I remember my first day in grade six art class. Art class was different in the older grades; bigger, more serious. It wasn't just a segment of time during the day where you put your math book or your writing book inside your desk and took out your pencil crayons. It was serious stuff. You went to a completely different classroom with a completely different teacher whose sole purpose was to teach art. Mrs. Jolly with her long blonde hair, had long been a fixture of the art room but this year, my first year in a real art class, she was gone and in her place was a man; a small, plump, brown sparrow of a man. Like all my teachers, he was of indiscriminate age; from the vantage point of an eleven year old, somewhere between an Egyptian Mummy and a Pterodactyl. Looking back, I suspect he was middle-aged but through the lens of childhood I can't quite pinpoint which decade of middle-age he may have fallen into.
He had a fringe of dark brown hair, dark chocolate brown eyes, olive skin and I would come to know that he always wore a brown suit and brown shoes beneath the white lab coat that he buttoned tightly around his plump mid-section. He had thick sausage fingers that looked like they should be clumsy but were actually deft and confident in their movements ... and he bustled. He never sauntered, never meandered. He had a crisp, purposeful stride that translated into a bustle because of his short legs. Mr. Polloway was his name. If I ever knew his first name, it escapes me now, but he was my first mentor. But I didn't know that yet, on that first September morning that I sat at the long table in his classroom.
He handed out sheets of art paper. We had our pencils. He gave us an assignment: draw your hand. I saw my classmates, all of my classmates, slap their non-dominant hands, palm down on their paper and begin tracing an outline and later embellishing with some lines for fingernails and skin creases. But I picked up a second pencil, placed it in my left hand as if I was going to draw with that one too, and began to copy what I saw. The assignment was timed and when we were done Mr Polloway strode up and down the room looking over shoulders at the work that had been done. He looked mildly frustrated, made some exasperated noises, and then he came behind my back and looked down at my work. Suddenly he was excited. He took my paper and held it aloft. I don't recall exactly what he said, but I swelled with pride from having my drawing held up as an example to the class, despite not usually being fond of being the center of attention. From that day on, I was his protegè. He must have sensed some kinship with this quiet, artistic eleven year old girl and he wasn't about to let me move on to high school without encouraging my talent to blossom. He took me under his wing, had me come in after class some days to help spearhead upcoming class projects. He acted like he truly valued my opinion and gave me extra tips, and crowed about my artwork at regular intervals. In his class, I felt special. I was “the artist” among my peers. I felt invincible then. Under his tutelage I was a powerhouse of confidence and productivity. My Christmas painting hung in the front window of a downtown art gallery as part of a children's art exhibit. I was given the honour of choosing and leading a small team of classmates to paint murals on the plywood construction barricades in the shopping mall across from the school, and I helped him do the additional artwork for decorating the school for the Captain Cook Bicentennial celebrations. I wish I had understood the incredible gift of mentorship that I was being given then, but as a child that was not yet clear to me. He helped me to believe in myself, my talent, my potential. The teenage years did their best to erode that, but he had laid the foundation that would eventually hold me in good stead.
I wonder now if he is an old man, still in his brown suits, still making art, or whether he has long since passed away from age or illness. I don't know his first name or whether he maintained an art career outside of teaching. Was he married? Did he have children of his own? What was his story outside the art room at Captain James Cook Elementary? Sadly, I have no idea. But today I raise my glass in a toast and a heartfelt thank you to him, and all the Mr. Polloway's of the world who help foster the dreams and creativity of children, and instill in them the seeds that may lay dormant for awhile, but eventually take root and enrich their lives immeasurably.
If you enjoy my paintings, please whisper a little "thank you" to Mr. Polloway for helping lay the path to bring my art into the world.