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Greene: Memorable Teacher

01/13/12 5:55PM By Stephanie Greene
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(Host) In anticipation of Martin Luther King Day, commentator Stephanie Greene has been thinking about an art teacher she once had, who changed the way she thought about many things - including color.

(Greene) Vermont has at last discarded the dubious distinction of being the whitest state in the Union, beaten out by Maine. High time.

But back in the 60's, when people of color were pretty rare in VT, I had the privilege of having an African American art teacher at Brattleboro's junior high school.

At thirteen, my friends and I were suffering from the aggravated boredom of early adolescence. All we wanted was something, anything, to happen.

Well, Hugh Corbin was a one man Happening, a veritable hurricane of fresh air. To us, his ethnicity, though thrilling, was the least of it. He was also big, with a huge voice. He was erudite, he ate raw eggs, and the most scandalous to us, committed little teenyboppers that we were, he listened to FM radio!

He was passionate about his subject and gave us no opportunity to dumb down. But if he found us backward (and how could he not?) he never showed it. His every class presented an occasion to rise to.

He found us great materials to work with. We sculpted using the then new self-hardening clay. He taught us art history, a portion of every class devoted to looking at slides of great art.

He even invited in a bookstore clerk to stage a Happening. I remember it as being a fairly tame affair - it was, after all, junior high, but it was still important to feel we were participating in the tidal wave of change that was the 1960s.

At the end of my eighth grade year, he was leaving to drive a microbus with his wife across Africa. Now that was a plan.

It was at the end of that year that I had a most uncharacteristic insight: if he could come to little old Bratt and do what he'd done, then I could probably achieve something in the world as well. I carried his lessons forward.

Fifteen years later, my new husband and I were visiting a friend in Philadelphia. It was January and a snowstorm had been followed by a hard freeze. The streets weren't very well plowed, and we stepped carefully through frozen ruts as we made our way to The Philadelphia Museum of Art.

It was early on a Sunday morning and the museum was almost empty. Except ahead of us, was an African American man, a woman his age and a young person. I knew it was Mr. Corbin and marched up to introduce myself.

He was most gracious as I babbled on about how important his class had been to me. It was clear he didn't remember me at all, which somehow made the whole story better. What he gave me was not the attention paid to a classroom pet, but pure teaching.

Teaching is like that: you never know who will bloom, taking your words and example to heart. I'm grateful that I had the opportunity both to have Mr.Corbin as a teacher and to thank him years later.
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