Freshly Thankful

Earlier this week, when I appeared on “Freshly Pressed,” a friend (who is also a blogger) asked me what it was like. I told him it was like getting a dramatic haircut–suddenly all these people who had never or barely noticed you before see you for the first time. You feel like just the same person you’ve always been and wonder, “Is it me or my haircut they’re seeing?” and “how much credit can I take for this haircut?”

But don’t get me wrong, I’m thankful, very thankful.

Let me explain. One of my middle school science teachers—I’ll call him Mr. Mallory—ended the year with an independent research project. We were to ask a scientific question and design an experiment to explore it, then we would explain the results and their implications to classmates. At first I thought I’d uncover how ants found their way home. I kidnapped them, wet their abdomens with ink and then dropped them on butcher paper well away from their nest. The experiment resulted in a few poor ants spinning in blobs of ink until they died.

So, facing an immediate deadline, I decided to make the little frogs at a local swimming hole ride as payload in my older brother’s model rocket. Unlike my first project, I had no question other than, “Hmmm. I wonder what will happen.” I discovered the frogs didn’t die and that shooting model rockets is fun. When my turn to present my results arrived, however, I had to say something, so I reported that frogs are not affected by the g-forces of launch or by being untethered in space capsules. And the noise of the launch did not make them deaf.

When I presented this last data point, Mr. Mallory asked, “David, how did you test for that?” and I answered, “I dumped the frogs on the ground, stuck my head right over them and yelled really loud. They hopped away.”

Mr. Mallory smirked then chuckled. Then his pen piroquetted over my assessment sheet.

This anecdote sticks with me because, in that instant, I loved Mr. Mallory. My “experiment” was total crap, more amusement than science, and yet he took me seriously. He treated me as though I were a real scientist. He made me feel like one. Since then I’ve experienced other moments people turned their spotlight on me, and every chance I get I’ve tried to turn my own spotlight on students I teach.

For the last ten years—here and before sheets of watercolor paper—I’ve labored in utter obscurity, feeling at times as though only I and a few others take me seriously as an artist. I’ve behaved as if I were an artist, devoting hours to coming up with projects, working and reworking and revising and polishing and adding those last subtle touches that, in my imagination at least, make all the difference. I’ve offered big ideas about Art and Beauty and thought about my place near the end of their parade. Some of the time, it has felt like fantasy, the same sort of impulse that helped those frogs momentarily slip the surly bonds of earth.

But what a balm it is when someone else takes you seriously.

I’ve always had this daydream about appearing on Fresh Air and saying to Terry Gross, “Thank you for inviting me, Terry. I can’t really express how much I admire your show and how often I’ve fantasized about this moment.” I’m sure saying so would creep her out, but it would be true. We could talk about “my work” with the assumption it matters, redeeming my seemingly endless hours of troubled faith and verifying I have some modicum of talent I don’t dare believe… because I’ve never been comfortable asking to be taken seriously, because asking disqualifies the answer.

So I’m working my way around to thanking all the Mr. Mallorys in my life, especially those of you reading my writing right now. I’m sure there are a million definitions of love, but one has to be “Believing in someone’s best definition of him or herself.” It isn’t the strongest definition or the most insightful or even the most important perhaps, but it’s love I hope to return.

For everyone who has visited here and derelict satellite and who has “liked” and commented and made observations in answer, I appreciate it. In case I forget to tell you often enough, you make my day.


Filed under Aesthetics, Ambition, Art, Essays, Gratitude, Identity, life, Love, Meditations, Teaching, Thoughts, Tributes, Visual Art, Work, Writing

13 responses to “Freshly Thankful

  1. Beautiful.
    Truly! And thank You for the like!

    • dmarshall58

      One of the best parts of being Freshly Pressed is returning all the visits others made to my blog. I’m hardly finished, but that’s because I get hung up reading the wonderful things I encounter, like your work. Of course, I should be getting ready to start teaching on Monday, but it’s fun being part of a world entirely outside work that’s continually new and interesting. Thanks for visiting. –D

  2. hhstheater

    I especially love the bit about the payload, the g-force, the loud yelling, and the pen piroquetting. Beautiful!

    • dmarshall58

      As a teacher, do you ever think about meeting your student self? I suspect mine would be one of those manic types who is all over some assignments and absent for others. I did well enough in school but must have been frustrating and annoying too. Thinking about how well teachers handled me makes me a little more empathetic. As has having children myself. I hope your school year is starting well. We begin Monday, and I really ought to be working on syllabi right now. –D

      • hhstheater

        I have many of those same thoughts, David. For some reason this summer in particular I’ve found myself trying to image watching a classroom in which I was student. It hadn’t occurred to me to imagine teaching myself as a child–I’ll have to chew on that. . . it’s something entirely different and new. In a way, I do what you do, too, I think about how frustrating and annoying I must have been, and it makes me more patient and empathic with my students. Good luck with the start of school! I start work officially Monday, but the students won’t be back for another week. In some ways, I’ve already been back to work for the last few weeks–today for instance, a Saturday, I spent 7 hours working at school. Good luck with those syllabi!

  3. Love the image of a boy applying ink to ants and experimenting with frogs in rockets – and the way you’ve used them to illustrate the need we have for affirmation in our endevours. Congratulations – have really enjoyed reading your blogs.

    • dmarshall58

      Some people say blogging is already passe, supplanted by Tumblr and Twitter, but I like the marriage of depth and immediacy blogs provide. It’s less a matter of being witty and/or current and more a matter of affirming common experience and feelings. I learn so much–in the broadest sense–from reading, and that’s what I’ve enjoyed in visiting blogs like yours. Thanks for commenting. –D

  4. This is beautiful! I wonder if all “struggling artists” feel like fakes sometimes? I call myself a “writer” now but I wonder if that is true? I truly do write, I just haven’t been published they way I’d like, the way real writers are. I love your definition of love, believing in someone’s highest definition of themselves. Wow. Yes. Thanks for writing this.

    • Well, it’s one definition of love anyway. As a teacher, I’m increasingly convinced that desire is the most important characteristic in a successful student. Those who are sincerely devoted to learning–and believe their identity as a student is their true self–make the most progress. And they’re the most fun to teach. Keep writing and believing, and thanks for your thoughtful comment. –D

  5. This is a really inspiringly beautiful read. As a teacher, and an ex very naughty student I completely agree on how much of an impact teachers or any adult can have upon a child by giving them a platform on which to shine, encouragement, even if they appear to be “failing” and belief even when the child themself does not believe. A great position to be in. I still remember the names of teachers who had a positive impact on me. I love how you are so thankful! It’s so refreshing to see 🙂

    • dmarshall58

      Thanks–You’re right that sometimes I have to believe where a student doesn’t and sometimes I say things that I suspect aren’t true yet, hoping the student will soon make it true. Feelings of accomplishment are addictive, and I’d love it if all my students developed an affection for doing their best. It doesn’t always work out that way, but, when I can praise students, it’s worth going out of my way to do so. –D

  6. Just when you thought you might be out of the limelight…take heart…here is a sappy award to high light your work. Do as time allows, I know you are busy…

    • dmarshall58

      Hi Gary–I feel terrible about taking so long to respond to your comment, but I’ve been torn about this honor. As much as I appreciate your thinking of my blog and admire your blog and the other blogs on your list, the other requirements seem daunting, more than I can really do. I guess it’s a matter of choosing a voice for this blog and understanding its limits. Please believe me when I say how flattered I am you included me. I’m sorry that I remained silent for so long, and I will keep an eye on your blog and the others on your list. Unfortunately, that’s all I can do. I hope you can understand, and thanks again. –David

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