Carrie's art paper

HALF a page with meat in it,'' the art professor said, ``on why you are here and what you have gained.'' And when he specified half a page, he did not mean run it down to a full one in the hope of a better mark. I am no artist; clearly I wasn't picking up brushes or charcoal. The history course was designed to offer as much understanding of 20th-century art as could be absorbed in one semester.

As a non-degree student, I was auditing only. So I could forget that paper in the same way I had forgotten other assignments, although the professor said he wouldn't mind the extra reading. But this time the answers were so easy that I decided to hand him the paper at the conclusion of the following class.

There was a challenge here, as well. I was beyond college and the teacher was aware that I was involved in public-relations writing. I could give him an example of what he wanted: conciseness with significance.

Every rule from my early training rose before me: economy of means; action of verbs; varied sentences. I crafted a businesslike report with three sub-headings: the two he had designated and the third covering his special influence: ``Spontaneity, humor, philosophy, and demand for the exact definition that had charged me to more creativity.''

As I was leaving the next session, I laid the paper on his portfolio. ``Not today,'' he said. ``Bring it on Tuesday.'' Fine. I put it back with my random notes and forgot it.

With only seven students, the class was intimate and almost tutorial. We sat around a table and burst forth with reactions and interchanges. I tried to keep still, that those who should have exposure would have their time, as did Carrie, who was approximately twice my age and, like me, an auditor. Petite, gently spoken, white-haired, and with wrinkles that indicated a well-worn life.

There was another reason Carrie made infrequent verbal contributions. Her path through the years had been narrowly domestic. Born in a bypassed Southern town, she had married young, moved to Boston, helped her husband establish a store -- and produced 12 children. We loved her as a true lady and great success, particularly because we doubted that she had completed high school; one year at most, we figured.

On Tuesday we had barely scraped the chairs to the table, the professor at the end and I on the side at the right of him, when he said abruptly, ``Read your paper.'' Read it? I had hardly anticipated this catastrophe. Disclose my feelings to the ears of youth? How did he recall that I had prepared the lesson?

I hedged. I couldn't find it (which was true). ``Look for it,'' he ordered. While fumbling in my folder, I told him that the degree students should have their chance, not me. ``You're part of this class,'' he almost barked. ``Find the paper.''

I did. It was in my tote bag.

I got through the reason I was there: ``My head and feelings will always reach for continuing knowledge of both the time and space arts.'' No comment.

I progressed to the section on what I had gained: ``Spreading eyes and ears.''

``Stop,'' he said. ``What does that mean?'' I wondered why I hadn't edited the entire text during the past three days.

``Do you mean,'' he probbed, ``that you spread your eyes and ears like butter, or you spread jelly over your eyes and ears?''

The first words that rushed at me were, ``I was telescoping.''

``Do you mean you have theoretically expanded your vision and have learned to listen with more concentration -- to see and hear beyond the statements?''

``That's it.'' I wished I were on the window sill with the pigeons.

``Read the rest,'' he said, and I gave my view of abstract art. Roughly: I understood the urge for new forms of expression that required work on my part to extract the essence, but I did not like the result.

``Not bad,'' he announced. Well! From him that was the equivalent of AA. I'd shown him, after all, that I could put words together effectively.

Carrie, sitting beside me, was not overlooked. Oh, I sighed inwardly, her paper was a page long; then I realized that its handwriting would have fitted into the required typed size.

``Your turn,'' the professor prompted her. I saw Carrie pulling into herself. ``I -- can't read it,'' she apologized.

``Very well. I'll excuse you. Please give it to Susan. She'll do it.''

I readied embarrassment for Carrie, since she was not aware of rules and structure. I could see that the composition had no preface, no subheadings.

Susan began:

``I love this course so much that it is a delight to come here. I have looked into worlds I never saw before. I like to read about abstract art and to study the pictures, and although I like the old artists better, it is right for a modern one to be himself in colors and shapes that others say are wrong. . . .''

Susan continued without interruption from our mentor. When she had concluded, a pause. Then the clapping that ensued had Carrie with hands to her face because of her tears.

Later in the afternoon the dean asked for a copy of that example of feelings from Class 301B. He wanted to have it handy in his files.

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