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Roughly sculpted head of a person on coarse-looking white rock

Becoming the Schoolteacher

You are the teacher now.

Even though many of us are months into the job of teaching our kids from home, it still feels surreal. I knew teachers were invaluable before this moment, but my experience has brought the value and weight of their service into even sharper focus. If I am being honest, I have been overwhelmed in my role of parent-teacher. My time management has been tested. My (what I thought was strong) ability to multitask has been tested. My patience has been tested. And at times, even my elementary math skills have been tested.

On challenging days when I’m feeling particularly inadequate in this role, I turn to William Edmondson’s Schoolteacher.

William Edmondson, Schoolteacher, 1935

William Edmondson, Schoolteacher, 1935, limestone, Corcoran Collection (Gift of David and Renee McKee), 2015.19.3920

The figure is only about a foot tall, but she is undeniably powerful—solid, strong, and focused. She embodies everything that I admire about what teachers bring to the profession. Details give depth to the seeming simplicity of this sculpture. For instance, her face mesmerizes me. Depending on the day, I see empathy, perseverance, and kindness in her deep-set eyes and slightly upturned mouth. I especially love the book tucked underneath her right arm. What is she reading? I think of the book as a sign that she takes her job seriously and comes prepared. The tidy bow on the front of her dress is a signal to me of her professionalism; she cares, and she is dressed for the part. Even the tiny feet peeking out from beneath her dress give me a sense of her activity and purpose.

I aspire to all of these traits as a parent-teacher. 

The artist William Edmondson carved this figure in 1935 from limestone—a material that he could easily find and access for free. He was a self-taught artist, the son of enslaved parents, and the first African American to have a solo museum exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. Edmondson carved his figures directly into the stone without preliminary sketches, a process that required physical strength and patience.

Right now, I feel especially drawn to Edmondson, an artist who taught himself how to create. Personally, I had no plan on day one as a teacher to my kids—I had no choice but to muscle through and discover my own reserve sources of patience, creativity, and strength.

To my fellow family-teachers out there, you are contributing to the heroic lift of our communities. This may not be the task we asked for, but it is the task we were assigned. I hope that by spending a few minutes looking at Schoolteacher, you may find some of the same motivation and inspiration that I see in this work of art. I hope that her power can inspire your power.

She’s got this.

And we’ve got this.