No matter how many years I’d been teaching, the first day of class was always the same—nerve-wracking. Did I remember all my handouts? Had I made enough copies? Did I remember to bring the roster, the art samples, the textbook? It was so important to be prepared and appear professional, to set a proper academic tone and be welcoming at the same time. I always felt on trial. I knew the students, with their own first-day jitters, were trying to decide if I would be a taskmaster or a pushover. I also knew most of them enrolled in my class because of the name—Fundamentals of Art. It sounded like an easy way to fulfill a general education requirement, and they were looking for some assurance that this was true. After all, it was only an art class.
This particular semester was no different, with the exception of one student. He had a disturbingly intense aura about him and dressed with conservative military precision—pressed khakis, leather belt, polished leather shoes, and a long-sleeved Oxford shirt. His meticulously cropped blond hair tightly framed his angular face, and his eyebrows were separated by a permanent vertical crease just like his khakis. He was probably about thirty and offered a striking contrast to the rest of the younger men in the class who wore unbelted baggie jeans, flip flops, and faded tee-shirts with hairstyles ranging from surfer-dude casual to punk rock spikes. Let’s just say, this man didn’t fit in. He sat erect, spiral notebook open on his desk, and pen in hand. He stared at me. I don’t even think he blinked.
At some point during my opening remarks, I typically tried to be funny. Although most students didn’t laugh at my first attempt at humor—they were still busy sizing me up—many did smile. My feeble stab at comedy was my way of letting them know they could relax. I was not the type to ruin their GPA just for spite. Of course, he didn’t smile. He just continued to bore a hole through my head with his lazer-like gaze. It went on like that the whole semester. He spoke to no one, acknowledged no one, stared at me, took notes, and scowled when I returned his written tests with perfect scores. He didn’t ask questions, didn’t answer questions, and never, ever smiled.
The last assignment of the semester was an art project. I’d asked the students to create an artwork expressing some personal meaning, something they felt passionate about—love for their family, their country, or God maybe. Did they want to protest drug abuse, animal abuse, or poverty? Were they outdoor enthusiasts, musicians, or car freaks? Whatever their passion, I wanted them to express it in any art form they chose.
The projects were due on the day of the final. Some students got up to talk about their pieces, but it wasn’t mandatory. He, of course, said nothing about his. Once the students left, I walked around the room to evaluate each work. As usual, many of the students outdid themselves with their painstaking craftsmanship or wild expressiveness, but nothing compared to the intensity of his piece. It was an upright cardboard cylinder supported by fins and topped with a cone—the shape of a rocket bomb. The entire piece was covered with precisely pasted words carefully cut out from magazines—kill, maim, demolish, annihilate… The message was relentless. I had never encountered such an angry piece in all my years of teaching. It made me shudder. Was it me he wanted so badly to destroy?
The next year just before our winter break, I stood in the foyer of the art department, working on a display of student art for the holidays. The door from the parking lot flew open, and a man appeared encased in a windy blast of light like a ferocious halo. It was him. He walked with purpose and looked the same as always; khakis, brown leather shoes and belt, Oxford shirt, closely cropped hair. I was the only other person in the foyer and impossible not to notice. He looked my way, that same stony expression on his face, and walked toward me, picking up speed. Was he coming to unleash his hatred on me? My mind went blank, and I froze with fear. He reached me, stretched out his arms, and grabbed me … in a bear hug.
“Thank you!” He said, releasing me with a smile. “How can I ever thank you enough?”
I stared at him, speechless. I couldn’t believe what had just happened.
My stunned reaction must have prompted him to explain. “That project I did for your class changed my life. Until I made that bomb, I had no idea how much anger I was carrying and how dangerously close I was to exploding. But when I finished the project, and all that repressed violence was out there, outside myself, I could finally see it, and I got help. You saved my life. I will never forget you.”
And just as quickly as he appeared, he walked away. I remained in the foyer still stunned as his warm hug and words slowly replaced my fear with an overwhelming sense of joy. What a miraculous transformation.
But as I continued to stand in the foyer, the art on display looking even more magical than before, I knew it wasn’t me who changed his life. I didn’t do anything. It was only an art class.
Zoe Disigny has a Master’s Degree in Art History and taught college courses for thirty years. During that time she saw how art could transform lives, and that’s what inspires her writing. She’s attended several writers’ conferences including the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, Southern California Writers Conference, the Writer’s Digest Novel Writing Conference, and the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference. She is a member of the California Writers Club, Women’s Fiction Writers Association, and She Writes.