New Hope, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.
Despite problems and tragedies, teaching held so many wonderful, happy memories that would take weeks to write. Students being accepted into art school on their portfolios produced in his class. Students coming back as well-rounded adults, giving their talents to this world, and thanking him for helping them get there. Just seeing the joy for a moment on the face of a child who has created something that he/she had never imagined being able ever to create, and this child would never go on to pursue a career in art. Children simply wanting to be around their teacher because they know that he cares. Finally, in his last year of teaching, one of his students being recognized as one of the top artists in their county and her work being displayed for many others to see for years to come in a place visited by many. No, this may not mean much to anyone else, but to the teacher and this wonderful creation of God, it meant that during all the years he gave to teaching children art, it brought great joy to her and her parents.
Jim was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, the son of a Baptist minister. When he was a child, the family moved to various cities where his father provided ministry. In 1973 when living in Monaca, PA, he graduated from the Center Area School District. After that, he attended Pennsylvania State University, where he majored in Art Education and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in that discipline.
Upon graduation, he was hired in September of 1977 to teach art at the Keystone Oaks High School in Mt. Lebanon, PA. Keystone Oaks School District was located on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, PA. The school was a diverse one with economic ranges from very low income to very high income. His classes averaged about 20 students. Most of his time was spent teaching ceramic sculpture and wheel thrown pottery. He also taught printmaking, jewelry making, and batik. In addition, he served as department chairperson for the district for a few years. His students were, for the most part, those who were looking to graduate and go on to major in art. With this group of students, Jim found that many were very willing to spend long hours after school with him, working on major school projects and their portfolios. It was a bit intimidating teaching his first few years because many of his students were not many years his junior in age. Later in his final years of teaching, he would meet these first students who had children and grandchildren whom he also taught in the middle school level. These children and grandchildren loved to tell the stories that their parents and grandparents had told them about those early years together. How very warm and sweet were the memories!
In 1986, he was drawn west to the Delano Joint Union School District in Delano, California, to teach high school art at the Delano Joint Union High School. At this school, he experienced some of his largest classes, a few numbering in the 40s and 50s. Such high numbers necessitated students sitting on the classroom radiators and potters’ wheels at times in order to be seated. Many of the students were from low income migrant agricultural homes, having 10 to 12 in a home, with some houses lacking floors. These students were most eager to learn and wanted so much to create. What a joy that was! He taught pottery at this school, and even opened a summer workshop that many students did all they could do to attend. Most of the students were Hispanic, many of whom were eager to learn about the pottery skills of their ancestors. Working in clay was a natural part of their heritage and they exhibited that beauty in their work. In fact, for many of them, working with Jim was the only experience they had in life that brought joy. Farming and working for low wages exacted an enormous toll on their families and their lives. Art created joy and vision to them.
Two years later, he returned to Pennsylvania, this time to the Pennsbury School District, Yardley, PA, at a middle school level, first at the William Penn Middle School and then at Charles Boehm Middle School. He taught at the latter from 1991 until he retired in 2012, having completed 34 years of teaching art to children. Teaching middle school presented a major challenge for Jim after having taught many years at the high school level. Nevertheless, this level provided him with his greatest love for teaching. Children had a very different need at this level. This is where struggles in a child’s life seemed like mountains, and many children were non-forgiving when it came to being hurt. Coping with their pains was one of his chief jobs, with art becoming secondary to the purpose of his presence. In a short time, he assessed that his purpose was to help curtail or eliminate the hurts that many of them experienced at home and with their friends. Beyond this, using art, he was able to break through and touch their souls. When they took their minds away from their worries and focused on art and their passion for creativity, the world seemed to vanish for a short moment.
One Monday morning, Jim prepared his students for a class in which they were asked to sculpt, out of clay, an abstract of an emotional experience in their lives. It could be something happy, sad, funny, or scary. There were no emotional boundaries placed on this assignment. Actual work would commence on Tuesday morning. There was nothing unusual, only an opportunity for the students to express themselves freely. However, that Tuesday turned out to be a nightmare. It was September 11, 2001! In his first period class, everyone was listening to music on the radio out of New York City. All of a sudden, the disc jockey broke in to report that he saw, out of his window, an airplane crashing into one of the twin towers. His colleague did not take him seriously at first.
This class period became one of his most stressful lessons. Those towers in New York were only 90 miles from the school. Most of the students had friends or family ties to someone who perished that day. The daughter of Victor Saracini, one of pilots, attended a local middle school. A hush suddenly enveloped the room as all the children gazed at each other. What was happening? It was not long before their fears had been verified. Suddenly, the art project turned into an experience for life for these children, and they now found their way to cope with the emotion. The tragedy of 9/11 was so close for the children.
The challenges as a teacher to comfort children, and even parents, in times of distress come when unexpected. Another such moment occurred when one of the children was the victim of unexpected death. This young man was very vibrant in life and was loved by so many of his peers, and was loved so much more deeply by his parents. He was very intelligent and creative. His death came from simply falling asleep after playing outside with his friends and never waking up. It was so unexpected! He was in Jim’s art class and he had just completed a pen and ink drawing a few days before and was anxious to present it to his parents. Now, it was Jim’s task to present that drawing to the boy’s parents, who did not know that he had been working on it. It was his last visual statement to his parents. That drawing now hangs on the wall just outside the old art room as a memorial to this young man and his love for life.
To become the greatest teacher, you have to be the best student first. Always be willing to learn from your children and place them first. Become the “servant” heart, and walk like the Master did with His disciples. Wash a few feet on your journey and you will truly be blessed. In his own career, Jim has exemplified his advice to others entering a career as a teacher.
Although Jim is now retired, he is living his philosophy in his new endeavour. He credits his wife Karen for the vision to open a little antique shop, The Angels of Light, in the little town of New Hope, Pennsylvania. They are touching the lives of others and “washing some feet”. They chose this name for their shop because they want to “be a light to others that may be in a dark place in their lives”. In their shop, a Spirit of joy, peace, and healing of the soul will come if you allow yourself to be open to that. It is not about the money, because they make very little money, but about giving purpose to the lives of others, as purpose has been given to Jim and Karen. It is about blessing others as they have been blessed by Him, and by others before them. It is about giving hope when there seems to be no hope to be found. It is about what he has done for the past 34 years that is to give, and to do it with joy. This is his “major project” in life since retirement, and one in which he hopes never to tire.
(This page was updated in August 2012.)