Commentary: How I Became an Art Teacher

By Louis A. Zona
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – A friend thinks that I should write a book titled “Confessions of a Wayward Art Teacher.” He might be onto something although I’m not sure about that wayward designation.

I began my career as a public school art teacher in the Sharon City Schools, teaching art to fourth, fifth and sixth graders. Traveling to five schools, I basically taught out of the trunk of my car.

I recall that one morning I arrived at the school quite early and closed my eyes to rest a short while. When I opened my eyes, the children had encircled my Pontiac, with their noses smashed against the windows shouting that the art teacher had arrived.

After going to my trunk for teaching materials, I walked toward the school as the children followed me. The principal had been looking out the window and later observed that I looked like the Pied Piper leading the children into the art room. All kids that age love the art room and every art teacher is a beloved figure in every school.

One of the funniest episodes that occurred during my elementary school teaching years was when the principal of one of the schools asked me to hang the children’s art in the cafeteria in anticipation of a meeting of the Parent Teacher Association that would take place in that room. It was nearing Thanksgiving so I had the kids create turkeys, dressed as though they belonged to a particular profession.

The classes created doctor turkeys, teacher turkeys, soldier turkeys, plumber turkeys and an assortment of other “professional turkeys.”

The turkey display was a big hit. It was such a hit that the PTA president had a hard time getting order over the loud laughter brought on by the children’s studious turkeys.

The school district received a state grant to provide a summer arts camp for the elementary students. I was asked to teach art that would emphasize an appreciation of nature.

The most ambitious project I undertook with the kids was to teach them about creating rubbings on tree trunks, stones, and other textured surfaces. I gave the children (second and third graders) paper to place over the selected surfaces, crayons to rub over the chosen plant forms or stones.

The kids then turned them in to me as I held each one to offer an encouraging comment. Ten minutes into my commentary, there it was: a Pontiac Grand Prix emblem that had been rubbed off my brand-new car. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. My fellow camp teachers, however, laughed as my art project went haywire.

Every once in a while I run into a fellow camp teacher and the first thing that he brings up is the famous Pontiac rubbing.

When I moved to the high school, situations occurred that kept me smiling like the day that two of my best students, Nan and Jane, stayed after school to demonstrate their recently acquired Ouija board.

As I graded projects, the two girls played with the board. “Mr. Zona,” they asked, “who would you like to talk to in the world beyond this one?”

I decided to go along with their fun and selected the name of a person that I studied about in graduate school, Viktor Lowenfeld, a scholar who is considered the father of art education and who came from Germany to teach at Penn State.

Never could those two young ladies have come across his name in their daily lives. A half hour went by when the girls interrupted my work by saying that they had Dr. Lowenfeld on the line (so to speak). “What do you want to ask him?” Nan asked.

“I’d like to know if I should continue,” I said (thinking that I would never possibly guess what Lowenfeld would say at that moment).

The girls purporting to be Viktor Lowenfeld stated, “Zona, how can you teach something which is of the self?”

Blown away by what came out of them, I asked the students to leave so that I could catch my breath as to what I had experienced in the art room that afternoon.

Another of my high school students was so unbelievably clever that every Friday he came to class as a different person. One day he dressed as Elvis and spoke like “the King.” On another day, he was a Union soldier during the Civil War who was also an amputee. Bill had talent coming out his ears and he kept us laughing through the entire semester.

In my second year of high school teaching, I created an arts club that was fairly successful. I met with the students once a month to go over various art topics.

We met immediately after the school closed and generally stayed about an hour, sometimes longer. One morning I was late for school. Teachers were to sign in at 8:30 a.m. and when I appeared at 8:32, the principal made me feel like I had committed the crime of the century.

I tried to reason with him by telling him that I met with the arts club until late and shouldn’t those extra hours count for something?

“No,” was his answer “and if you’re late by any minutes at all in the future, your pay will be docked.” It was at that time that I was offered a position at Youngstown State University to work for Jon Naberezny. I had died and gone to heaven!

But if asked to pick out my most memorable public school teaching experience I would have to select the day that I won a fire-prevention poster contest. My reward was to ride atop a fire truck that drove several other winners and me through the streets of Sharon.

I know now that the fire chief took a big chance since we were sitting on a ladder without any harness or belt to hold us on the moving truck. I was a nervous wreck.

Instead of having fun like the other kids sitting on the ladder, I nearly wet my pants, worried that I might fall off of the big red truck. Today, sitting on a moving fire truck without restraints would be a definite no-no.

That’s also when my dream of becoming a firefighter ended and becoming a school teacher began.