee and a smile from the guys and some puppy love... heck once I was that late, why not?

Then I got a B+ on one of my pieces. And then, for our final, which counted for 25% of our grade, I couldn't understand the instructions and thought we'd have more time to work on the piece we chosen to display after the model finished posing. So I just kept painting her poses and never really finished one piece of work completely before we had to post them for critique. Plus my paint wasn't cooperating by drying fast enough to do what I wanted to do.

I got a B on the final and an A- in the class. And I was disappointed.

But when I really think about it, he chose that piece for me (I'm having trouble with decision making, another symptom of MDD) to be the final because he said the composition was good. And I finished it that night (at 2 a.m.) and displayed it in my little art show the following day and people said they liked it. But what's most important is that I got what I needed to get out of that class that day. We had a female model, and I love drawing female models and it was the last time I was going to have that opportunity for a while. So I HAD to draw each of her poses. And now I can use those basic sketches to make something better of them, something beautiful can come out of them, and I used every moment I had to capture what I NEEDED. I didn't NEED an A in the class. I NEEDED to LEARN in the class. And the way to learn is by doing. I'm going to keep taking classes from Reed Cardwell because I like his work and I like his teaching style (which is a high compliment from a teacher) and I'm going to take them at a less expensive school that is closer to my house and doesn't have grades, just critiques. It'll be like the College of Creative Studies, which was a serious place to learn and didn't have grades either. I'll learn from making art, watching how others make art and listening to what they all say about art.

I think it's ironic that my ego was damaged by the A-, which is really quite good for a first time art student who's never drawn the human figure in her life (other than stick figures, and even those are sometimes questionable). But I am being weaned slowly from that former life I had where the toxic environment of competition managed to suck me into a mentality I've always been conflicted about participating in. I've always believed in learning for learning's sake, but I've also always needed the A to validate me. I guess part of what I'm learning is to validate myself--not to look to others to compliment me to feel OK.

Mark Twain said something like "a person can live on a compliment for days." But the compliment should be able to come from within that person. I need to compliment me, instead of constantly asking even strangers for their opinion.

When I was teaching, and kids were reading aloud in the "Scarlet Ibis" short story they had to say the word "invalid" and some of them pronounced it "in-valid." It really made me think about how our society views invalids as in-valid (sic) sometimes--as if an invalid were not a valid human being. It's a cruel double meaning, don't ya think?

I earned an A- in Abstract Figure Drawing and Painting and I've never painted a person before. I am valid. And pretty good at painting. I haven't finished the Portfolio final because it's been a hard MDD week and I haven't wanted to do things that make my heart sad--I've wanted to be painting at the Garden every moment possible. But I'll get it done, and if the photos aren't perfect that's OK. I'm just learning how to take them with this fancy camera of mine. What I think is important is the concept: Hate Free Zone. So if the light isn't perfect, I won't make excuses for the photos, but I will tell the story of the places of love in our world, and that love should be more valid than anything else.

Like Eleanor Roosevelt said, "no one can make you feel inferior but yourself." I had that quotation up in two or three places in my classroom. I have to be stronger than I have been--and I will have to keep reminding myself that I am learning that lesson too. I have spent 31 years letting other people's opinions define me. It's time for me to define myself.

And to think I woke up with sad-heart today. Maybe it's the meds, but I think it's the writing that pulled me into a feeling of empowerment--and knowing that other people will have a chance to read this makes me feel like maybe I'm giving someone a gift, and that always makes me happy.

We define ourselves, ourselves.

1 comment:

OakMonster said...

And I have another quote for you:

"Being unstable and bitchy is all part of my mistique." - My fridge magnet.

Well, that's MY motto, at least. ;-D There's a point to this, I promise.

You are a fantastic person and amazing budding artist! Now, print THAT out and post it all over your work area. REMEMBER HOW AWESOME YOU ARE!

And to go with my little magnet saying, like my unstability and bitchiness, the MDD doesn't make you an invalid. It is a part of your mistique. ;-)

On the side note: Photography does take a lot of refining and learning the craft. I've gone through MANY rolls of films and even more expensive slides and I still suck. LOL. You have digital so you can do a lot more with a lot less investment. Hehe. But you just have to keep taking them.

Well, I've just got my dad's old Nikon. I have to learn how to use this puppy too. So many next month we'll do a little photography excursion in your neighborhood?