“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” ALBERT EINSTEIN
When I was in fifth grade I learned how to draw. It wasn't in an art class, because the school I attended didn't really have them. I learned to draw after school, taught by one of my teachers who stayed late to teach me. I attended Blessed Sacrament school. You probably know it. The one in Kenmore. My teacher was Sister Martin. She ran a tough classroom, but then again she was Irish, like many of us claimed to be back then. The "Irish" had nothing to do with how she ran her classroom, but when the flag of Ireland is the biggest flag in the room, and you learn to sing Irish songs during free time, and you're ten years old, and you have a limited number of conclusions you can logically reach before it starts to hurt, you think, "Irish." But anyway, when she wasn't making us kneel on pencils, or teaching us about Irish politics, she loved us. And we loved her.
I remember that day. Not the date, nor the season even, but that moment. I remember it was late in the afternoon, after everyone else had gone home. There was only she, and me. We were in the big room that served as the cafeteria and the auditorium and the gymnasium and the playground and the chapel when the heat wasn't working in the temporary church that housed our parish for twenty years. The big room with the chocolate floors polished to a heavenly lustre. That afternoon Sister Martin showed me what I didn't know I knew. That I could draw.
I drew a robin, copied from an Audubon book, and shaded with color pencil. It was a thing of extraordinary marvelosity. It shone. Really. Shone. In my rapturous state I imagined I was channeling Michelangelo himself, and his spirit had surrounded me in a veil of holy robin-drawing light, but apparently I had merely pressed so hard with the color pencil I burnished the pigment into a thin veneer on the paper. But hey, shone is shone. When I had finished it, I showed it to Sister Martin. She smiled and patted me on the head. It was bliss. When I returned home I showed my drawing to every living member of the household, including Archie the cat whom, as a sidebar discussion, was never referred to as just Archie, but always as Archie the cat. "Rawr." he said. "Cool." From that point in my life, from that point forward, I would always be an artist.
I never forgot that kindness, that act of recognition. I have no doubt that I left ample evidence of my love for drawing on the desk in the classroom, and perhaps she was just trying to find me a better canvas to work with. But it changed me, that simple act, it forever altered my perception of self. From then on I was a 'something'.
A few years ago I got to thank Sister Martin. It was at the memorial for my brother Skip, in Cincinnati Ohio. Skip died right before Christmas that year, and the family gathered just after for his service. Cincinnati is an eight hour drive from Jamestown, with way too much time to think. The service was what it was, which was a memorial. At the reception afterwards my mom pointed out an older woman talking to my brother Kevin. "Mark," she said, "That's Sister Martin." She was no longer a nun, and hadn't been for a long time, and lived now in Florida near where my parents live. I told her the story, and finished with "thank you." "You're welcome" was all she said.
So almost forty-five years after that drawing lesson, I find myself imbedded deep within a similar universe, with my role reversed. In high school everyone is a fish out of water, a fish up a tree. My job is to point that out. "Maybe you're not a fish at all," I tell them, "or maybe you are, and the tree isn't where you belong." And together we look for home, for kin. Sometimes we find it, sometimes we don't. Sometimes we find others just like them. Lots of them. And sometimes I have to point them down a different path and explain that I can't go along.
"Because I'm not a fish," I say." I'm a bird."