NASHVILLE, TENN. — THE watermelon was perfect, the entertainment first-rate, the people warm and friendly, but what I remember most about my three days here at the Tennessee Arts Academy was the enthusiasm for the arts that were shared by everyone. My first indication of that came when I entered the building at Belmont College here, where the classes were held. Dozens of drawings, most of them highly accomplished, had been taped to every available surface. A truly impressive sight, they were the product, I was told, of the advanced drawing class of artist/professor John Dropcho.
From my first sight of those drawings, to the sound of the Academy Chorale, composed of music teachers singing during the closing ceremonies, I felt surrounded by talent and enthusiasm. I never knew if the person next to me would suddenly burst into song (one did, and in an excellent voice) or would be someone whose books I had long admired.
Nothing had prepared me for this event. It brought together close to 350 of Tennessee's most committed teachers of art, music and drama, 25 arts professionals and educators from around the United States, and several fine artists and performers. Also present were staff members from the Tennessee Department of Education and the Tennessee Arts Commission.
We had all come here to participate in the academy's fourth annual summer teacher-training program, a widely acclaimed educational/cultural event designed to promote and enrich the teaching of the arts in the Tennessee schools.
One of the academy's primary objectives was to reaffirm each teacher's sense of purpose and commitment to the teaching of art.
``It's essential that art teachers value themselves more than they do,'' said Joe Giles, founder of the academy and director of arts education for the Tennessee Department of Education.
The academy is designed to reinforce for teachers ``the importance of what they do,'' says Mr. Giles, ``to remind them of what they knew when they first began teaching but may have found difficult to remember during the day-to-day routines of their jobs.''
As a member of the academy faculty, I was there to present my views on how the methods and insights of art criticism could be applied to the teaching of art in Tennessee classrooms. My colleagues - artists, university professors, scholars, consultants, musical and theatrical performers and educators - were all fine arts specialists who had come to share their expertise with teachers of their respective disciplines.
The academy's brochure stated that ``participants ... choose a major for their academy study in either art, theater or music. This major is emphasized in over 30 hours of constructional time during the week-long session. Participants enjoy a lunch/performance every noon, several evening performances by major Tennessee performing groups, and a variety of social occasions.''
Teachers could register for such courses as ``Creative Drama in the Elementary Classroom,'' ``Music and the Whole Child,'' ``Acting at the Secondary School Level,'' ``Teaching Musicianship and Style in the Chorale Rehearsal,'' and about a dozen others. When not in class, they could hear informal lectures on the value and significance of the arts, attend performances ranging from jazz and chorale music to mime and ``Androcles and the Lion.''
By the time I arrived, the first one-week session for teachers of kindergarten through sixth grade had been completed, and the final session for teachers of seventh through twelfth grade was well underway. During my three-day stay, I was particularly impressed with the folk tales of storyteller Linda Hall, the mime-like antics of actor/clown Ronlin Foreman, and the lecture on ``The Art Teachers Survival Kit'' by poet, musician, filmmaker, educator, and all-around Renaissance man, Bryan Lindsay.
The Academy experience strengthened everyone's conviction that it is crucial for a child to learn what it means to be oneself, to feel, think, and express oneself as oneself and not as the shadow or extension of others. The arts play a vital role in this process of self-realization, not only because they are accessible to children of all ages, but also because they are capable of touching and activating children at the deepest and most generative levels of being.
The teachers who came to the Tennessee Arts Academy understand this and devote their lives to showing youngsters what the arts can do for them. Since this is often accomplished under pressure, however, in circumstances that are often far from ideal, these teachers need to be ``re-charged,'' to have their faith and beliefs reaffirmed.
The teachers' eagerness - hunger, in many cases - for information, guidance, and support was so strong that those of us who ``taught'' were caught up by their spirit. Ronald Moore, who had come from the University of Washington in Seattle to share his thoughts about discussing aesthetics with students, remarked on the ``upbeat'' nature of everyone he met and predicted that I too would be stimulated by the enthusiasm of those I met.
He was right. My own feelings about the importance of art and art education were dramatically reaffirmed. After only three days, I went home feeling a little wiser and considerably enriched.
More important, most of the teachers apparently also left Nashville feeling reaffirmed. Right after the closing ceremonies, I heard one teacher say eagerly to no one in particular, ``Well, now I can go back and face those kids!''