|Paul West on “Career Day”|
I had both, great teachers and coaches, growing up and in business. I try to pay them back whenever I can by sharing what I have learned with others. Career Day (first at my son’s and now my daughter’s middle school) is one of my favorite opportunities to share.
First, I let them guess what I do. Having longer than normal hair and usually sporting jeans the guesses are along the lines of rock producer, coach (cheaters: they know I coach the football team), writer, photographer etc. Then I will get someone who says “artist”. I congratulate them on being correct; however, only partly correct because I see what I do as being an artist but so much more.
I tell them I sell tombstones. Middle schoolers, not having much of a mute button, will let out some gasps and they don’t try very hard to hide their surprised and “ewww” faces. I start off by showing them pictures of creepy tombstones with ivy all over them, the kind you might see at a halloween display. “Is this a tombstone? What about this and this?” Yes, these are all tombstones. Then, I show them one of our wonderful custom memorials—- silence. “Is this a tombstone? What about this one, or this?” Pretty soon they figure out that I have thrown them a curve. Memorials are art; art about a life and not a rock about a death. Their faces light up, the conversation instantly lightens and they all sit a little taller in their seats.
What a great opportunity to speak to kids on a subject about which most people do not want to talk. We talk about family and friends they have lost and how it made them feel. I can tell them about all of the tough stories I hear and how a wrong choice here and there can have horrible consequences. I also get to tell the kids that might love art but have been told that you can’t make a living drawing pictures that they really can pursue art as a career. Plus we get to do it in the open, in the middle of a class where they can feel comfortable and safe talking about sometimes uncomfortable things.
Sure, it takes up a whole day and I get behind on my emails; but, how often do you get to have a “real” conversation with middle schooler kids? I’ve had relieved artists that realize they can chase their art and I’ve had class bullies open up in ways that shocked their classmates. Maybe the coolest thing is that I’ve had parents come up to me and tell me that their kids came home and talked to them about either art or the loss of a family member and credited the “tombstone guy” with helping them see things differently.
Here are some thank you notes from some of the students. They even drew one of our memorials that was in the slideshow (guess they weren’t sleeping)!
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