There are high school teachers, and then there are great high school teachers. Most of us had that special "one". Tracy Bruton taught high school art for 30 years, and to hundreds of her students, she was that "one". She is one of the game changers in our world, making the extra effort to be compassionate to others and help change lives with love and understanding. We can all help people, in unexpected ways, as her story reveals.
I once had a student named "Stephanie". She was a beautiful, quiet young lady with a sadness behind her eyes that led me to question her. After some gentle prodding, I learned her tragic story. Stephanie's mom was a drug addict. She had a long history of abusive boyfriends, many of whom would have sex with Stephanie to "pay" for more drugs for her mom. Imagine a life made up of fear, mistrust, hunger and pain - your own mother using you as payment for her drugs!
School was her refuge. Ultimately, her mom was incarcerated and Stephanie placed in foster care. Her scars were many and close to the surface. She felt her life had little worth and struggled to find meaning. At the time she was in my class, we were working on sculpture pieces. After discussing her work, I told her she just needed to beat the heck out of something! "What?" she asked. I told her to go to a flea market and buy something for her sculpture, that she would know what to buy when she saw it.
The following day, Stephanie came into class with a wooden high chair. She sanded, sawed, beat it with a chain, threw paint on it, all monochromatic gray tones. She burned it with a blowtorch, covered it in razor wire and scratched it with a knife. The other students in class did not know the story behind the piece, but they clearly understood that very important work that was taking place.
Stephanie was the first to arrive each morning and worked for an hour and a half each day without speaking. She stopped only to clean up. When she was done we talked about writing the rest of her story and how she could alter the piece. She went to the computer, selected a font and printed off the word "HOPE" . She then adhered the word to the back of the high chair. It was small, but clearly visible.
On the day or our critiques, unbeknownst to Stephanie, I stopped at the store and purchase a white mylar helium balloon, tied with a pretty pink ribbon.
When it was time to do our critique, I surprised the students by telling them we were gathering our sculpture pieces and going outside - it was a beautiful day. Earlier that morning I had given Stephanie the balloon. I told her it was the final piece to her chair. She seemed to grasp the meaning of the balloon immediately and tied it to the chair arm.
One by one my students talked about their work. Then it was Stephanie's turn. As she placed the chair in front of the group, I reached into my pocket of my apron and pulled out scissors. I gently placed them in her hands. As the tears slid slowly down her face, She said, "I don't know if I can...". I replied, "Yes you can baby girl. You are stronger than you know."
Without saying another word she looked at the chair and everything it represented, then looked in my eyes. I could see her resolve. She cut the ribbon. As she stood there crying, the students surrounded her with love and encouraged her. Then, everyone was crying. They still didn't know the full story, yet they did. Art heals.