Letter to Ardina: On the Rocks / Mark Dzula

Dear Ardina,

How have you influenced me as a teaching artist? We do so much together; it is difficult to separate the strands of our lives. Maybe it isn’t so hard, though. We do have a little Bert and Ernie between us: you, more Bert and me, more Ernie. Still, this approach feels too reductive. There’s plenty of Bert-ness in my would-be Ernie.

Recently, I helped you mix cement in a classroom after the children left; I was upset. The dust covered my precious shoes and concrete splashed onto my favorite dress shirt. My rank breath crept back into my nostrils thanks to our facemasks. Looking around the room, I saw the remnants of the art tornado you had wreaked. I just wanted to go home.

Myriad times I have become a part of an adventure of yours and felt similar feelings. Inevitably, these initial emotional contortions ebb into a well of respect and admiration. Case in point, now that I am safe at home thinking of our concrete party in Staten Island, I am amazed by your unflinching exploration of arts materials in the otherwise enclosed space of the classroom. You are your own pioneer. Saws, hammers, wood, nails, drills, and glue—these were the tools you brought to the kids whose space is filled with workbooks, exemplars, and the ubiquitous confines of the student desk.

Your anarchy is a sly one; by all appearances it is so calm. Anyone who knows you will testify to your cool, unflappable “withitness.” Cunning radical, you are my best mentor and sharpest critic.

Another story comes to mind. It is not about schooling, but it has everything to do with education. This past Christmas we were visiting relatives in New Jersey and decided to stop by the beach to look at the inlet. I was anxious because we had plans to meet friends in Asbury Park that afternoon (to visit the Pinball Hall of Fame, no less), and the trip to the inlet was already a detour.

I was determined stop, “see” the inlet, and then head straight to pinball. However, as soon as you got out of the car you took my otherwise reticent father, ran to the rocks, and skipped out with him as far as you could. I was not thinking friendly thoughts. But as I looked out on the rocks, your skinny legs under your big winter coat and pointy winter hat made you look almost elfin, like Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka. The pull was too much; I begrudgingly trudged out on the rocks.

The further out I ventured, the more I remembered how much I loved climbing over the inlet. The sun was bright and the water broke beside me as I hopped from rock to rock to meet you. I think that this is what you do as a teacher, and certainly have done as my teacher: you lead by example, pulling people out of their habits and onto the rocks.

Bert//Ernie//Ernie//Bert,

Mark

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