A teacher's painted face offers lessons

A dollar ninety-nine, plus tax, bought me a box of 45 faces - or the equivalent - one for each day I'm teaching this fall at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. I've used my set of children's paints to adorn my face before I serve up nouns and verbs to students in my advanced Spanish classes.

A sunflower on my right cheek greeted students the first day. A bolt of lightning slashed down my face at our second meeting. The third day, when I came in with a big red question mark on my forehead, a student finally asked: "??iquest??Qué es lo de la cara pintada?" (What's up with the painted face?)

A fair question. Turns out, it has more answers than I thought. I've learned that a painted face trumps a brown skin when it comes to students' perceptions. The face paint catches students by surprise, throws off their expectations. The flowers, fish, and bees on my face sweep away, or at least suspend, preconceptions. My students can take me in with less racial garbage. We have a straight shot at connection and knowledge.

A colleague, also a black woman, shed more light on the racial angle. "Our students expect us to be angry because they know we've struggled," she said. "They're afraid they'll bear the brunt of it. The fish on your face gives them a different message."

The faces also let me put sauce on the vocabulary I serve up. Few of my students will forget la bombilla after seeing a glowing light bulb, outlined in black, painted in the middle of my forehead. Arco iris, rainbow, will stick with them for the same reason. My rainbow so pleased a colleague that she had me paint one on her. "This pretty much cancels out my business suit," she said, "but what the heck!"

My paints helped me portray part of a continent's cultural heritage. I have a Bogolanfini, or mud cloth, skirt. The Bamana people of Mali weave this cloth and give it stark white-on-black designs. One day, I painted my face to echo the skirt's pattern. My vision outstripped my skill, but I wore that face into class anyway. I spoke, en español, about the Bamana and other West African ethnic groups who lost people to the slave trade.

The colors on my face address broader issues of college life. They provide a platform on which to stand against the life-sapping grayness of academia. Teaching is serious business, but it need not be dry.

One of my striped faces carried a visual cry of alarm. The door out of poverty that public higher education has offered students of color is swinging shut. Their funding slashed, state colleges and universities nationwide have ditched programs, cut full-time faculty, supersized classes, and hiked tuition. Students of color try to wrest a good education from these circumstances.

My flowering faces are more personal. Each one holds a celebration, a mini-Mardi Gras. My husband died two years ago. Though our 30-year marriage was troubled at times, I mourn him beyond anything I could have imagined. Yet, the quick stabbings of grief come less often now. Through the colors of my paint box - red, yellow, green, blue, black, and white - I rejoice in a lighter life.

And I'll admit that my faces indulge a sense of mischief. One day I painted my nose black and drew whiskers coming from it. When my students asked about that face, I said I was celebrating "El Día International del Gato," International Cat Day.

My students ask me what I'll paint next. Maybe I'll branch out and take a cue from my son's childhood with a paper crown, a cardboard scepter, or tin-foil wings. But I'll save that for second semester.

Constance Garcia-Barrio teaches advanced Spanish at West Chester University.

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