The Arts, the Senses, and the Imagination
TEACHERS 1: OLD JACK
by Robert Millar on December 28th, 2013

When he was already a permanent fixture in our family’s circle of friends during the 1950s he seemed old to us kids, although he was probably only around my age now, which somehow no longer seems quite so ancient. To us, he was the old guy who smoked too many cigarettes, ate too much food, wore the same old gray suit most of the time, and whose habitual affirmative answer to a question was not “yes,” but an emphatic “I say ‘e do,”  a contraction of “I’ll say he (she, it) does.” Old Jack smoked between four to six packs of unfiltered cigarettes per day, so many that his remaining teeth and the fingers of his right hand were permanently stained a sickly yellowish-brown. With all that smoking, his taste buds had long since given up trying to do their job, a handicap he compensated for by increasing the quantity and variety of food on his plate at any one time. We often looked on in awed fascination as he filled his dish with meat, vegetables, dinner rolls, and salad, then loaded a big piece of dessert on top, and finally covered the whole plate with gravy before tucking into the meal. Sometimes I would ask if it didn’t bother him to mix all the food up in that way and he would answer wryly, “No, it all goes to the same place, anyway.”   

But he was a good old guy, was Old Jack. He didn’t appear to have a lot to say about things --- couldn’t engage in conversation that was too intellectual, too emotional, or that involved much abstract thinking. Perhaps he was just shy by nature. He was good-humored and kind, though, both to people and animals, and he was dependable --- all qualities that endeared him to everyone.
We never knew very much about his previous life except that he grew up near Ipswich, England, served in the Royal Flying Corps (the nascent RAF) during World War I, moved to Canada, and worked in the pneumatic tube industry in Canada and the U.S. designing and installing pneumatic communications systems (those little containers that used to blow through special air pipes in a building carrying messages, receipts, etc.) in large hotels and businesses until his retirement. But to us, he was just a rather simple, humorous, and colorful character, an “extra” in the drama of our lives about whom we knew all we thought we needed to know. Even his wife was more exciting to us because she could recount stories of being attacked by wild “Indians” during her childhood in rural South Dakota.
Years later when Jack finally passed away, his iron constitution carrying him well into his eighties despite all the smoking and overeating, I was called upon to help dispense with his worldly possessions. One day as I was sifting through his things I noticed a large, brown portfolio at the bottom of a trunk. Removing it, I undid the string clasp that secured the contents and discovered inside what appeared to be an old sketchbook. As I began leafing through the pages I couldn’t believe my eyes. What I was looking at was the last thing I had expected --- a series of pencil landscape drawings similar to the one pictured here. Each was different, each was signed with the initials JPG (John Percival Gibbons, Jack’s full name), and each captured a rural scene from the countryside around Ipswich. The work was far more than competent. It was so sensitive, skillful, and expressive that I had great difficulty incorporating the implications it carried into my long-held impression of Old Jack. Clearly there were some things I had missed in my youthful assessment of the man. Who was John Percival Gibbons? When had the artist of those delicate drawings given way to Old Jack? Had John been there all the time but I had not been keen enough to notice? I would have liked to have known that Jack.

When as a boy I used to play the piano for get-togethers of family and friends, Jack had always paid attention to the music, but I had dismissed him assuming he was too thick to “get” any of the expressive value in it. However, when I discovered those drawings, I began to wonder if perhaps I had been the simpler of the two of us. Evidently there was much more to Jack than seemed to be the case, and I had missed it. I found myself musing on how many others might be like him.

In the ensuing years, the portfolio of drawings made a disappearance at some point, but the lesson gleaned from the experience has remained. Never again did I depend upon superficial appearances to indicate the full measure of a human being. I learned that each of us carries around within us a world of feelings, experiences, talents, longings, and dreams. Some of them have been expressed, and some sadly denied expression. But they remain within us, ready to respond to the right circumstances and the right moment. Bystanders may never notice when or if that moment is at hand for someone in the room, but those of us who are in the Arts or are teachers would be wise not to underestimate our audience. We should always assume that, despite appearances, at least one person may be in attendance (and it may only be one) for whom the moment is now. And we should always give our best.


Posted in ART, GENERAL ARTS, TEACHERS    Tagged with art, Old Jack, teachers


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