I looked at a tree today and was reminded of my fourth grade teacher. Miss Miller was pretty memorable on a number of counts, not the least of which was her purple pantsuit. The year I was in grade four was the year that the school board relaxed the staff dress code, and for the first time female teachers were allowed to wear pants instead of skirts and dresses. But they had to be pant SUITs. And Miss Miller, clearly happy to embrace this brave new skirt-less world, frequently sported the purplest of purple pant suits you could possibly imagine.
Miss Miller seemed ancient to me, but looking back now I think she must have been in her 40’s. She was a little exotic because she was most adamantly Miss Miller—whereas all my other teachers to date had been Mrs. so and so. (This was before anybody I knew was called Ms!) She was tall and lanky, and she taught very difficult fourth-grade things like long division. To tell the truth I was a bit scared of her at the start.
But what I remember most about Miss Miller was the day she taught us how to draw a tree.
I knew this lesson was especially important to her, because she cancelled Math to do it.
“All right class, today I’m going to teach you how to draw a tree that actually looks like a tree. I’ve been seeing a lot of you drawing trees that look like lollipops sticking up out of the ground.” And she drew some examples on the chalkboard.
“Hands up if you’ve ever seen a tree that looks like a straight stick with a perfectly round ball perched on the top? I thought not.” She vigorously erased the offending drawing. “ When you draw a tree you need to think about how it grows…”
And then she proceeded to draw a real tree, all the while talking through how she was doing it—how the trunk forked out into large branches which in turn diverged into smaller branches, and so on. How you would never have a large branch growing out of a smaller branch. How the tree branched out to reach the light.
“Every part of the tree has to be connected back to the trunk—you can’t have branches just sticking out at random. And if you could see under the ground, you would find that the roots of the tree branch out in just the same way.” At which point she drew an elaborate root structure for her chalkboard tree.
It was beautiful. I wanted nothing more than to be able to draw a tree like that. She handed out art paper and instructed us to draw a tree. I laboured over that assignment with greater sense of purpose than I ever had for long division. I drew a passable tree, and I have conjured Miss Miller every time I have ever had occasion to draw a tree since.
But what I realized only recently is that the best part of Miss Miller’s lesson was that she taught me how to SEE a tree. She taught me to pay attention to how things grow. She taught me that things in nature are shaped the way they are for a reason. She taught me that creating art was a way of learning about the world.
The long division was useful too, but I think the lessons I learned from drawing that tree had a deeper impact.