This week we are celebrating my mom’s 40th year teaching at Pius XI High School. Forty. My earliest memories of my mom include her as teacher, long before she officially started her work at Pius. When we lived in Springfield, Missouri, she had a ceramic “studio” in our garage. My mom didn’t call herself a teacher yet, but she was teaching me anyway … always creating (macrame wall hangings from found objects, thrown coffee cups, dandelion wine with accompanying hand thrown goblets, homemade cinnamon rolls, molasses cookies). We didn’t have a TV. She was always making. She was twenty-three. I was her sidekick. Maybe a silent sidekick. I sewed on my pink sewing machine, painted my first stretched canvas, finger painted next to the kick wheel. She even allowed me, after relentless begging and against all of her own beliefs, to go to a Baptist Sunday school once with the neighbor girl where I got to make noodle art about Jesus on burlap. When another girl down the street sprayed my long hair with an entire gallon of Aqua Net and then cut inches of it off with a plastic left handed scissors, my mom washed it all out, over the sink, and taught me how to not let others take advantage of me and also that no one should use hairspray shortly before they attend a bonfire.
She started at Pius when my younger brother was old enough to attend a Montessori pre-school (where the teacher at the time told my mom, “He is a nice boy, but he will bite sometimes,” about which my mom fretted about when really she should have just replied, “He is a Virgo, you will get used to it”). She taught art in a single room on the third floor next to her colleague, Keith Beutin. I used to wait in the large supply room before it was time for me to catch the bus to my elementary school. I learned a lot about high school in that room. Once my mom’s TAC (homeroom) student came in dressed as a giant Reindeer (spirit week) and she was a girl who wanted to fit in, but just didn’t and she was the only one in costume. My mom was trying to reason with her and care for her, but the six foot tall Rudolph girl grabbed my mom by the collar, lifted her up off the ground and held her fist inches away from her face, ready to punch her. She didn’t go through with it and I like to credit that to the fact that I was in the room. This whole memory makes me giggle.
There were other things I remember from that room. Mostly that there was this Greek athletic senior there that smelled of cologne and spent the morning chasing his girlfriend around the tables. I loved him (insert mom eye roll). My mom began to have her first successes in that room. She started to connect with her students and I remember a few short years into her tenure that we took a road trip to Sun Valley, Idaho to visit her first art school kid. To know that trip was almost four decades ago is to really understand the lyric that “life is what happens to us when we are busy making other plans.”
Both my brother and I, my cousins, along with my best friend to this day, all took art classes with my mom when we got to high school. By that time her little third floor art room had expanded to take up the entire sixth floor of the building. I watched my mom fight the fights that need to happen to instill change and foster vision. I saw her bruised and broken hearted more than once, more than a dozen times, as others struggled to understand that vision. I watched, in my mom’s growth, her battle a lot of that, but at the heart of it was her commitment to students, to the arts, and to herself.
In celebrating those forty years, I find myself reflecting on her simpatic journey of artist, mother, teacher. They are so closely intertwined. She went from that clay studio in the garage to one in our basement on 49th and Concordia in Milwaukee (pretty sure that basement wasn’t suited for a kiln and it’s amazing we didn’t blow up) to her abandonment of clay altogether. She started sewing into rag paper on our dining room table, using film remover to make transfers from magazines, colored pencils to make patterns. All of those baby steps leading her to the artist and painter she is now. She simultaneously played the role of mom, something she has always naturally, effortlessly been good at. She set her artist self up on a high shelf as she cared for our hearts and those of her students. As a teacher myself, I will tell you that she would not be the painter she is today if it weren’t for those relationships. Those who can, teach, and that she has done. Brilliantly.
When I was a senior in high school, I was in a class of about ten art portfolio students (a number that has since more than quadrupled). As part of the college application process, I had to take a timed home test (something art colleges don’t do anymore). My mom ran this test for myself and others after school. I was so anxious and upset with my results that I walked out of the “exam,” and threw my drawings in the garbage. My mom took them out of the trash and mailed them into schools anyway. A few months later she picked me up from the darkroom, where I was developing film. There was an unopened letter from School of the Visual Arts on the front passenger seat of the car. She didn’t peek. We opened the news of my full presidential scholarship together. I met my husband at that college. If my mom hadn’t picked those drawings out of the trash, my whole life would be different.
I am not the only life that Pat Frederick has had a hand in orchestrating. Hundreds, if not thousands of students, including my own children, have found their little artist selves because they have been lucky enough to be the recipient of my mom’s belief, confidence, and drive. Last weekend she showed me her latest painting and I said, “Oh, a wolf.” She said she didn’t paint a wolf, but she misunderstood me. She painted wolf energy, which according to various sources means, “Strength. Endurance. Giving Away Energy. Connecting With All to Connect to a Few. Solitude and Socialising. Teacher. Shepherd.” My brother commented that he saw a giant fox face in the painting. Fox. Foxes … small with a large presence.
I look forward to celebrating with many of you this weekend and grateful to those of you who are planning an event to honor a woman who has been my best friend and mentor since before time. I know she doesn’t see a wolf or a fox. My mom’s muse is the rabbit. Rabbits guide us to move through fear by trusting our instincts. In myths, the rabbit is seen as guides between heaven and earth. For me that is exactly right. I met my mom there, somewhere between heaven and earth on the wing of a prayer.