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Art Imitates Life story image

Art imitates life—All fun and games until the police showed up

In the late 1970s I got my first full-time teaching job in a small community south of Winnipeg. Qualifications aside, I got the job primarily because I was female. The year I started I was one of three women on a staff of about 30.

For all the theory and practice of a Bachelor of Education, I soon discovered the reality of teaching is learned on the job. Early on I was so nervous in front of a class that I used index cards to prompt me on even the most basic lesson. “The primary colours are...” (check notes) “blue...” (check notes) “ red...” (check notes)….

One class was all boys. When I had to use my stern teacher voice, I was totally ineffective. They would as one look at me with sweet innocent smiles, knowing I would be incapable of not breaking into a smile. When I did, they'd all laugh! Generally, we just moved on from there. When I left the classroom and was just outside the door, they would bark like seals. I had no idea why, but I would race back inside. They had me totally trained.

One time I took a Grade 9 boy into the hall to speak to him about his behaviour. He stood in front of me, head down, looking quite repentant. When I finished speaking I waited for him to respond. Silence. Then he said, “Do those go all the way up?” He looked up at me, mortified. I looked down-he was referring to my stockings! I looked up, he looked down. He didn't make eye contact with me for several days…

One of the most memorable projects I did with my students was the creation of life-sized mixed-media figure sculptures. The results ranged from an assemblage of stuffed clothing arranged into a pose to chicken wire constructions. Measuring tape and calipers in hand, a team of boys created a likeness of one of the science teachers. It was so accurate that when they borrowed some of his clothes, they fit perfectly! They even persuaded him to let them make a plaster cast of his face. A wig cut and styled like his mad scientist hair completed the transformation. When finished, the lab-coated facsimile of Mr. Isaac, looking up through binoculars, was planted (big spikes on the bottom of the shoes) in the middle of the expanse of lawn in front of the school-a perfect viewing spot from the art room. People walking past the school would glance up at the sky to see what he was looking at and some would try to engage him in conversation. Students inside the school could be heard calling out, “Hey Mr. Isaac, what are you looking at?” One student got quite close to the figure before realizing that it wasn't the real Mr. Isaac!

The principal agreed to display one of the sculptures in his office. It looked like a student sitting and leaning, head on hands, onto a desk. He put the figure in a chair in front of his desk. It was convincing enough that when the Superintendent knocked and then entered the office, he quickly retreated saying, “Oh, I see you're with a student, I'll come back another time.” The principal kept that figure in his office for months!

The sculptures were a lot of fun to have around, but eventually they were taken home. Apparently, the fun with these sculptures continued in the community at large. The RCMP visited our principal and then me. The police were getting calls about “people” sitting on the roofs of buildings… hanging by their hands out of windows… strapped to the top of a car cruising Main Street. There were even reports of one being repeatedly run over by cars. The officers politely but firmly suggested that I not repeat this assignment.

And I didn't-until the final year of my teaching career in Trail, BC. There was a satisfying symmetry in repeating that memorable assignment. However, this time we created animals and more fanciful figures. 

By Robin Ottevanger, retired Trail teacher
Reprinted from Teacher magazine, Volume 29, Number 2, May/June 2017