Learning to See Beauty

Learning to See Beauty January 30, 2013

When I taught Spanish in public school I projected Hispanic and Latino artwork on my pull-down screen and had students journal or make comments for a daily grade. Initially, the still worlds of painted color intimidated my media loving students, and they complained.

“How am I going to use this painting in the real world?”

“This isn’t art class.”

“Can’t you just give us a worksheet?”

“We’re going to study it silently for five minutes, then make three comments in Spanish,” was my answer.

“It’s ugly. It’s hard. It’s weird,” someone called out every year.

My students were not stupid, but they lacked the practice required to see.

I learned to start the unit with Fernando Botero, a contemporary Columbian artist who paints everything rotund, enormous, and downright fat. Even unmotivated and bored students loved to make judgments on the appearances of others, so we’d get the conversation going with one word: gordo.

Rony, an immigrant from Honduras, took my Spanish course because it was an easy A. He scooted in daily, just before the bell, and flashed me a brilliant smile as he shook my hand at the door. He chatted constantly with a pretty girl who sat next to him, and I frequently had to prevent him from “helping” other students on quizzes.

He took one look at Botero’s Niños Ricos and rattled off three comments for his grade: “There are three kids and a nanny. They’re wearing old-timey clothes. They’re fat,” he said in Spanish, leaning back and grinning ear to ear.

“He’s taking all the easy ones,” a girl said, rolling her eyes.  “I was going to say those!  That’s all I know how to say.”  The rest of my students grumbled in agreement.

I looked back at Rony and raised my eyebrows.

“Ok,” he said and took a breath. “Maybe the artist paints these people fat so that you have to think about how everyone would look if they were fat. And then it’s like no one is fat, and we all just see each other for the beauty on the inside.”

I was the one smiling this time and noted Rony’s grade.

Down the hall, my friend Kim Alexander taught Rony and one hundred other immigrants English as a Second Other Language—ESOL. Like Botero, Kim is also a painter, and in honor of her students she has a series of paintings entitled “The Young Immigrants.”

Like Botero’s fat people, most of Kim’s students are not truly seen in our country. They don’t play football, they rarely make the honor roll, and they’re usually too poor to be fashionable. Some of them are in gangs, are teenage parents, or don’t wear deodorant. Their whole sub-group grieves the annual statistical analysis compiled by the public school system because when you try to work their problems like equations the answers often fall below standard.

And though Kim is required to test and tally scores for her students, she knows that she can’t strip Rony and these other children down to slender, pale, creatures of transparency. Like Botero, Kim understands that people are gargantuan, rotund, and strange, so she accepts their complexities and then translates their beauty using acrylic on canvas.

Yet despite Kim’s gifts, the beauty of these students is not instantly apparent even to her. She must practice using her vision on a daily basis. Waiting, sometimes months, until she finds something extraordinary in each child, and files it away in her heart.

Then she uses that small moment to help her love each one.

It is only because this vision is her practice that she can show it to the rest of us through her craft.

Similarly, my students grew to appreciate the paintings we studied; and by the end of the unit their commentaries switched entirely.

“How come we’re not doing a painting today?”

“Señora, we studied Picasso in my geography class, and I already knew what cubism was!”

“Did you know there’s a mural at the rec center?”

Seeing really was possible.

Last summer, Rony Parada died while trying to save his younger brother from drowning in a lake during a sudden storm. Despite the danger, he dove bravely into the crashing waves and was pulled under. Divers recovered their bodies and journalists told yet another story about young immigrants who didn’t make it in the United States.

But before he died, Rony showed truth to each of us in that class. We practiced using our vision together. And for that small moment we could truly see.

He was beautiful.

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  • Jackie Scrivener

    You touched my heart with this post. We miss having you here teaching students to see beauty in others. Keep opening eyes with your writing.
    Thank you,

  • Colin

    That was great Jessica.

  • Jessica, this too (your post) is beautiful. And I’m intrigued that you have put into vivid, concrete terms the more theoretical point about beauty that I was making in yesterday’s post. I see your post as a Part Two of mine!

  • Jessica Eddings-Roeser

    Thank you, Jackie. I miss you, and the lunch tutorials so much. Thank you, Peggy, I’m sure Cathy planned it all accordingly. She does a wonderful job editing us. Love you, Colin.

  • Jan Barfield

    Jessica, what a wonderful post about beauty, beauty in everything. Your perspective of slowing down long enough to notice, ever so purposeful, is one I desire. Thank you for the nudge and your precious way of caring for those who need it most! This was beautiful!

  • Kathy Palmer

    I haved “put my glasses back on” thanks to your writing….. it’s easy to lose our glasses in the classroom today…. you have given me renewed inspiration to take with me in the morning…. love & miss you kathy

  • Laura l.

    Living overseas myself, I have a new appreciation for those that can take the time too see beauty in a friend that is difficult. I can now see how much people are overlooked because of differences. I live it myself and still need the reminder, thank you!