Walking home, the boy pulled up his mask as a gust of cold air smacked him in the face. His backpack felt a lot heavier than when he left, but nothing had been added to his collection of papers and doodles. He discovered that it was rather difficult to keep pursuing his art degree in all this chaos. Jeremy, for a long time now, had pondered his artistic path. “Artists don’t study!”, he exclaimed to his favorite teacher in high school one time. She forgave him, but that event seemed to stain his relationship with Ms. Geeves. That class had taught him all the foundational theories and lines of drawing that should and should not be crossed. Then, by the start of second semester, Jeremy found himself utterly bored with the weekly doodle and the projects were always limited in scope, at least according to Jeremy.
Ms. Geeves had been an art teacher in some capacity for forty something years. She was a titan of thought at Jefferson West High. Several teachers came and went in her career at the school. Ms. Geeves, or Geeves as she let the children call her, was a staple at this institution for most of her life and the school’s too. Built in 1994, Jefferson West was once seen as the crowning jewel of public education in this medium town. The housing developments could only expand west so west they went. Twenty-five years later the school, and the students, were starting to feel past their prime. The athletic department relied heavily on boy’s cross country and girl’s lacrosse to build any sort of school spirit. The “Computer Center” was state of the art in 1996. Today, it takes an overweight tech guy’s sweat and tears to keep the firewall and Wi-Fi both “up”.
It was within this environment that Jeremy decided he had a passion for design. It began quite unscrupulously, when he photoshopped the face of his math teacher, Mr. Grumpel, onto the head of a wild boar in the middle of, well I think we all know. His punishment was twofold. The worst of it was showing his parents the image and of course listening to the threats of the assistant principal to contact the proper authorities. The punishment itself was rather tame all things considered. He was suspended for a week, which began with a combination punishment courtesy of his parents taking away his phone. Luckily, that only lasted a few days on account of his parents fearing social isolation might be too much to bear for what they secretly found to be a funny photograph.
The creative part of his sentence was the demotion into a more remedial mathematics class and the transfer of one of his study halls into an art class with Ms. Geeves. If Jeremy had any misgivings about this class and Geeves, they were quickly washed away within five minutes of his first day of class. Ms. Geeves welcomed him to the class, asked him to introduce himself to the class, and then assigned him a seat up front. Jeremy was settling into his seat and rummaging through his pencil case for chapstick and of course a pencil. That is right when a roar of laughter echoed through the room. Jeremy looked up with delighted horror as he realized that Ms. Geeves had displayed his meme of Mr. Grumpel, with a well-placed blur behind the boar. “Alright, settle down,” said Ms. Geeves in a quiet, assured voice as if she knew the class was under her spell. Sure enough, the class switched their attention from the image to her.
“Class, how do we feel about the art that your peer Jeremy created?”. Jeremy felt his own ego start to hide inside of him. He wanted this moment to be over, immediately and haphazardly. This is not art, Jeremy thought to himself. What a punishment! Jeremy was borderline impressed with his elders. They had constructed an elaborate ruse meant just to create this moment of public shaming. Then, some hands started to raise behind Jeremy. Ms. Geeves said, “Yes, Elizabeth”. “It was a, um, good use of photoshop”, Elizabeth said in a reserved way. Ms. Geeves smiled, “Yes, Ronald”. Ronald with a grin on his face opened with, “It’s pretty funny”. A hushed laughter echoed around the room. Jeremy started to relax. He could feel the tension leaving his shoulders, but the uneasy feeling in his stomach was there to stay.
Geeves was much more than a teacher to the generations of students who passed through those halls. This is certainly not a rule of law, but Geeves always noticed that the best doodlers were often the least vocal about it. She had an eye for the boys and girls sitting up against lockers and walls with a pencil itching their notebooks. Many a lost soul had found some relief in Geeves’ room. There were of course the bean bag chairs and stools that felt freer than any rolling chair or desk-chair combination that were all too often found in the classrooms. The students that found refuge under her tent ranged from the emo kid with dark imagery in the liner of his history notebook to the skinny girl who thinks too much about writing in blood. Ms. Geeves brought them in and showed them the difference between college ruled paper and a #2 versus canvas and paint.
Jeremy spent several hours on his first assignment for Ms. Geeves. Her bold move of showing his grotesque meme on his first day had won his approval. The assignment was simple enough; a self portrait done on printer paper with only pen or pencil. Jeremy realized that this was considered getting off easy as far as homework goes in Geeves’ class. However, it was his first assignment and a chance to show her he had some artistic worth. Jeremy saved this assignment for last every night that week as the self-portrait was due Friday. Once his other assignments were done, Jeremy broke out the blank paper and the pencils. He started his sketch the same way every time. A circle with a pencil to ground his work in something. Jeremy found himself in the same predicament Monday through Wednesday; when he switched to pen, his hand would start shaking and ultimately one line would go astray. His hair had too many strands of unequal length on one side. His nose left him questioning whether it was a protruding triangle or a “button nose”.
On Thursday Jeremy waited around after art class to talk with Ms. Geeves. “I don’t know if I missed something before joining this class, but I can’t get my hair right and I’ve forgotten what type of nose I have!”, said Jeremy. Ms. Geeves stood up and walked over to the supply cabinets while asking softly, “Do you use pen or pencil?”. “Well, I start with a pencil and try to finish it with a pen”, said Jeremy. Ms. Geeves explained, “That is the problem. You are doing too much. I did not say draw a self-portrait and then turn in a trace of it in pen”. Jeremy felt better, but still had no idea how to finish this assignment. Ms. Geeves pulled out an old quill pen and handed it to Jeremy while saying, “I want you to use this old thing. Listen carefully. You must use this pen and I want you to turn in the first portrait you make tonight. Deal?” Jeremy agreed thinking if it is garbage she wants, it is garbage she will get.
That night Jeremy sat down at his desk, having completed all other assignments, and stared blankly at what was to be his last attempt at a self-portrait. He had made a promise to Ms. Geeves and he intended on keeping it, even if that meant he turned into a steaming mess. Jeremy at first struggled to figure out how to even fill the thing. The old ink jar he got from Ms. Geeves seemed too thick to write with let alone sketch. His lines were not straight nor even and this time it was no fault of his own. The quill could barely produce lines of different width and forget trying to add any shading, thought Jeremy. Jeremy reminded himself over and over; Geeves said use this pen and turn in the first draft. He was starting to get the hang of it, when he missed the ink trying to refill the quill and his hand knocked over the jar, spilling ink onto the page.
“You’re joking”, Jeremy said aloud. He quickly picked up the jar, but he was helpless as a good couple ounces of thick ink slowly spread down his image. Then, Jeremy started laughing. Alone and awake late at night, Jeremy found himself on the verge of uncontrollable laughter. Geeves will love this, thought Jeremy. He tried to dry up the excess ink and then decided to let it dry while he slept. Although Jeremy could not help but sign his name in the excess ink using his finger. Jeremy thought it entirely fitting that his first graded art assignment was due the next day and he would be turning in a fingerpainting.
The next day at school Jeremy came prepared to stand by his art with the defense that, “you told me to turn in my first draft using this pen”. Geeves, as a sort of psychological judo move, made the kids present their self-portraits with some easy questions on why they chose the style they did and so forth. Each portrait was followed with some simple questions and answers from the other students. Jeremy followed a young girl who had only used a Ticonderoga pencil to create what Jeremy could only describe as an envisioning of herself as the Mona Lisa. This would be a tough act to follow, thought Jeremy. Finally, he presented his portrait which to his surprise was not met with crackling laughter. It was worse. There was an awkward silence in the room as students, presumably, were waiting for Ms. Geeves to tear into this monstrosity. After a few moments, Ms. Geeves asked him, “Jeremy, I did not see your other drafts, but I imagine you are weirdly most proud of this one?”. “As a matter of fact, I am”, Jeremy replied. Ms. Geeves said, with assuredness in her voice, “The beauty of his portrait class is that it was done honestly. It is in fact an awful sketch, but it is no less a piece of art”.
When Jeremy heard that Ms. Geeves had fallen ill, he knew exactly what to do. He went straight to his drawer and pulled out the old quill and ink that she had given to him as a sign of good faith at the end of second semester. Having learned his mistake from previous quill use, Jeremy made sure that every motion of his hand and the pen was done to not waste ink. The sketch he included would be done a disservice if I tried to describe it now, but what will translate is the line he included at the end. “You taught me the difference between art and life, and I have not taken either for granted since. Sending thoughts and a little art your way”, signed Jeremy.