Just Prior to finding my way into the "Woods" I had almost completed my graduate Art Therapy studies and was leaving a private school setting in Manhattan. I had been working there as a Wood-Working teacher, Yearbook advisor, and as a Part-Time Art teacher. Beginning in May of that year, when I decided to "move on" until about mid-August, I completed approximately 75 snail-mail applications to various schools and institutions including a few in Vermont. I was offered three different positions by late-August, in addition to one other near Brattleboro, Vermont. The Vermont position was not very much of an option, the hourly rate was an incredible 1.10 per hour. This was a position as counselor in a residential setting and took into account my Master’s degree. One more realistic position was at another private school setting in the Westchester area. I was offered this position as a Painting and Design instructor in an amazing art loft including skylights, easels, and an inspiring view of the Hudson River through the large windows. Another possibility would have been as an art therapist at a Westchester psychiatric setting, a more humble position consisting of running groups and individual therapy sessions.
The private school offer was part-time which might have been promising but I needed a higher income than was being offered at the time. I turned down the position at the hospital in part due to the salary but also in response to an incident I inadvertently was witness to. As I waited for my interview to begin, (I happened to be situated just opposite a patient's room) I was unable to see into the room for the most part but I could hear music playing. I did not expect to hear a hospital staff member shouting at a patient. "What exactly are you doing?" The voice asked. The young sounding person in the room responded that she loved to dance and enjoyed music. I was able to hear the voice of the staff member instructing the patient to turn off the music. "We don't dance here, and we don't play music" she shouted. I am not certain how I might have dealt with the situation but I am certain I would have been more respectful of the patient. In any case, and partially influenced by this event I chose the high school option.
I was offered an admission ticket to the "Woods" by several very professional, knowledgable, and inspiring administrators. The Superintendent, Assistant Superintendent, and Principal at the time were very supportive of my application and enthusiastic about my ambitions. After a thorough description and tour of the facility, I decided that this option would be my best choice. One other somewhat comical factor was that I had decided I wanted to work with "sane" people, As the years went by I am still not certain of ever having met many in the woods, or anywhere else for that matter. More than likely that includes my self as well. Hence came my inspiration for this blog. Incidentally, I wish to point out that I have considered the likelihood that there are at least a “handful” of individuals who may read these entries and worry that their name may eventually appear. Rest assured that any names found in this recollection, are included because the individuals have been informed and permission was granted.
When I first entered the woods, I observed an incredibly expansive campus. In comparison to my previous experience in a Manhattan private school, there was plenty of space everywhere. The private school consisted of two “tightly-packed” brownstones on the upper East Side. The woods were a welcome sight and provided a wonderful opportunity for outdoor activities and instruction.I was looking forward to what would become a thirty year long adventure.
The French Fries and The Missing Class
I was ecstatic at first to have been assigned to a very large classroom equipped with a variety of art instruction materials including several Potter’s Wheels and medium-sized kilns. The Potter’s wheels were motorized floor models that had been extensively utilized but nevertheless in good working order. The idea was/is to place a wet lump of clay onto the center of the wheel and with the help of a spinning disc, convert the clay into a hopefully beautiful work of art. A great example of using a Potter’s Wheel can be seen in an old but entertaining film called “Ghost” starring Whoopi Goldberg, Patrick Swayze, and Demi Moore among others. Of course there is always the internet.
My classroom had four medium sized “kilns” an oven-like device capable of creating temperatures as high as 2500 degrees Fahrenheit or more. The purpose of the kiln is to “fire” or bake the clay until it becomes firm and glass-like. The process seems simple but the object must be free of air bubbles, sufficiently dry, and the temperature of the kiln set correctly. Many mishaps can occur.
I have witnessed many art teachers weeping at the end of a firing cycle when upon opening the door to the kiln, they discovered fragments of projects scattered throughout. The loss can be almost disastrous for many students anxiously waiting to see the results of their artistic efforts.
One day after I had attended a conference and had not been in my room teaching, I learned from a substitute teacher that there had been a small fire in the classroom. I later asked the students a few questions regarding the incident. A student eventually came forward and informed me that he had attempted to “warm up” his french-fries, paper wrapping included, by putting them into the kiln and turning it on. Needless to say, there was a small fire, and the french fries all but disintegrated in a puff of smoke. I explained to him and the rest of the group that the kiln was not the equivalent of a microwave and that his was not such a great idea.
In the center of the floor of the classroom, there was an unusual “trap door.” One day after school I was curious and had often wondered what it was intended for. I managed to pry the heavy door open enough to discover it’s underground contents. Approximately eight feet under the surface of the tile floor was a small room containing a number of drain pipes and control valves. An old rusty iron ladder was attached to one of the walls providing access into the abyss. I later learned that this room was related to the drainage and sewer system, and although rarely used it provided easy access for maintenance and repairs.
About a year later, I was out of my classroom again for some other “official” event, (I had to attend a workshop on developing curriculum). Once again I encountered a surprise upon returning. There had been some “excitement” the previous day when a substitute teacher reported that his students were missing from our classroom. At that time there were no landlines in the room and there were no cell phones to be found. The teacher briefly stepped out of the classroom to report his missing students to the security person in the hallway. Apparently a “comedian” among the group convinced the others to climb down through the trap door and down the ladder with the intention of hiding from the substitute teacher. They were only partially successful as they realized they had to emerge quickly in order to breathe. Needless to say, following this spectacular incident, the trap door was securely locked and bolted shut. One would think that this was the end of the mischief, but there are many more stories to tell.
My first cameras were an 8mm Keystone and a great big box containing a tiny Kodak Brownie "Holiday Flash" and all the equipment necessary for lighting and film development. I recall jumping for joy when I viewed my first self-processed image including fingerprints, dust marks, and faded grey edges! The joy of my chemical darkroom work had begun!