A few months ago a woman contacted me about contributing to a scholarship in honor of my high school art teacher. She’d tracked me down from a review I wrote of an Ivan Albright show at the Art Institute. Osna had given me an over-sized monograph on that painter’s work as a graduation present. I was happy to be part of a thing to honor her, but wary of contributing money to the school where she’d taught. Some of the worst times of my life were spent there.
I’ve kept up with very few people from high school, none regularly. Most of the people who matter to me from 1985-1989 are connected with jobs I had, especially the Coolidge Corner Theatre. The jobs were a refuge from school, a place not to feel like an outcast. Osna’s classroom was one of the few spaces like that on school grounds.
After promising to send a check to the scholarship fund, I found Osna’s email. I wrote that I’d be in Boston in May and we made plans to meet. I hadn’t seen her in twenty-five years, if not longer. But on the appointed day she called to say she wasn’t feeling well and not up for leaving her place. I met up with another former student of Osna’s instead. She’d moved back into her parents’ house in recent years. The house is on the same street as my parents. She has a husband and children. She’s somehow made living in that town work. I can’t even fathom it.
Last week, the first Osna Sens Scholarship was awarded. It went to a young woman attending Parsons in the fall. A shudder went through me when heard it over Zoom. The woman who had reached out to organize this whole thing was hosting a group call of some twenty-five former students, and Osna. We went around and said what year we’d graduated. I only recognized one person. It was the woman who lives on my parents’ street. People shared memories. There were lots of tears. I said how Osna provided some of the very few happy associations I have with that place and time. Many echoed the sentiment. I don’t fully trust anyone who counts their school years as their peak. The call went on for over an hour. People promised to keep in touch, to start Facebook groups, to share work, but we won’t. The past is the past for good reason.
What stays with me is how touched Osna was at the outpouring of gratitude. She’d taught over thirty years and must’ve known she made an inpact in many strange children’s lives, but it’s different having it said out loud to your face. What is the proper reaction?
A couple days ago, I got two pieces of mail that stopped me in my tracks. One was a paperback of a book I’d reviewed last year. The writer had been trying to track me down awhile to thank me. He seems not to use the internet at all, which I find admirable. What he wrote on the title page was so over-the-top flattering that I had to stop what I was doing and just sit there trying to process it. He basically called me his brother. All I’d done was written a positive review. You can never game how your words hit people. The other piece of mail was a letter, coincidently from another non-cyber person. It was a very generous account of how much he’d enjoyed my book. He’s a set designer and wondered aloud about adapting my bar stories for the stage.
Who knows if that will happen? The thing I have to keep telling myself is to appreciate and be grateful when hearing someone was moved by something I made. It doesn’t come easily or naturally.
That’s what I got from watching the glitchy image of my old art teacher girding herself against the waves of love we kept pushing her way.
—Even though he read how I painted the wrong house a few weeks back, Skyler took a chance and commissioned me to paint his. So I did.