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.