Fighting for Art and Austin

If not for art class I might have frittered away all my high school years as a Dean's List egghead, faithfully copying notes from the overhead projector. But while my fellow bookworms took a mysterious class called computer science, learning about a strange machine at the end of the hall that hummed like a refrigerator, I drew a still life of empty wine bottles while listening to Blue Oyster Cult. My fellow artists exposed me to a broad range of new knowledge, from the nicknames of the drugs they took, to bands like Yes and Kiss whose albums I'd never buy but learned to admire (art instills tolerance). Meanwhile, my favorite art teacher pried open the doors of my generic, tract-home world to reveal the multi-hued kaleidoscope of life.

At the suburban Houston high school I attended twenty-five brief years ago, there were three art teachers but only one of them was obviously a practicing artist herself. With shoulder-length, surfer-blonde hair and a complexion formed by an ancient battle with acne, Ms. S. was old enough to be our mother but immeasurably cooler. To teach us about filling the space of the page, she assigned us to design album covers for our favorite bands. To instruct us in perspective, she had us designing jigsaw puzzles as viewed from one corner and spreading out in three complex directions. Her assignments could be maddeningly frustrating. When she arranged some bottles and fruit into a still life she included wadded up sheets of paper with impossible folds and curves. Then she turned out the lights and aimed a desk lamp at the whole thing which cast detailed shadows. Sometimes we failed. Sometimes we exploded. Sometimes we silently wept onto our paper. It was a lot like life itself.

My senior year I was assigned to another art class, taught by Mrs. W., an older woman who favored realistic watercolors of flowers, pastel tissue paper portraits, and hand-coiled vases which she pronounced "vahz." She tuned her radio to KMFA, the classical station, violins and cellos smoothing our jagged teenage souls into something palatable and passive. Gluing down wisps of pink and lavender paper, I felt incredibly sleepy, as if drugged by the milk of Elmer's glue.

Now that I am a mother myself, and one of a highly creative child who finds reading a challenge, I appreciate art class even more. In classes like art, music, drama, and P.E., students who may not excel in reading, memorization, arithmetic, and penmanship can fly, gaining skills highly-valued in the adult world, such as creativity, problem-solving, and self-expression.

Last May, when I learned that Austin ISD suspended Tamara Hoover, an Austin High art teacher and practicing artist, I remembered that it's not just art that saves kids' souls, it's creative, challenging teachers who are practicing artists themselves. Having earned recognition for her teaching, Hoover is now fighting for her right to teach. At issue are photos of her on another artist's website which show her partially clothed. The fact that the other artist, an extremely talented and prolific young photographer named Celesta Danger, is a lesbian and Hoover's partner is not officially at issue. But as the crimson tide of Texas laps over into the indigo blue that is Austin, I am red-hot angry and sadly disappointed.

I met Tamara Hoover at a recent art exhibit and fundraiser for her legal defense. A slight and graceful 29-year-old with a jagged bleached pixie cut, she would be perfect for the role of Tinkerbell, the twinkling fairy who lit up with surprising rage when Peter Pan treated her unfairly. I also met one of her former students who claimed that without her he wouldn't have graduated from high school. Now he attends ACC where he's getting good grades and is deciding where he'll apply to major in art. With her quiet laid-back nature and obvious passion for art, it's easy to see why she'd inspire kids who haven't found their way. Some argue that teachers must be held to higher moral standards; she meets mine.

This summer, Hoover's name has been among the most-searched terms on the Internet, but here in Austin the main-stream media has treated the story as a news item akin to the twisted sisterhood of teachers around the country who date their students. But this is nothing of the sort. As a practicing artist, Hoover is a member of a thriving arts community in a constant dialogue of swirling issues and images. Such creative communities are exactly why Austin has blossomed into an economic success story, home to trendy shops, exquisitely expensive restaurants, and wildly-priced real estate. In 1972, when my husband abandoned Dallas and ten years later when I fled Houston, we and thousands of others chose Austin because it was the one place we knew that valued liberal thought, our open minds and hearts, and our weirdly creative spirits. We've all grown up since then, cut our hair, and tossed the tie-dye, but we still choose Austin. Despite log-jam traffic, polluted springs, and big-box stores, we want our children, and theirs, to live with tolerance, help others less fortunate, and keep Austin a place where people who see the world just a bit differently can live and grow. It's not just a slogan on a bumper sticker. So when our school system considers firing a terrific art teacher because she in an art studio somewhere in far East Austin she crossed an invisible and unwritten line, I am outraged and bitterly sad.

You see, my son is on track to attend Austin High in just five years, and when he arrives there, I want his art teacher to crank up the music, challenge him to think hard and different, and inspire him to make things that no one has ever dreamed of.
Robin Bradford
, an award-winning short story writer and essayist, has published in Brain, Child, Glimmer Train, and many other places. You can find her in recent anthologies -- It's a Boy! Women Writers on Raising Sons, Mother Knows: 24 Tales of Motherhood and Three-Ring-Circus: How Real Couples Balance Marriage, Work and Family. Bradford works as communications and development director for a nonprofit affordable housing provider in Austin. Being the mother—of a child over the age of three!—is the best thing that ever happened to her. Visit her at www.robinbradford.net