This I Believe by

John Anfin


This I Believe

by John Anfin

For those who have not yet experienced this, it will remain a cliche. For those who have encountered it, for good or for bad, you will understand. I Believe in a teacher’s power to change one’s life.

Neither party approaches this encounter with such expectations. Each is only doing his or her job, so to speak. That’s what I was doing in second grade at McHarg Elementary. I was completing the perennial “draw-the-state-bird-and-flower” assignment, a job repeatedly required of Virginia youth. Suddenly, I realized that Mrs. Lester was standing behind me. My crayon stopped. Had I done something wrong? I waited. Then Mrs. Lester’s hand touched my shoulder and tapped out each word “John, you are an artist.” and I believed her.

What Mrs. Lester had started blossomed in third grade, even in face of the anti-aesthetic efforts of, we’ll call, Miss X, my teacher. By then I had progressed to creating elaborate battle scenes where stickmen medieval knights, GI Joes, and archers driving Sherman tanks and piloting Sabre jets did battle. My classmates begged me to create scenes of mayhem for their enjoyment and I gladly complied. It was mostly us against the Russians, but as the director of these events, I could control the outcome, a lot of power in the hands of an eight year old. The cries of “Oh, no!” would ring out when an unexpected pot of boiling oil would appear and rain down on the supposed victors. Unfortunately, it was the audience outbursts that brought Miss X storming to my desk demanding that the audience disperse and get back to their jobs. She would glare at me and grab the art work and rip it to shreds declaring, “I’m not going to warn you again, Johnny Anfin, about doing this nonsense in class!” Ironically, Miss X’s efforts to squash my art, just spurred me on. Mrs. Lester was right, I was an artist, so I kept drawing.

In high school art was a one semester elective that covered jewelry, sculpture, and very little drawing, but secretly filled my sketchbook outside of class. No one knew this footballer was an artist. When graduation came I wanted to go to Pratt in New York City, but my parents said they wanted my education in my head, not my hands. So off to Hampden-Sydney I went and drew nothing, but I spent four, invaluable years harvesting metaphors, analogies, and ideas, all the ammunition for an artist.

For forty-seven years my professional job was outside of art, but thanks to Mrs. Lester,  I always considered my real job was that of an artist. I drew, painted, cartooned, photographed, and sculpted. I branched out into writing poetry, a three act play, and creating websites. Along the way, at age 45, I finally decided to get that art degree I wanted as a youth. After eight years of working classes into my schedule, I was awarded a Bachelor of Visual Arts from Winthrop University. Thanks to Mrs. Lester.

Several years ago I returned to my hometown of Radford, Virginia. I went to church and after the service, I saw an elderly Mrs. Lester. I knew I had to tell her how she had changed my life and how much I appreciated that.

I said, “Mrs. Lester.”

She said, “Well, hello, Johnny.”

I said, “Mrs. Lester, I just want to tell you how much I appreciated what you did for me.”

“What was that, Johnny?”

“You remember when you gave the draw the state bird and state flower assignment and when you saw my picture you said, ‘Johnny, you’re an artist.’  You know I believed you. Since that moment art became one of the most important parts of my life” Mrs. Lester, cocked her head and looked puzzled. She smiled and replied, “That’s wonderful, Johnny, but to tell you the truth, I don’t recall that”.

I was floored, literally floored. Here was an event in which Mrs. Lester had changed my life and she didn’t remember it.

“But, thank you, Johnny. I guess I was just doing my job.”

My Mrs. Lester story is not an isolated event. Just three years ago, my youngest son was in the last semester of his graphic design degree. Unfortunately, he did not have the fire-in-the-belly needed to be a working artist. He had no prospects of a job and thought he would spend the next ten years continuing to wait on tables at Margaritaville. He needed a course to fill out his program, so he took a class from a professor who had worked in the state department. That professor changed his life. He became so turned on to political science that he stayed an extra semester to earn a minor in that area.  This led to securing a job in the border patrol from which he eventually hopes to get to that state department goal. Last week after a month on the job in San Diego he said, “Dad, I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.” My son had his own Mrs. Lester.

Now, as I reflect upon my forty-seven years of teaching, I hope I had and used Mrs. Lester’s power, the power to change a student’s life.