Remember This

When I was in my 11th grade AP U.S. History class, my teacher told us there was one date we needed to remember. May 17th, 1954 – Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka Kansas. The landmark decision that declared racially segregated schools as unconstitutional, and sparked several crucial events in the civil rights movement. It’s also an event that has become prevalent again, considering the volatile state of our country.

Over the course of the school year, he reiterated this date – and we would often have to repeat it back to him, to ensure sure we knew it verbatim. There were other dates that he impressed the importance of upon us, but that one was the big one.

In fact, one time, he was speaking to one of our principals while three of us were sitting in his room studying during a free period, and he merely turned to us, got our attention and pointed at us, like a maestro giving a cue.

One of us instantly said, “May 17th, 1954 – Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka Kansas.”

Not to be outdone, I said, “June 6th, 1944. The Normandy landings, otherwise known as D-Day.”

And the last of us said, “September 17th, 1787 – the signing of the Constitution of the United States of America.”

Our teacher then looked at our startled principal and gave her a look, as if to say, “See? What did I tell you?” He had us trained, and trained well. When that date showed up not once, but twice on the AP U.S. History exam that year, I gleefully answered those questions with confidence.

And I haven’t forgotten it, all these years later. I didn’t quite realize the gravity of that date, and that landmark decision, back when I learned it – even though he so adamantly told us to remember it. It was some distant thing that happened ages ago. It was little more than history. Since then, I have come to understand the importance. When it comes up in movies, I can better place the context. When I read it in books, I gain a better understanding. When I see what happens in the world to this day, and the injustice that people face, that date blares in my mind like a siren.

So I consider it a blessing that I listened when my teacher said, “remember this,” because now that I am older – and maybe, just maybe, a bit wiser than a 16 year old girl from rural PA – I am able to better grasp the relevance of May 17th, 1954. I have forgotten tons and tons of things I learned in both high school and in college – it’s all too easy for tidbits of info to slip between the cracks of memory.

But that date is one thing I will not forget.

The Sky is Blue

After being discouraged from taking an art class while in high school, I decided to use one of my electives in college to take a Drawing course. I had always enjoyed art, so it seemed like a good choice to expand my skills and learn new techniques.

Long story short, I hated it. But I did learn one vital lesson, on the very first day of class, that I shall carry with me always.

This drawing course was taught by an eccentric artist. I imagine most of them are. She was almost like a caricature of an art teacher. Crazy hair, random statements, hyper-criticism of any art style that didn’t suit her preferences, and she occasionally wore her sweaters backwards. I’m sure she was a lovely woman outside of a classroom setting, but, to be totally honest, I don’t even remember her name because I must have blocked it from my memory out of sheer hatred for that class.

This professor also often accused me and my fellow students of not accurately “seeing” things, which made our artistic reproductions of fruit bowls or trees lackluster. She would lob us lofty musings, such as “It might look like a tree, but what do you really see?” and “You must look beyond the apples and oranges, and see the truth.” We began to suspect that we were the unwitting subjects of an elaborate sociology experiment. Alas, we were not.

I mean, I’m all for art. I’ve been to the Tate Modern twice. But this class made me never want to pick up an oil pastel or colored pencil ever again. She did have a point, though. Seeing is not always seeing.

On the first day of class, we sat outside on the grass in one of the campus courtyards. We had our pristine white sketchpads and unpeeled pastels at our sides. And our professor told us to look up at the sky, and describe what we saw. We did, unsure of what the point of the exercise was meant to be. We saw blue. On that day, it was cloudless blue. Of course, the answer was more nuanced than that.

She told us that yes, the sky is blue. But it is not one single shade of blue. I stared up at one patch of sky, and realized that it was comprised of several shades. One vast mural painted in a thousand, maybe a million shades. I had never noticed it before; how many different blue fragments make up even one little section of sky. I saw the sky every single day and never once realized the truth in it’s beauty. And in that moment, I was amazed.

I never managed to channel that kind of brilliance in my artwork – I mean, I only had 2 shades of blue in my palette – but it’s a lesson I never forgot. Look closer to see the truth. And I try to apply that lesson to my writing, now. Dive below the surface, and make readers examine the depths for new meaning.

~~~~~

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