Living · Teaching

How We See Changes What We See

I took my kiddo to get his senior portraits taken last week. He was every inch the contradiction that we all are on the hybrid space where childhood flows in to adulthood. I wanted him to dress up; he wanted to wear a tee shirt.The props he wanted to bring were a thousand-page novel and some pieces from some games he plays. He wanted me to stay in the lobby, but he welcomed me back when I intervened to tell him to go ahead and switch to the casual clothes. He couldn’t decide on a smile.
But the photographer was terrific. We knew him, which helped. In fact, he was my son’s photography teacher last year. As I was watching the last few minutes of the shoot, I was struck by the photographer’s style and process. I could tell he looked at my son differently than I did. He never stopped imagining him in the next pose.
I’m pathologically curious, so I asked him about it. Does he just go through the world looking at people and framing them in his head? Yes. Yes, he does. He’s always interested in what the lighting of a particular setting does to a person’s image. Photography is all about light, and he sees the world in light and subjects, and has trouble turning off that vision.
Recently I had a similar conversation with my massage therapist, who I am certain is a genius, and who invariably sees people out of joint in her daily life—a man at the bank with a foot twisted inward she can see stems from the hip, or a woman who hunches and just needs to loosen up her neck and shoulders—and she can’t help thinking about what she would do to fix them. It’s a completely different way to see humanity, as so many imperfect machines in need of various levels of tuning up.
And both of these make me wonder about how we learn our perspective. Is it training or disposition? Are we inclined to view people in a particular way, or do we learn it in school or work? I think I was trained to think about literature like a critic, but I think I had a natural orientation toward language—what some of my teachers over the years called “having a good ear.”
Whether it’s innate or trained (I suspect both, really), the way it manifests in my head is that every new book I read, movie I watch, song I hear, or even news story I see passes through the filter: Could I teach this? How? In which class? With what comparable texts? That’s the part of my head I can’t turn off, and the part of my job I can’t leave at work. Yes, there’s the grading and the prepping, but deeper and more importantly, there’s my orientation toward the world as an opportunity to find a teachable moment.
I include all these various examples of people I consider artists because I want to add teaching to the list of arts that give one a particular lens on the world that becomes more inherent the longer one works. Just like a painter tries to capture what she sees in paint, or a playwright uses actors and scripts, we pick our medium and try to share what we see with others.

My desire to help others see what I see is just my particular artist’s effort, to help people see what I see —that medieval literature is funny, for instance, or that the connections between languages are cool. And after this past horrible weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, I want people to notice that some stories keep coming back and we can find strength and strategies in our past history and literature to help us win again.  

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