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What Has Kept Me at Walnut Hill So Long

by Steve Durning

A kind colleague asked me at lunch recently what has kept me at Walnut Hill for my entire teaching career (this is my 38th year). The answer "It's exciting to work with young artists!" is obvious, clichéd, pandering. But it's true. Most people are swept up in the pleasures of the senses at times. People who love the arts get to experience the senses in a particularly intense and complex way. While I listen, say, to a student's senior cello recital, my ears take in the music. But there's more to it. All the times since I was in second grade that I've played the piano, or tried to; when I started to love classical music for real, as a sophomore in college; the times the composer being played at this recital has given me pleasure before: all of these experiences are in the room with me. This student's playing of this piece is to the whole of my experience as the final, resolving interval is to the particular piece being played right at that moment. I'm not kidding. I think this is how art works for all of us. It takes place in the present, but it also plays on our memory as if our memory itself were a musical instrument.

The student playing the piece is like the narrator of a literary work. When I read, I always strike up some kind of friendship with the narrator. I think everyone does (as long as the reading is giving pleasure.) As I listen, I rekindle and enjoy my friendship with this "narrator," enjoy the way he expresses his interpretation of the music with his movements, enjoy with a part of my mind what a fun, rewarding student he was when I had him in English, feel hopes for his future . . .

Perhaps the very next night I go to a dance performance in Keiter. Same story, different medium. Different instruments. Different "narrators."

If it's May, I might, two days later, go to the senior show of some students who I  loved having as students. Same story, etc. And that doesn't even take into account theater, both musical and straight. Writing. Filmmaking.

The reason I enjoy particular students' performances is that I know the students so well. I know them the way that comes from climbing together the four-month-long mountain that is a Walnut Hill semester. They did my assignments, experiencing difficulties, experiencing triumphs. I relied on them pulling me up the mountain more than they relied on me to pull them up (little known fact: students have more power in a classroom than the teacher does), but mostly we worked together. We wouldn't have gotten to the top without each other. When a year later I go to his senior recital and listen and watch him make his deep cello magic, I think, "Friend, I am so proud of you, it makes me want to cry! Or maybe I want to cry because your music is so beautiful, I can't tell which!"

If I taught at a different high school, the students and I would still climb the semester-mountain together. A student here would give a recital, a student there would be part of an art show. But the art experiences, created by students I really know, would not be the same at that school. Here at Walnut Hill it's like having music coming toward me from twenty-four different angles from twenty-four different stereo speakers. At that other school it would be like listening to music through an iPhone. I would think, "Oh—music. I think I remember once loving music. But that was a long time ago. Oh well."

Friends and family of mine who aren't connected to Walnut Hill know I teach at an art school. But they don't know how much I love teaching at this school. Nor do my friends and colleagues here know; not really. It's a secret I'm telling right now, in this article. I couldn't have said it until now.