Media Circus: Vice grip

All I really need to know I learned in high school from Robert Fulghum.

Published November 6, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

With his white beard, wire glasses and signature white overalls splattered with paint and ink, he looked like a cross between the janitor and Santa Claus. His workshop was the top floor of an old school building in Seattle, a few white walls and slanted ceilings dappled -- much like the overalls -- with paint and ink, murals and graffiti. The students called him "Fulghum" and wrote notes in colored pen on his office walls.

Before becoming well-known and wealthy with his bestselling first book, "All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten," before he chatted with Oprah, was hired to officiate at the (aborted) wedding of Julia Roberts and Kiefer Sutherland and led happy middle-aged audiences in toneless rounds of "The Itsy-Bitsy Spider" on PBS (and after he worked as a full-time minister, cowboy and various other professions), Robert Fulghum was a high school art teacher, for more than two decades.

Mr. Fulghum probably wouldn't remember me, 11 years after I finished his graphics class. He taught some lessons, however, that I don't think I'll ever forget.

"All lies today!" Fulghum announced on the first day of class, telling us to introduce ourselves with a fib. The other students could then ask questions, making each person defend his or her story. I wanted to crawl out the door. I was shy and dreaded this kind of attention. Because the class sat around one table, I couldn't even effectively hide behind the person in front of me. "I'm a pyromaniac," I said miserably when my turn arrived.

"Challenge her!" Fulghum hollered, and I began to field questions about why, how, when and where I started fires. I was soon on a roll, listing top places to buy gasoline, when class ended. "Stellar," Fulghum whispered. Relieved, I headed to science class, where -- nervous around matches -- I regularly had other students light my Bunsen burner.

The next class period, we arrived to a dark room. With a flashlight, Fulghum silently ushered us up a ladder, through a hole punched in the wall several feet off the ground next to his classroom door. "From the dawn of human history," Fulghum began as we formed a circle on the floor in the dark, "people have drawn on walls. People have assembled in dark places and danced." He switched on a slide projector, casting an image of a roughly drawn bull on the wall. "Cave-dwellers drew what they wanted to catch. They sought to hold the world by depicting it." More cave paintings flicked by -- horses, creatures resembling antelope, a strange bird-headed man -- punctuating a lecture on art and magic. "Go," he said at the end, passing out magic markers, "and make your mark on the world." The lights came on; two girls started drawing daisies on the ceiling; a boy sketched fire on a door frame. I copied a William Stafford poem from an English book while Fulghum wandered about, talking of frequent arguments with the administration about allowing graffiti on the art room walls. The school's concern was obscenity. Fulghum pointed out a sketch of a skateboarder with enormous genitals almost as enthusiastically as he did a mural of planets painted on the ceiling.

As the semester progressed, we drew with ink and charcoal, pencil and pen. We learned that by staring at certain spots on psychedelic paintings, the pictures would start to shift and spin; the whole room would wave. "This is the closest you'll come to an acid trip without drugs," Fulghum said. Several students requested to repeat the class.

Some days Fulghum led us in breathing exercises he hoped would stimulate out-of-body experiences. In the fall, he filled the entire third floor with a five-inch layer of leaves, no mean feat without an elevator. For a lecture on the left vs. right sides of the brain, he borrowed a human brain from a university research lab and made us touch it with our bare hands. Despite my protests, I did not puke.

For a take-home final exam, we were given two pages of Zenlike riddles, which Fulghum instructed us to answer and "disguise" any way we chose. "Challenge me!" he cried. I cut my test into tiny pieces. Fulghum taped it back together. One student hid her answers at stops along a treasure hunt. Fulghum found them in two hours, collecting mannequins, hats and other clues along the way. Another girl baked her answers into fortune cookies. Fulghum ate them.

Between drawing wrenches, chairs, zoo animals and unclothed models of both sexes, I learned more from Fulghum's class than art technique. I learned about choices, and about vision. I learned that though I was ruled by the meat of my brain, I was more than meat. Fulghum reminded us that what we could imagine, we could be -- arsonists, drug addicts, vandals or artists. In the notes to my parents that teachers included with grades, Fulghum called me the "reigning Queen of the 1986 Graphics Classes." I was overweight. I was shy. I drew well. I had never been the Queen of anything.

I believe Robert Fulghum changed students' lives with his teaching. His classroom was somehow bigger than the outside world; in it, we could still capture what we saw, who we were, what we wanted, by putting it on paper. But I doubt that his books -- which he retired from teaching to write full time after his lucrative first release -- have changed any lives. When people read Fulghum's essays, often praised for their "gentle wisdom," I imagine they smile, feel better about themselves and go back to living exactly as they did before. Like most feel-good self-help books, they have no long-term effect. Easily digested platitudes can only burn so deeply, and the best wisdom isn't necessarily gentle. It isn't even necessarily direct. Learning often takes place in the dark.

Like many of Fulghum's former students, at times I feel a strange pride to say I once knew a celebrity. Some of his writing I actually like; when I heard Mother Theresa died, I reread an essay about her I remembered from his second book. And I don't begrudge Fulghum his fortune; he isn't a young man, and surely all good teachers deserve, and may not get, a comfortable retirement. But as the world grows increasingly fast, slick and image-oriented, I can't help but think we have a greater need for real role models than we do for celebrities, however good-natured or positive they may be. We need good teachers more than we need posters of Robert Fulghum's "Kindergarten" lessons.

When he left school, Fulghum won at least one educational battle. The art room graffiti remained, to be painted over every two years and allowed to start again. For many students this, like the caves at Lascaux, is where art begins.

By Rebecca Ransom

Rebecca Ransom is a poet who lives outside of Seattle.

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