Tuesday, February 12, 2008
Last week I took my class to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. We were there to look at artifacts from some of the ancient civilizations we have been studying in class. Our docent, Marcy, talked to us about some of the Egyptian, Assyrian, and Greek objects in the collection and then the students had an opportunity to explore other collections. From their excited chatter on the train back to Connecticut, it seems my students had a great trip.
In the days since, I have found myself thinking about those ancient objects a lot. During our trip it struck me like never before how each of the things we saw was at one time a raw block of stone, an unformed clump of clay, a blank stretch of wall. And then, early one morning, a craftsman approached, took a deep breath, and started in on it.
I can’t help but think of the artisans who held those materials in their hands thousands of years ago. Who were they? What had they eaten for breakfast? Were they preoccupied as they set chisel to stone? Did they have any inkling that four thousand years later people would be coming from around the world to look at what they made? Of course, first and foremost they probably had the emperor/king/tyrant/dictator in mind, since he was the one who commanded the object be created in the first place. But did they think about posterity? And if so, how could they then have had the audacity to go ahead and start chipping away at that block of sandstone or marble, excising everything that wasn’t the god being portrayed? How could they even hold the chisel steady knowing it would be judged by the most powerful man in their world?
Thinking about those ancient artists gave me some insight into my own students. I don’t place blocks of stone before my students and demand sculpture worthy of a king. But I do often demand that my students write. After seeing the works of art at the Met last week, I can better understand why my students sometimes have trouble getting started on their creative writing pieces for class. As the blank page sits there in front of them, I imagine it is easy to think about the judgmental eye of others examining any words set down. So that before the words even begin to flow, they are found wanting, and therefore never make it to the page.
Our trip reminded me of just how brave an act it can be to set pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and write something like, “There once was a girl with uneven braids and a freckle on her nose…”. The visit to the Met reminded me to have some patience, some understanding, and some empathy for my students when they look at me with just-slightly-disguised terror in their eyes and say, “Chris, I don’t know what to write about…”