One of my photography students recently asked me, “Are you a teacher or a photographer?”
I am a teacher. I have always felt that I was a teacher, although I am photographer and a student too. Often when I look through my photographs, I am surprised by my ability to take a decent picture. I am even more surprised when I reflect on my journey as a teacher and a student. I am not always the best teacher … and sometimes I can take 20 years to learn the simplest lessons. This post is a tribute to two of my mentors. I wish I had applied some of their lessons earlier.
About twenty years ago, I graduated from UC Santa Barbara with a Women’s Studies degree. I believe that I was the first male to major in Women’s Studies at UCSB. I was also a peer health educator for the Women’s Center’s Rape Prevention Education Program. I knew that I had been given an amazing opportunity. The programs were new and having an outspoken firework like me as “the first” must have been difficult. (Two days ago was World Voice Day; I should have been more careful how I used my voice.
After I graduated, my mentors’ gave me great advice. but I was in my own purple haze. I thought that I was Jimi Hendrix. Instead, he was singing about people like me, “Can’t you see my signals turned from green to red… you’re just like cross town traffic, so hard to get through to you.”
I do not even know where I was trying to go twenty years ago. I just know that good advice was not going to slow me down.
Two years ago today, I drove through an intersection and an SUV turned crashed into me. I am lucky to be alive. I feel lucky to be alive. After the accident, shadows started veering towards me when I walked through my hallway. My back still aches despite therapy. Yet, it could have been much worse. I also started listening to the voices of strangers and voices in the mirror. Voices in the Mirror is Gordon Parks’ autobiography. Gordon is a first, and while I am no Gordon Parks, it helps to learn from other people who have struggled with being first at something. Gordon was the first to do many things.
Twenty years ago, one of my mentors told me to “take the high road.” I pretended to take the high road. I waited until there were only two roads remaining. I took the road less muddy. Finally. I have been practicing the path of less mud for many years. At this rate, one day I will reach the crane and imagine I can learn how to fly.
Since my car crash two years ago, I have also heard Robert Capa reminding me to get closer so that my photographs will become better. I do not know if I have become a better photographer, but I have become a better person. Sometimes, I have also become more vulnerable and gotten too close. Perhaps that is the cost of becoming a better person. I took this photograph at a distracted driving event while still in shock from my accident two years ago. How could I complain about my accident when these mothers – my friends – had lost their children?
How do I create an accurate “Portrait of Myself?” I have conversations with Margaret Bourke-White (another first) about photography and freedom. She shows me her version of crosstown traffic. I accept her help and move forward. I talk with other real and imagined teachers. I having conversations with Mothers of Angels, Migrant Mothers, mothers disguised as storks or fathers who exit through the front door at 127 Rose Avenue. I also remember nearly every teacher from kindergarten through graduate school. I know that being a teacher works, because teachers still influence me.
Some topics are easier with voices from the past. Teachers from the past do not seem to judge as much as those in the present. As a teacher, I also expect my students to learn some lessons twenty years after I teach the lesson. As an adult, I realize that dichotomies exist. Sometimes I harm the people I love; often I have been hurt by the people who have loved me. There must be a shadow with the light. Yesterday, my friend explained the struggle as the “unbearable lightness of being.” (There’s a book.)
Twenty years later, I have finally listened to the two of my many mentors. This last year, I found myself in a similar situation, and rather than repeat my mistakes, I applied their lessons. Yesterday, I wore my UCSB Women’s Studies shirt at an assembly to support the GSA students while they performed at our multi-cultural assembly to the song Firework. It is only the second time I can remember wearing the shirt in twenty years. (Oh yeah, I still have the shirt.)
Twenty years ago, I did not know how to surrender. I could not walk away into the night and let it go. More recently, I had the opportunity at a do-over. Somehow, I surprised myself and chose the high road and walked away. I accepted the advice I ignored twenty years ago.
I am wide awake….