Melinda Mottley was well into the draft of “her story” when Margaret Sydnor’s account of teaching in the city’s public schools appeared here last month. Melinda’s account picks up just a few years later – and in one of the schools, Webster-Davis Elementary, that Margaret served. We needn’t add more to her bio than she shares here, except to mention our gratitude for the gracious smile and warm voice she brings to our church and our choir.
Art and music, it seems, have always been a part of me. Theatre sort of attached to the two and led to a brief but intense marriage to an actor who wanted to own his own theatre – that came to fruition four months after saying “I do”. As a child, the arts were a constant journey between escape, retreat, entertainment and identity. I am not sure that I saw talent on a competitive barometer or even as God-given until I had a degree under my belt and decided to move from a small ad agency into teaching.
My first job offer came from Richmond Public Schools (1970) so I jumped in where I felt God calling me, ready to brave something new. As this was the first year of bussing in Richmond, I became part of this transition. My initiation included three schools – in Church Hill, Fulton bottom, and Maury Street on Richmond’s southside. On Fridays, those schools that remained segregated were bussed together to interdisciplinary learning centers until plans could be finalized for their integration.
I quickly learned about Richmond’s federal housing projects, seeing “haves” and “have nots” mingle in the educational setting. Art classes were a place where the socio-economic playing field quickly leveled, as creativity and curiosity were not hampered by income or privilege – at least not at the elementary level. I vividly remember my first painting class with a 1st grade class at Bellevue Elementary, where students were so excited about paint that several tried to paint each other. While caught up in their excitement, I was petrified at what parents would think of me when these children got home, even though I was able to remove most of the color from their hair. Nothing in college education classes had prepared me for working with the children I encountered. Their enthusiasm and love of art was off the charts and I quickly fell in love.
Arriving at Webster-Davis Elementary one week, I was greeted by a group of children who rushed to my car: as soon as I emerged, they were hugging me around my legs, asking if they were going to have art ‘today’. We would paint to Strauss waltzes and draw faces based on Modigliani’s elongated portraits, even learning to pronounce his name. I really regretted only getting to see them one day a week. We made sculptures from wood scraps and appliquéd yarn and burlap to practice embroidery stitches, wove huge webs onto tree branches and made puppets from newspaper paper mache. The possibilities were endless and I came to realize that I had been given a talent beyond art or music – the ability to put something beautiful and magical into the lives of children who had seen little of either.
My second year in RPS, I was transferred to Elkhardt Middle to fill a gap where a shop teacher quit: I was assigned a science classroom and 5 classes of middle school boys who were expecting hammers and nails. Channeling their disappointment was a challenge because they were sure that they could not make art. We dove into sculptures out of wood and wire, drew bikes and motorcycle parts, silk screened t-shirts with portraits of rock stars, and designed surreal costumes out of foil and boxes to make our own movies. I am very sure that I was learning more than any of these guys, but I was convinced that their attitudes about art had changed.
The following year I was catapulted to Thomas Jefferson High School (my student teaching had been on the high school level only) where I replaced a teacher who suddenly transferred to a private school. Here I began teaching studio levels I – IV and eventually took over a jewelry and metals program in a studio down the hall from my art room. I remember one year having a class of Cambodian refugees who spoke no English – quickly learning the power of art as a universal language. One of these students went on to study at Ringling School of Art in Sarasota, FL. I loved working with teens, and work in the classroom gradually extended to scholarship and grant applications, yearbook and literary magazine sponsorships, and designing sets and costumes with students for school and citywide productions. Then there were competitions, exhibitions (city, state and national), and portfolios for college applications. The population at TJ changed rapidly: I soon had a large number of students from the “projects” and I began to experience what some called “white flight”. By then I was quite at ease with inner city youth and their accomplishments continued to amaze me – but friends and some family members began asking, “Why are you wasting your time and talent on these kids?” The question seemed arcane. “Why not” – many of these students had not grown up with art as I had and I realized that their exposure in sometimes only one class would be it for life. I was hooked and staying put was my mission. I know God had put me in the path I was on and I felt He was using me.
After 11 years at TJ I was invited to join the staff at Richmond’s Arts and Humanities Center. There, I worked with teachers and students across the city as well as teaching them in after school classes in drawing, painting, jewelry and textile design at the center. I also got to manage city-wide exhibitions and work with theatre production. After three years, my friend at John Marshall High retired and I asked to move there where I taught studio art and jewelry for the next 12 years – more amazing students. Every year was adorned with some major stars.
An opening at Richmond Community High saw my final seven years in RPS. Working with potentially gifted students, all of whom were highly motivated, curious, and receptive was my ultimate challenge. I worked with 6 levels of instruction including AP studio applicants and was able to sponsor several yearbook staffs, many college portfolio applications, scholarships, and dozens of competitions, exhibitions and displays on citywide, regional and national levels. Students excelled in many venues. While at RCHS I was able to travel to New York with the sophomore class for week long minimesters, and to Paris, Budapest, Vienna, Venice and Prague with art and language students as well as numerous trips to museums and galleries in Richmond and D.C. The opportunities for exposure added immeasurably to the learning process for these students and created common bonds rarely found in other schools or systems.
The path I have been given has been adorned with gifted peers and administrators and amazingly talented students, who have gone on to unbelievable careers all over the world. Students have excelled in architecture, fine arts, graphic design, interior design, education, archaeology, anthropology, jewelry design and fabrication, material culture, museum education, city planning, furniture design, graphic design, game design, photography – the list goes on and on. I am convinced that I could not have had more talented human beings cross my professional path anywhere else on the planet. The city blessed me with grants, equipment, conferences, workshops, travel and countless other opportunities to grow and learn.
My work with diverse populations in the city led me to Ginter Park Presbyterian Church. First attracted by the music there, I have come to love the church family for their acceptance, generosity, open-mindedness, outreach, and acceptance of those outside our neighborhoods, comfort zones, and social boundaries. God has blessed me so much …. I pray that I will always be able to pass this blessing on to others.