Mr. Cook

Hey folks, we had a bit of a glitch with today’s post, so here it is again: an important one that poured out of me in like 15 minutes about the timelessness of beloved relationships….

My high school art teacher died Wednesday and, though I’m 3,000 miles away and missed his retirement party, I’m walking around with a heavy heart, the wind knocked out of me, in a daze.

So many memories piling up like all of those 4×6 photographs he had heaped in the back of his classroom on that long white shelf that ran the length of the windows. The photos, faded and curled and sticking together, were interspersed with torn-out magazine pages.

He never let you draw something purely out of your mind. You always had to go back to that pile and pick out images. At any given moment during the day, a student was at that pile, head down, peeling off photos in search of inspiration.

It was decades later, in my 40’s, when we became Facebook friends, and he shared snapshots of the islands where he grew up (and later convalesced) that I realized where those pictures had come from.

Rusted boats, doorways of vacant buildings, silhouettes of people, thousands of red, orange, and yellow sunsets, rock piers, tin cans floating in the waves, tree-lined horizons, industrial signs, antiquated flamethrowers, abandoned once-beloved automobiles with plants growing up through the engine…

He never talked about that place where all the photos came from, at least not to me, and I never asked. That’s one of the many regrets I have now, like visiting the school in my 30’s when he just happened to be home sick, not hugging him at graduation, and deciding not to call after watching him sing songs with his guitar on Facebook.

But it makes me smile through my tears, picturing him in the classroom, there behind me as I sketch out an antiquated flamethrower. Sensing my frustration with the line I’m on, he’d hand me a piece of gumbo eraser and whisper: “That’s it, Cliff. Just sneak up on it.”

And so I kep going, without ever looking back to thank him.

I see now, what he must have seen: the backs of our heads, our bodies hunched over giant white rectangles of paper, fixated on what we could create, our brains free from the pain of high school for 50 glorious minutes, as we unknowingly recreated – a million times over – the pictures of his sunrises and sunsets… the artifacts of long, solitary walks across decades, the things he and he alone knew the meaning of.