When a teacher spends his free time becoming a better artist he also becomes a better teacher.
There is an oft-repeated saying that those who cannot do, teach—and that (as Woody Allen adds) “those who can’t teach, teach gym.” Although like many clichés this one persists by containing within it a kernel of truth, it nonetheless ignores the ages-old tradition wherein many exceptional practitioners of many a discipline have taught their way through some very productive years. It is hard to say whether their original motivation for teaching was love or money, but it is nonetheless obvious that countless inquisitive young minds have benefited by time spent under the tutelage of such masters.
This gives me hope. Although I hesitate to think of myself as master of anything, I nonetheless spend most of the limited free time I have when not teaching questing after the elusive grail of artistic perfection—working, in short, to be an artist. In the past, this search has led me in a hap-hazard way towards paint and canvas and brushes; but this last year my most driving passion has become the artful arrangements of words—most specifically into scripts for film.
When I first moved to North Carolina, I met an actor and filmmaker named Austin Herring, who fanned to flame the fire that had been kindled by time spent working on film sets as an extra back home in British Columbia. I had putzed around in the background of TV shows and somewhere between a staredown with Anne Hathaway and watching Jennifer Garner bat her eyes in slow motion and order an Earl Grey tea on the set of Juno, I fell in love. All that vicarious thrilling nurtured my fascination with the power and creative possibilities of the medium, so when Austin loaned me his screenwriting textbooks, I worked hard to acquire the tools to begin to make my own creative contribution.
Last winter, I ended up helping Austin with a short film he was directing called “Home.” Later, after helping him with some final changes to the script for his brilliant current project called “Unemployment,” he invited me to come on board as an associate producer. This gave me the opportunity to work on a professional-caliber, Sundance-bound (crossing fingers) film. I also gained invaluable hands-on insight as I had the chance to interact with a number of the local film professionals who will likely be working as well on the Cannes-bound (running out of fingers to cross, here) short called “Fork” that I wrote and that we will be shooting as soon as post-production wraps up on “Unemployment.” Screenwriters generally toil in obscurity for years before getting anyone to even look at their work, so although the actual act of writing is nothing new for me, it is heady and exciting to have the opportunity to see one of my early scripts jump right off the page and onto the screen.
It has been painful, therefore, to rip myself away from the set to dive once again into the familiar, somewhat less glamorous world of pre-school meetings. Unfortunately, there have been scheduling conflicts between film and school. If the conflict is irreconcilable I will always choose teaching, which is my bread and butter and as such my first priority—but that does not mean it is always an easy choice to make.
Last weekend, I set the lesson plans aside to go back and mill around the set. I feel guilty when this sort of thing happens—when I use my free time to become a better artist. I wonder if perhaps my students will suffer from what I perceive to be my lack of whole-hearted dedication to what goes on between the bells. And yet, just when I feel as though I ought to put my pen, paper, and storyboards down, I remember that whether or not I ever do create anything of note as a screenwriter (or painter, or poet, or memoirist, or ukulele virtuoso), it is this very passion that lights me up for teaching.
Although I cannot prove it, I believe that when my students see the spark burning in my eyes as I convey to them my own love of creation, the spark travels, spreads, and finally ignites them as well. There is nothing more inspiring for my own work than to be surrounded by young minds alive and ablaze at the chance to dance within the indescribable wonder of creative activity. I find myself inspired all over again, and the joy enriches both my teaching and my art.
Josh Barkey is a high school art teacher in North Carolina.