Mr. Arnold
by Rachel Shusman

From the writer: I was proud to write this paper as a tribute to my high school art teacher.  He inspired me in so many ways and I know that my life as an artist will be different because of him. I'm so thankful to have had a such an amazing teacher in my life.

From the teacher: In Writing Studio 105, students were asked to write an "intellectual narrative," a story about a crucial aspect of their intellectual development.  For this assignment Rachel, an art student, put down her brushes and paints and took up her pen to create a portrait of the person who shaped her into an artist. In this story you will encounter not only his portrait but also a charming portrait of an artist as a young woman.

From the editors: We've all known an individual like Mr. Arnold--aggressive, stoic, armed with in-your-face brilliance. We've all been pushed, prodded, and ultimately tested. Shushman's narrative about such a teacher and the many psychological tests she endured under his guidance is both comical and observant. Her charming descriptions and sharp-tongued sarcasm paint a solidly clear image of the man behind the mask, the lesson behind the class, and the individual behind the artist.

Mr. Arnold stands smugly by his classroom door between classes, with his arms proudly crossed over his chest as trails of students trample past his art room each day. Many of the passers-by recognize this man simply as "the scary art teacher." Those who have experienced Mr. Arnold's art class first-hand regard him otherwise.

I had heard many stories about Mr. Arnold before entering his grueling class. "Most people don't like him," some warned me. Others commented, "I've heard his class is really difficult." I can remember my first day in his art class clearly. I entered his room a timid freshman with unpleasant expectations. Maybe I was even a little more than timid. The concept of high school frightened me, and having a teacher with a bad reputation didn't ease my fears. I was a sheltered fourteen-year old girl; a girl who had been babied most of her life. I entered room 28 for the first time on a warm late-summer's afternoon, as the sun's rays attempted to soothe me through the windows. The poignant smell of oil paint filtered through the air, soft classical music drifted from his office and impressive artwork decorated the walls. Mr. Arnold always insisted, much to the students' opposition, that, "Classical music puts you in the right mind set to create art. It will not distract you, it will force you to focus." The shelves juggled piles of aged art supplies and half-filled canvases doffed the edges of the room. Mr. Arnold loomed in front of the class with his pointer, a man with frosty silver hair and an undeniable bald spot, unraveling his list of arduous requirements. "Art is not an easy B", he smirked, making reference to a sign on the wall, and squinting at us with his sharp icy eyes. "Furthermore," he added, "if you don't enjoy art, I'd suggest switching out of my class immediately." He kept his lips pursed tightly and gave off such a cold stoicism he made me shudder. Even his smile seemed somewhat devious. He was one of those teachers who wore a crisp, handsome suit and tie every day, even on those designated "dress down days".

Of course, he intimidated me. Each day, Mr. Arnold sat at his desk, intensely scribbling in answers to crossword puzzles in the daily Philadelphia Inquirer as I diligently attempted to please him, sitting at a smudged, paint-spattered table, bent over my work. Occasionally he would get up from his seat and slowly wander around the room. He would shout out commands, his cheeks ruddy and pink. "Dark darks!" he repeated. "Don't forget to look! Draw what you see!" If Mr. Arnold saw someone struggling, he would never pick up a student's pencil and do the work. "If I draw something for you, it becomes my artwork. I want you to create your own art," he always lectured when a whining student approached him. He simply guided us. I drew intensely, inspired by his advanced students' beautiful artwork that surrounded me. On rare occasions he would brag about an honors student, and show off a notable piece. I sat with my hands clasped in awe, wishing that I would someday be able to create artwork worthy of Mr. Arnold's praise.

I learned the true meaning of a critique in that room. Before each session, my stomach would tighten in nervous anticipation. Mr. Arnold demanded our participation in the critique, as we explored the faults in our artwork. "Rachel, why is this an eye sore?" he wanted to know, as he jabbed his infamous pointer at my work. Or, "Why is this composition wrong?" Most of the time, my reply was a stammering response. He bluntly told students who didn't work to their potential, "This stinks. You can do better."

Mr. Arnold's harsh criticism and sarcastic tongue did not always fare well with the sensitive or the stubborn. All my life, people had praised my abilities, but he did not hesitate to make me aware of every shortcoming in my artwork. In fact, it seemed as if he eagerly hunted for faults in a student's piece. But if he did praise your artwork, you could consider yourself among the elite. He treated me as an adult, when many of my other teachers spoon-fed me. He wouldn't even permit us to take a trip to the bathroom without criticism. "You are here to create art. Find your own time to go to the bathroom," he ordered, rhythmically tapping a pencil at his desk. The one time I did muster enough courage to ask him to use the bathroom freshman year, he scribbled "Rachel to potty" on my yellow pass and smugly handed it to me with a condescending grin. That was the first and last time I ever asked to go to the bathroom in his class during my high school career. I had never encountered such a teacher.

I always wanted to prove I could create worthy artwork for such a critical person. Maybe I had somewhat of an advantage, since art runs in my genes. My aunt resides in Manhattan as an artist, and my grandmother designed and created all of her own clothing. But I can't credit most of my success in Mr. Arnold's art room to any natural ability. After working under his watchful eye for four years, I have realized something: Mr. Arnold tested his students to see if they really loved art, if they would keep coming back because they had a relentless desire to create art. He didn't grade a student by his or her ability, rather how the student used his or her talent. "Is talent genetic or something you can develop?" he inquired one day in class when one of my fellow students complained that she just didn't have enough ability. "Don't be a defeatist," Mr. Arnold sternly lectured Sarah, resting his hand on her arm. "Don't give up on yourself before you've even pushed yourself to your limit."

As my high school days began to blur together, I recognized Mr. Arnold's dedication to his students. However, many people found Mr. Arnold's expectations too demanding and complained, "He's just a bitter old man. He gets a kick out of giving us awful grades." Many of those discouraged students dropped out of the class. But I am proud to say that I know a completely different side to Mr. Arnold, a side that most students don't have a chance to see. He is not the cold, stoic person I'd perceived him to be; he is, in fact, a good-hearted, warm man who would break out in a wide grin when he witnessed his students creating an accomplished piece of art. In my fourth and final year in his classroom, we still heard the same shouts as we worked furiously to meet his demands and expectations. "Dark darks, children!" he repeated, never easing up on us during my four years in high school. I still felt that nervous flutter in my stomach during my final critique, yet I had learned to discuss my artwork with much more intelligence over the years. He would saunter about the room with laughter in his eyes, chuckling as he related stories to the class. "I went to the prom with the girl of my dreams," he would recall, bringing his memories to life in the classroom as classical music whispered in my ear. His vivid storytelling became a huge key to learning about Fred Arnold, the father, the husband, our friend. I found myself yearning to return to room 28, to create my artwork, and to listen to Mr. Arnold's narrations. The art room became my haven -- never before had I been so thirsty to learn and expand myself.

Mr. Arnold knows he is more than tough on his students. He knows that he is not particularly well liked by many students, and laughs about it. "I'm just the mean old art teacher," he would say, shaking his balding head. But he knows that his students cannot leave his class without having learned something. I feel confident in my pursuit of art because I have spent four years under his tutelege. Mr. Arnold's guidance has made me realize that if I deeply and genuinely love what I do, I can succeed. Art has wisked me into lands of creativity and imagination I never knew. I've learned to expand my boundaries by setting sail on risky bodies of water. I may be somewhat of a timid person, but when I create art, I can fly. Mr. Arnold has helped me gain more of the confidence I so desperately needed to break loose. I spent four years in that same room, a room where I grew to love the familiar smell of oil paint and the sound of classical music, listening to Mr. Arnold holler, narrate, criticize, instruct and laugh. I do know an art teacher, different from the one who stands smugly by the door of his art room, with his arms proudly crossed over his chest, and I will never forget him because his teaching has shaped me as an artist, and as a person.


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