This is a talk I gave at a fundraising dinner for the Artists in the Schools Program sponsored by the United Arts Council of Raleigh and Wake County. It’s about the teacher I had in fourth grade who turned my life around, and showed me that there was something to become that appealed to me. After the talk, a woman in the audience, a teacher who has had visiting artists in her classroom said that she a change in some of her children after the artists’ visits. She could see them light up, see new possibilities, and become more engaged. Art matters! It matters to children, but it matters to adults too. It matters more than ever now because we’ve all go to see new paths. Here’s my talk:
I was a withdrawn child. I was shy. I was awkward. I felt dumb. I couldn’t pass tests. And I am pretty sure that I tested out as having a low IQ. The reason I believe this is because when that first IQ test with the little squares to fill in arrived in my life, probably around first grade, our teacher told us we could not pass or fail, and a test one could not pass or fail did not seem very serious to me, so I filled in the squares to make patterns. And once I was committed to it, I kept it up. So, I don’t know how I tested out. I was probably brilliant one year and off the charts in the other direction the next.
I know though that I liked patterns. I noticed patterns. I noticed shadows and sunlight and tree bark and rhythm. But noticing patterns did not help me in school. It has however helped me with art. And I found this out in fourth grade when I met my new teacher. Her name was Mrs. Semonche.
On the first day, she wrote her name across the board in beautiful handwriting, in a straight line, underlined and she said, “Not Mrs. See-man-chee. Not Mrs. Comanche. Mrs. Semonche.” I was extremely impressed with her, not just because she headed off the butchering of her name right away, but because she was young and beautiful. She was slim, wore A-line skirts, stocking and heels, had fake eyelashes that I didn’t know were fake at the time, and reminded me of Jackie Kennedy, our first lady at the time. In short I could tell that Mrs. Semonche was fresh and new. She hadn’t been in the trenches long. She was not jaded and she had a lot of ideas about how to teach us, she was eager to try them out, and she was a big fan of the arts
During this one year of my life, we studied art. We studied every kind of art Mrs. Semonche could fit into our schedule. We sculpted, we drew, we collected color pictures of famous paintings, we learned about the Impressionists, the Modernists, Abstract Art, Surrealism. We’d never seen anything like Salvador Dali.
We also had a unit in theater. We put on a play: A Midsummer’s Night Dream by William Shakespeare. We were in fourth grade. We made the costumes. We created the set. We memorized the lines. Well, some kids memorized lines. I wanted nothing to do with a speaking part, so I signed up to be one of the fairies with my best friend Ellen. Our job was to drift across the stage periodically wearing some great filmy dresses. It seemed enough to me, but not to Mrs. Semonche. She needed an understudy for the main female role Titania, and there was no one left to do it but me, so Mrs. Semonche, in the way that grown ups do, coerced me into accepting the understudy role. But like the IQ test, I didn’t take it very seriously, and I never learned the lines.
One day Sally Hill, the girl whose role I was supposed to understudy was not in class on a day of performance. All morning long kids were hitting me on the arm and saying, “You’re going to have to play Titania. You’re going to have to play Titania.” And I nodded dumbly and mutely. I didn’t know any part of those lines. At what point I would have confessed this, I don’t know, because Sally Hill finally showed up, and I did not have to shame myself. I got away with it.
Mrs. Semonche was right that I needed to learn to speak up, but she was also wrong. I needed to find my own way to speak up. I needed something quieter. And I found it in the next art unit Mrs. Semonche taught called Creative Writing.
What a breath of fresh air Creative Writing was. I started receiving checkmarks on my papers. Nice detail, Mrs. Semonche wrote across my page, the part where I wrote about the smell of grass, the part where I wrote about the pattern of leaves in the sunlight on the ground, the part where I wrote about the filmy curtains in an old hotel room. Finally my penchant for noticing pattern was paying off. I started writing. I started seriously writing. Outside of school, I deconstructed movies I saw on TV and wrote them into stories, which is plagiarism, but I had no intention of publishing them, so really it was study. In the same way art students learn about composition by copying pieces hanging in museums, I was learning about plot and characterization and dialogue at a very young age.
Until Mrs. Semonche entered my life I had not known that writing and storytelling could be things, were things, adults did. I did not know I had a talent for anything. Stories were magic to me, and remain magic, but that magic was legitimized by Mrs. Semonche.
I took Creative Writing as an elective throughout public school. I wrote my first novel in 11th grade. I’ve written six books since then and published four. I’ve learned something from every single one of them. I learn something every day about writing and how to be an artist. It’s a daily education that began for me in fourth grade when I was lucky enough to have Mrs. Semonche as my teacher.
In 2012 I attended my fortieth high school reunion. I’d not really been aware of it at the time, but I went to school with the same batch of kids from first grade through 12th. When asked what teachers we might invite to our reunion, we named Mrs. Semonche. She only taught that one year. In talking to my classmates, I learned that she’d made a difference in their lives too. The arts, they said. She introduced me to sculpting. To painting. To writing. To acting. To a new way of seeing the world. To knowing I was smart. I learned I had a talent. I began exploring. I started reading. I visited museums. She expanded my world. That introduction to the arts was a lifeline. I heard this again and again.
Mrs. Semonche, that one teacher who celebrated the arts and taught her only fourth grade class everything she knew, did attend our class reunion. She had cancer at the time, although none of us knew it. We surrounded her and hugged her and told her what a huge difference she’d made in our lives. Many of us had found a niche because of her. We began to understand ourselves as important and worthy. We started expressing ourselves, and we kept it up through the sixties, through the turmoil of our own roiling hormones, through good decisions and bad ones, she gave us a tool to use for the rest of our lives.
This is what the arts do. They give a feeling of belonging, of expression, of value, of community, of humanity. The arts make us kinder, and we need that. The arts give is different points of view and we need that too. The arts give us empathy and self worth and self trust, and we need all of that. When you support the arts you support much more than that one individual who created something. Your support fingers out into places you can never know about.
I teach a free class at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill. I’ve been teaching this free class for 15 years. Sometimes someone emails me and says, “Remember that story I started in your class. Well I finished it, and it’s going to be published.” Just yesterday a student, Don Basnight, emailed to tell me he’s been accepted into The Monti in Durham and to say thank you. And I feel so blessed when this happens. My own career may or may not be going well, but art is never about one person. Art is always about relationship. It is about how we can help each other. Artists are often seen as selfish, but we’re not. We just have different sets of priorities.
Mrs. Semonche passed away a few years ago. She’s someone I will never forget, and although I never fessed up to her about not knowing my lines as the understudy to Titania, I am sure she is aware of this now, and forgives me and is probably having a good laugh too.
So I want to thank you for caring about the arts, for supporting the arts. You never know who you’re touching, and that spread of goodness, even without knowing its exact trajectory, is its own reward. I hope you put your trust in that, because it’s a solid place to stand as a human being. The most stable of all.