She was in her mid-thirties with powdered skin, cotton-candy blond hair worn like Barbara Stanwick's in "Double Indemnity", and pouty red lips. She wore flowered dresses, tinted eye glasses and always smelled so nice. She was Miss Frankie, our grammar school art teacher. During the 1950s at Our Lady of Lourdes school, Miss Frankie did her best to light the fire of artistic passion in a collection of rag-tag kids from the streets of Brooklyn. Each child paid the princely sum of 21 cents a week to cover the salaries of Miss Frankie, and our far less glamorous music teacher, Miss Hessian. The fee also helped pay for afternoon movies every Monday shown in the church basement...such classics as "Francis the Talking Mule" with Donald O'Connor, and the adventure serial "The Thunder Riders" with cowboy Gene Autry.
As I recall we had art class on Tuesdays. Miss Frankie would breeze in with an armful of rolled-up paper that she would tack up and proceed to show us, step-by-step, how to draw a vase full of flowers or some other innocuous still life. She would begin the drawing, and then wander around the room to see how her pupils were progressing. Miss Frankie was not overly tolerant of deviations in style or technique; she wanted you to copy what she had drawn, exactly as she had drawn it. She would correct your drawing to make it look like hers, thus stifling any ideas of artistic interpretation. Picasso or Monet would have grown up to become plumbers if they had Miss Frankie as their first art teacher.
I could always draw pretty well, and easily reproduced the line drawing for the day in the style approved by Miss Frankie. Because of this she would usually glide by my desk and simply nod, saying: "Very good James" before moving on to the next student. When she didn't like what she saw, Miss Frankie would bend down over the drawing, her lovely scent filling the air, and proceed to modify the offending artist's rendition so it looked more like hers. I was in love with Miss Frankie, and wanted so much for her face to be near mine as she corrected my work. Because of this, I was not above setting aside my artistic integrity and intentionally tanking a drawing just to get the benefit of Miss Frankie's suggestions.
Art class was a welcome break for our regular teachers since they got a brief respite from the 45 or so kids they were charged with enlightening each day. That may sound like a lot compared to today's classes of 20-25, but remember, this was a Catholic school where discipline was king. Unruly children were never a problem for long. One trip to the Principal's office where Brother Justinian awaited (Darth Vader was modeled after him) was usually enough to take the starch out of any kid who put a toe over the line. As a result, teachers could concentrate on teaching, and the results bore out the effort required to maintain decorum in the classroom.
We all wore school uniforms so there were no fashionistas to set themselves above other kids. Your hygiene was always subject to inspection, and there was no reluctance to send notes home suggesting more frequent shampoos or finger nail cleaning. During a class, if the Principal or any other teacher entered the room, we would all stand and say in unison: "Good morning Brother Justinian." Kids so respected teachers that we stood in the rain fighting to carry a teachers books or shield them with our umbrellas. We tried hard to get picked for menial jobs like washing the blackboards or packing textbooks away at the end of the school year. Older boys were allowed to go grocery shopping in Bohack's for the food used by the brothers and nuns who lived on the church grounds.
But I digress...back to my muse, Miss Frankie. I never knew whether "Frankie" was her first or last name, but despite the rather narrow artistic boundaries she set, I owe her a debt for instilling in me an interest in art. This was nurtured by a Brooklyn Tech high school teacher, whose name is gone from my memory. This woman encouraged me to try for a career in commercial art, but unfortunately my days at Brooklyn Tech came to an end soon after some bad decisions I made caused me and the school to part company. Teaching should be one of the noblest professions anyone can choose because of the potential to influence and shape young lives. Sadly, the bureaucrats have turned teachers into civil servants, thereby severely limiting their ability to inspire. To all the teachers who rise above the system and give their all every day, we should say thank you. "A good teacher is like a candle - it consumes itself to light the way for others." ~Author Unknown
(Originally published 8/22/2011)
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