Mont Sainte-Victoire

7:00 AM

Paul Cézanne, Mont-Sainte Victoire, 1902-1906

In teaching, the logistics tend toward tedium. Papers stack and pens die. Numeric values must be put upon honest craft and summarily entered into electronic grade books that will somehow attest to the relative skill of those involved. Students, because they have been taught such, often place too much emphasis on such markers; and teachers do as well.

In Pangloss’s best of all possible worlds, such finite numbers would be unnecessary. Yet year after year, scores and critiques get scribbled in Pentel EnerGel black (sometimes red) and something feels not right about it.

The students who write this little postage stamp of art on the interwebs have learned in this past year the joys of self-expression. Certainly, they want to perform well in the class, but I hold out hope that having the courage to make their ever-evolving writing available in a public forum helps them understand that content, vision and voice matter – not grades.

Every year, teachers say goodbye to seniors in various ways – the handshake or hug, the silly words in a yearbook, sometimes even a token of appreciation, such as a mix cd or a favorite novel. For this particular group that’s moving on, I proffer a painting.

Parents can be quick to give teachers credit for the accomplishments of their children. Such praise can be as flattering as it can be humbling. However, what neither parents nor students may understand – these kids give us energy, provide us with inspiration, push us to be better. Any success that I have enjoyed as an art history teacher stems directly from the passion and exuberance of the youths who take the class, the ones who drink from that intoxicating elixir we call learning.

The seniors that have now left have delivered insight, handed out laughs, and done phenomenal work that regularly belies their youth. For them, I am thankful.

And for them, I give Cézanne. He was a grumpy old cuss, all locked away from the bustle of Paris in Provence. Fellow Impressionists dogged him, critics lampooned him. His marriage a shambles, his friendship with novelist Emile Zola a victim of what Cézanne saw as a character assassination in Zola’s novel L'Oeuvre. Commercially, he was pretty much a disaster. So he went all Thomas Pynchon and J.D. Salinger. But the further he turned inward, at least to me, the greater his paintings became. And as he aged, Cezanne’s influence spiked.

Pages and pages have been written about how 20th century art starts with Cézanne. Picasso famously claimed of Cézanne, “He was like the father of us all.” Picasso’s rival, Matisse, said, “Cézanne, you see, is a sort of God of painting.” I have made similar claims to students over the years, complete with a litany of formal aspects, theory and, frankly, reductive analysis – much like that numerical value we place on the craft of students.

But the true beauty of Cézanne emerges when standing in front of it. Teaching possesses a similar effect. We watch students blossom intellectually, and they will surprise and inspire us – if we let them.

Several years ago I stood in front of this painting and was moved to tears. I think of these seniors and do the same.

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