Wednesday, March 08, 2006

One Woman Can Make the World Better

To commemorate the UN-designated International Women's Day, today's NRO has a list of women who make or made the world better. On a somewhat related note, Uncle Pookie and I started working our way through all of Babylon 5 a few weeks ago (he saw most of it before & I saw perhaps the majority of the middle episodes, from mid-season two to mid-season four; FWIW I highly recommend B5 for its excellent writing), and one of the things creator Stracynski says multiple times on the DVDs is that he wanted to refute the all-too-common idea that one person can't make a difference. These two things make me think of a woman I knew who made her little corner of the world different.

Mrs. A trained as an English teacher, and after graduation she and her schoolteacher husband (who'd left a more lucrative job selling insurance because he wanted to do something meaningful with his life--how's that for "crunchy" ?) moved to a small town. Mrs. A soon began to realize that she really enjoyed making bulletin boards for her classes. She decided to go back to college to qualify to teach art. I believe she started out teaching art at the elementary school, but later this soft-spoken woman convinced the school to start an art department at the high school. Actually she WAS the art department. Mississippi is a poor state and everyone knows art classes are the first to go when there's a tight budget, but that small, mostly working class town school had a full-time art teacher and students could choose art as an elective every year if they wanted. Mrs. A taught basic drawing and painting and a little 3-D art in the form of papier-mache sculptures or painted wooden shapes, and she brought in her own art books and magazines to teach a bit of art history to her students.

She tried to keep improving her offerings over the years. She saw to it that the department got new supplies, including while I was there an air-brush gun and a table saw. To raise funds for the department she oversaw the creation of "historic sites of our town" calendars featuring pen-and-ink drawings by the art students--a project that must have taken up a lot of her leisure time; this proved very popular and was repeated for several years. She arranged displays of student work at various places around town. She arranged field trips to an art museum. Equally important, she tried new techniques herself and would teach them to her students.

In addition to her HS art classes she oversaw the running of the school newspaper. That high school--which, remember, was not a well-off one--had the only weekly school newspaper in the state, and I believe received some state awards. She also began teaching evening art classes for adults.

Mrs. A was interested in improving not just the school, but the town. The most visible way she did that was to convince a number of people in the town to allow her and volunteer students to paint murals or faux windows and doorways on their blank walls. This not only improved the look of a number of walls, it gave the town a better, more unique feel. I believe she was also involved in other community spirit activities (such as an old-fashioned election day town party), as well as being a member of a Methodist church, making many improvements to her old house, maintaining what seemed to be a close marriage, and raising three pleasant, well-behaved children.

These things may not sound important to most people, and it is true that she didn't do anything worthy of UN recognition. But think about it. She exposed hundreds of kids, some of whom would have had no other exposure, to art. She tried to get the town interested in art, or at least the HS art department. At least one of her students went on to become an art teacher herself. Through her adult students, she helped (and continues to help, last I heard) people, some of whom (like my father) had no opportunity for any kind of art training in their youth, acquire skills and a fulfilling hobby--or at least broaden their horizons a little bit. She also made her town look better. None of this happened because she was an innately talented artist. To be honest, her level of talent is pretty modest. But she kept working at it and trying, so that she made the most of what had been given her. Plus she shared her skills and enthusiasm with others, and in the end she really did make her town better. How many of us can say as much?

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