As a child I wanted to be an air hostess. Cabin crew member is the modern, PC term, I think. I had never been on an aeroplane but I suspect it had something to do with a burning desire to travel beyond the boundaries of my native South Africa and see the world. So after completing my B.Ed. in Primary Education in Cape Town and spending a year studying art, art psychology and art education, I bought an open-ended ticket to Europe. It was thrilling standing in front of a real Van Gogh painting in Amsterdam and observing the thick brush strokes and globules of paint standing out from the canvas. The first time I saw the Marc Chagall stained glass window in Chichester Cathedral, I was hooked and knew I would never leave Europe.
The joy of teaching art is that there is no daily grind. Every day is unique. I run the art department single-handedly, supported only by a part time technician, which means I teach every single boy at Aldro. Watching the boys grow up and develop as artists and young men is the most rewarding part of my job. Once a boy stopped and said to me, not thank you for the lesson but, ‘Thank you for art, Mrs Fenwick’. I was struck then by the huge responsibility that comes with my job.
Apparently I am not like other teachers. According to some students who spend their free time willingly hanging out in the art room, things can be said and talked about here that pupils are not comfortable talking about elsewhere. I take that as a huge compliment.
I do paint but to those that say I lack ambition, I say: ‘I am not an artist who teaches, but a teacher with a passion for art’. It took me a long time to put the guilt of not doing enough of my own art behind me. I have had opportunities but I realised that the higher I climbed up the professional ladder, the further from the classroom I stepped and I didn’t want that.
Over the years I’ve learnt some important lessons. Be careful what you say. I once told a new and unfamiliar Form 3 to gather up large bundles of leaves and throw them ‘at will’. They did exactly that and I was mortified to hear, from beneath a huge pile of leaves, a little voice begging for help. Will(iam) is now in my Form 6 tutor group and we laugh about it still.
Teachers should expect the best, but also prepare for the worst. I once lost a pupil in the Vatican museum in Rome. It was the longest, most terrifying few minutes of my life. People were herded through the one-way system of corridors, past art treasures and antiquities, eventually spilling out into an impossibly crowded Sistine Chapel. When leaving the chapel one of my charges said casually that he thought we had left someone behind. I thought he was joking until I did the obligatory headcount outside. It didn’t help at all to be told: ‘But Mrs Fenwick, I told you we left Lewis behind!’
Eventually Lewis was found, calmly standing beside a guard waiting to be rescued. Thank goodness we had the safety chat earlier.
The most important lesson, however, has been that teaching is not a job, it is a way of being. This mindset helps to see me through long days and long weeks. But then there are the wonderfully long holidays, which allow me to travel. Did I mention that I have the travel bug?
Mrs Fenwick teaches at Aldro.