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John Nippolt
Dispatch From The Education Trenches
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         My wife mentioned she noticed a change in me recently, saying I'm not that same angry guy who use to come home after school. I don't know what ritual needs to be performed or the proper incantation that must be uttered before I tell you why; the gods must not be angered. For starters, a word of thanks will do because that's what I say to the morning sky each day I unlock the door to my new classroom.
          It wasn't always like this. For five long years, I had to teach art in an undersize science lab turned art room. Inadequate would be the best qualitative understatement I could use to describe a classroom that could not hold twenty students comfortably, one that had no storage space and no office. The only sure things I could count on each year were two counter sinks in my classroom guaranteed to clog and overflow at least once a semester.
          Not long after I began my high school teaching tenure, the principal warned me I had to increase student enrollment in our school's art program or it would die out. I was the new art chair and this was a no-brainer. I was more than willing to try and build a successful art department, but, without a place to put it, I could not accommodate the student interest I generated in the visual arts program. It was driving me crazy having to go to work everyday, teaching in a classroom that was too small for the increasing number of students registering for my classes. I'm not kidding when I tell you there was a line of students going out the door waiting to sign up.
          Unfortunately, increasing student enrollment in the arts proved easier to do than finding a place on campus to put them. By the end of the third year (last year) enrollment in the program had tripled. Enough art curriculum lines had been created to hire two more art teachers at my school, who were lucky to get their own rooms.
          I had done my job and I felt my principal owed me. I was getting irked at having to ask him over and over again for news about a bigger room.
          I'd done some snooping around on the campus and I found some empty spaces big enough for what I needed. I dreamed of classrooms that would show my students what a real working art studio looks like and all the excitement a place like that breeds. It wasn't an atelier overlooking rooftops in Paris, or a loft in the bustling art scene of New York, but I found the perfect area already in place at the school.
          The "J" building is up the hill. It sits out of the way and behind all the other buildings on our campus. It is a long rectangular warehouse type building consisting of four bays; large shop type areas. I checked the place out and I wanted one of those rooms. Each of them had more than enough space to suit my needs.
          J1 was out of the question. Rented by the state, it houses a group of state offices and their "non-educational" employees. J2, northern light and a concrete floor. It had been a metal shop once, and rumor had it that the two smaller adjoining offices, on the school side of the building and rented out by the state, would be vacated soon. A real extra was the roll-up door facing the rear parking lot in the back of our campus. "Wow," I thought. "Perfect for sculpture." J2 was also used as a partial storage hold for the custodians. Trying to get their stuff out of there would be like pulling teeth, but I would be determined if I got my foot in the door. Beware the camel; the head enters the tent, the body is sure to follow.
          Earlier that year, while I was making demands for a new classroom, the only space available in J2 was given to the wrestling team. This took the wind out of my sails, but that was nothing compared to how I'd feel when I found out that J3 would become a combination physical training and exercise studio. Grrrrrrrrr!
          Now I felt let down and somewhat betrayed. The principal knew I needed a bigger classroom. He even said it out loud while paying a visit to my science lab/art classroom during his first year, "You don't have any room in here!" Thank you, Dick Tracy.
          The last straw came when I lost the battle for what I thought was the best space available for my students, me, and my vision. J4 was the only bay left and I tried everything to convince the administration the students not only needed a studio space like this, they deserved it.
          In the end, J4 was turned over to three worthy groups of learners. Later, something inside me would concede that the benefits for our special education, special needs, and at risk children outweighed my wishes but, not by much. Dejected, deflated, and kept in the dark about what he was up to, I came back at the principal, writing letters to him, reminding him that I did as he asked, doing the work that was expected of me, to what end? Every effort I had made to get an area large enough to accommodate student enrollment had failed. I'd had it, I stopped talking about student needs, my needs, all needs. Then, after I'd abandoned all hope, came the gift.
          I was working in my classroom on year end clean-up chores when my principal appeared in the doorway and asked me to join him, "Hey John, I would like to show you something, let's take a walk."
         Suddenly, my adrenalin started to pump, I was excited. I was surprised, yet it was no secret between us why he would show up like this. We both knew I was expecting to get a new room but, where?
"Go down the stairs," I silently commanded him, and down the stairs we went. We continued along the corridor to the main walkway that runs through the center of our campus. Using another mute demand I ordered my boss to "Make a right turn."
          "Yes," I thought, he made the correct choice when we reached the corner. Silently urging my principal to go straight up the hill toward the back of the school, he did as he was instructed. We were heading towards the J building and I was thinking; is this really happening? He walked directly to a set of double-doors and opened up the room I wanted him so badly to select. No small talk, he handed me the keys. J2 was mine!
          That was only the beginning. I have had to work my butt off using my summer vacation to clean the place up, paint it, and get it ready for the school year which would begin in July. With no one to help me, I had to move my classroom desks, tables, chairs, art tools, and supplies from an upstairs classroom, two buildings away. Although it was their job, the custodians were too busy stripping and waxing classroom floors to help me. Tough work for a sixty-six year old, so all you teacher bashers back off. After I removed all the wrestling mats, storage lockers, and other miscellaneous junk, I built a thirty foot work bench, installed a paint distribution area, added storage shelves, and created space to display on-going student projects and assignments. The abandoned state offices in J2 were rejected as classroom space by our school's robotics team instructor, so I have squatted in one of them and turned it into a sound room for the young aspiring rock musicians at our school, who need a place to do their thing. The band rehearsal rooms are off-limits to non-band student musicians, strictly for use by orchestra and school band members only. It is interesting to note here that the rockers don't get credit for the extra time and effort they put in. Just as the students in the bands do, the rockers show up at J2 religiously before school, during recess, lunch, and after school to practice. I keep my own electric guitar and two small amps in the pirated sound room myself.
          Our school has no theater or drama club and our library and cafeteria are simply what they are, ill-equipped for creating the proper ambiance for theater arts. Another part of my vision was to add theater and performing arts to our art department and our school.
          The space I am developing gives me the opportunity to show my students how important a working studio is for the artist. The new classroom has changed everything for my students because they get to witness first hand how the on-going transformation affects them and their work.
Early on, I realized I had the opportunity to build a small stage for performing arts, with more than enough working area left over for my art classes. I called for help from an old friend, who I worked with when I was a prop manager at a theatrical/stage production company here in the Islands. Together, we managed to install real theater curtains, stage left and right, donated by my pal, who, incidentally, is a professionally certified rigger.
          During the years, I had been saving lumber just in case I ever got a place like this and it wasn't long before I used the bulk of it to build and install work benches and shelves. My theater friend also donated pre-made plywood platforms for a stage floor but I couldn't begin construction on the framing because there was no lumber available to finish the job.
          About two weeks ago, I received a "heads-up" from our new principal: time was running out to apply for "Helping Hands" grants being awarded to public school teachers in need, funding for supplies to help them with "curriculum delivery". I applied immediately and yesterday, I found out that I was awarded a full grant which will cover the costs for my lumber list to complete construction of the stage.
          The next step in the process of developing an honest to goodness house for art events, open mike nights, one act plays, stand-up comedy, music, slam poetry, or play host to any other kinds of events that needs a studio atmosphere is complete.
          The students love this new studio and their interests have livened this place up. We no longer call this room J2. It has been renamed, "The Upside Down Cow," and that, dear readers, is another story.