One of My Favorite Students

Tom had been a pain in my ass for a good long time during that trip to London. I was teaching English and leading a tour, and he’d been the guy who’d come along because he wanted to go clubbing and sneak off to Amsterdam.

He was smart enough but never took the assignments seriously, never did the reading. I kept reminding him that he’d paid for the classes, not just the trip, but he was fine with that. He wasn’t there for literature or art, he said.

At least he wasn’t there for any of the until the Tate Gallery, one of London’s premier art collection. I’d been explaining different kinds of art to them, going over the basic movements, talking about Picasso and Degas and Kandinski as much as I could. After all, I’m not an expert on art history, but I was taking lessons from my wife who is an expert and giving the class whatever I could give them.

I was expecting Tom to be sullen or make snarky remarks that afternoon, but what I found was Tom alone in a gallery room staring at Fish, Brancusi’s sculpture that captures the moment of a fish in the ocean. Tom stared at it critically from each side, trying to understand it, trying to see it from the right angle. When I came over to him, he asked me about, and I talked about Brancusi’s mission and his perspective, and Tom nodded seriously listening to me and making observations.

Behind us was a room full of Turners, his paintings that captured the essence of light so perfectly, and we wandered through talking about painting as capturing a mood as opposed to photorealism. He talked, and I talked, and then I left him to wander off to think about paintings and for me to think about him.

I think about Tom a lot now, Tom who was a true student; Tom who distrusted anything that smacked of pretentiousness -- like art and literature and classic music; Tom who turned out to be my best student, who made me prove what I was saying with actual proof; Tom who allowed himself to be changed by art, who was more open to allowing himself to be changed than just about anyone I know.

I’ve always allowed books to change who I was, and I know that other people do too, but I’ve never seen it happen in the moment until that summer in London.