Last month Bill Alston died.
And another piece of a world that made me… me disappeared.
He was my art teacher at this point in my life. Well, in a way he was one of the ones responsible for getting me there.
My home life was not easy. Up to age nearly 8 I was used to an entirely different life. When it ended, any change after that just rocked me. Most of my childhood memories seem overlaid with the emotion of fear. That any second someone was going to shift the goalposts on me and my life was going to crumple up again. All the sureness I had about who I was up to that point had vanished. I looked different to everyone else, I sounded different, I was suddenly an outsider who just couldn’t blend any more. I stopped trying to do things since trying something and not being able to do it made you obvious, gave more grist for the teasing mill. So you can picture how well I managed the jump to secondary school at age 12. I spent the first year feeling very lost, a tiny fish in too large a pond. In second year, at age 13, was when I met Mr Alston. And his class was the first place where I felt happy and most importantly, safe in a very long time. I could do what was asked of me in that class. I was never made to feel stupid. If you forgot your homework, Mr Alston was apt to shrug and say “people forget things, I forget things too” For someone who absented herself out of her brain a lot to get through a week this was such a relief. It removed the dread often felt while going into other teacher’s classrooms.
My happiest memories of school are in that classroom. It was warm and bright with a tiled floor and the standard belfast sinks. Writing about it suddenly makes me remember the smell of the paints and the vinegary tang that hung round the door of the tiny darkroom. I remember a poster of Billie Holiday on the side of a cupboard, staring soulfully into the middle distance, with the white flowers in her hair. Oddly I seem to remember it as it being the brightest art room despite the one along from it being on the corner of the building with far more windows. Funny how the mind plays tricks on you like that.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think Mr Alston ever set out to be the Robin Williams to our confused Pucks. He was just gloriously himself. The other teachers concentrated on getting you through exams (very well I do admit,) Mr Alston just let you be as artistic as you could be and experiment. You could go to him and say “I want to try this slightly weird thing with this medium on that” and he would just go “ok” and quite often whisk something out of a cupboard that would aid you. He would look at your work and see something in it when you thought you had made a pig’s ear of it. I thought I had taken a brilliant photo once, from a different angle from everyone else that day and on developing it, was utterly deflated to find it just looked dull. Mr Alston looked at it a moment, went away and came back with a better quality of photo paper than the usual stuff they let us use for me to reprint it on. And suddenly I found I had a photo I was really proud of. I still have it somewhere, in a scrapbook. I watched him casually drawing faces in his after school art club and was fascinated, he happily taught me, and after that, would let me march through the art department borrowing unnerved kids from other classes trying to catch their image on paper, I remember being allowed experiment with pastels while everyone else painted, wearing the tip of a finger flat blending great swathes of colour together while listening to him talk about all kinds of things. About how different the world was when he was our age, “in those days if you wanted to go to uni or art school, you just *went*” but always encouraging our further education dreams with “remember you can think just as well as they can”
That last one really stuck with me. That was the phrase that made me decide that yes, I was going to go to university when no one else thought I could. All the mistakes I have made in my life, my one real regret is I never saw him again and properly thanked him. For his time, his attention and that bit of wisdom that gave me enough faith in myself to make a choice and choose a change in my life. For the first time ever. And when I had the opportunity to say something worthwhile to say to teens, I found I had a piece of wisdom to pass along. I hope it carries a few of them into adulthood the same way it did me.
Thank you Mr Alston.