Monday, April 12, 2010

Weekly Reflection (week 15): Wanting to thank you

Who do I wish I could thank from my past? (Who might not realize their impact upon my life?)

I am always awed when reflecting upon the course of my life to consider those seemingly haphazard moments shared with another person, possibly a stranger, that sparked a monumental change in my life. At the time, I am not aware that my course has shifted and that the steps I am somewhat haltingly taking will result in such a rich journey.

I've been thinking about all the people in my past who have bumped shoulders up against me and sent me off in new directions. I've written before about the conversation over tea that turned out to be the seed for my journey to Cowgirl. The job I hold now is due to a conversation with a customer when I worked at a bookstore. Somehow, the fact I had a master's degree in Art History and had taught before came up and months later a phone call came in to the store and someone I did not even remember was asking me if I wanted to teach a class at the university here.

But there is one person who has been floating through my awareness a lot these days. The one person who I wish I could thank right now for his impact upon my life is my high school photography teacher. His was more than a casual bumping into and I doubt he ever knew how essential his belief in me was then and even now.

High School was not a good time for me. My memory of it is steeped in the emotions of survival. I was pretty shy, I started out overweight and then struggled with an eating disorder for the remainder of my time there. I did not belong to any clubs, I partook of no extracurricular activities. In fact, I spend my afternoons working at the public library. The librarians there and the women in an aerobics class at the YMCA that my mother and I attended compromised the bulk of my social interactions. Oh, I hung out with friends my age but my sense is we all were just drifting through our days until we could be released into the next phase of our lives.

Somehow, I gathered up enough courage to take the one class I had always wanted to take: photography. Our school only offered black and white photography, levels I and II, and I took both. I loved everything about it. The chemicals that stained my finger tips and corduroy pants, marking me as an initiate; the lazy spin of the lab clock marking time for the developing and fixing trays; the hum of the lights when exposing a print; tapping the bottle opener on the counter to let the person next to you in the dark know it was their turn to open up their film canister. I think I loved working in the darkroom because I could feel alone while surrounded by others. There was a sacred quality to our working there together, each person focused upon their images, coaxing their perception of the world into tangible form.

Of course what made this space sacred and empowering was the instructor, Mr. Perna. In hindsight, it seems many of the teachers in my school were disappointed. There were standouts who loved both the material and the teaching of their subject, but many more seemed disappointed by either where they ended up, what they were doing or by us, the students. I don't believe we knew that at the time, but we could sensed their disillusionment the way a dog picks up on meanness. In turn, they made us uneasy and uncomfortable with where and who we were.

By contrast, Mr. Perna seemed to genuinely enjoy both photography and the teaching of it to us. I loved the times he would pull out a slide projector and show us the works of the great photographers like Stieglitz, Adams, Weston, Strand and Lange. One weekend my mother and I ran into Mr. Perna and his wife at an exhibition of Ansel Adams photographs in New York. My sense is we were both pleased to recognize the other one shared a passion for the image.

After taking both of the black and white photography classes, the only other course one could take was an independent or "advanced" study which was limited to one student per semester. It never even occurred to me to try for that coveted solo spot and probably Mr. Perna knew I would not ask. So he asked me.

Not only did he ask if I was interested, but he confided that he was asking me before another student approached him as he would rather work with me. If he did nothing else, this expression of his confidence in me opened up the possibility that maybe, just maybe there was something in me that was worthy of his belief. But he also taught me to respect my vision and taste, and to stand up for my point of view. One time while discussing one of my images he expressed his preference for a lighter exposure, but deferred to what he had observed was my preference for darker images. He never treated me as a kid with a lot to learn; rather, he treated me as an equal whose ideas and aesthetic were worth considering. In respecting me as someone with something worthwhile to say, he mentored me in learning to respect myself.

I wish I could say I carried forward his confidence and conviction in my talent. I fell back into old habits of disbelief and after I took a college photography course, I put my camera away except for holiday photographs. My cameras languished more or less unloved until last year. Thankfully I stumbled into other teachers whose passion for photography and the healing effect of turning the camera lens upon one's life is rekindling that little flame sparked by Mr. Perna so many years ago. I know I am bolder today because of the foundation he helped me create way back when I was still a vulnerable caterpillar, incredulous that wings or color or freedom could be part of my story.

So a very humble "thank you" to Mr. Perna for believing in me when I didn't know how to do so for myself. I can't say I've tried very hard to find him; probably if I caved in and joined Facebook I might be able to track him down. And yes, I do know his first name, Paul (and his wife was Susan) but he is frozen in my memory as "Mister." And it seems fitting to combine this thank you with photographs from my past weekend as my contribution to Best Shot Monday.

I know the very best way I can show my gratitude for his gifts is to continue to believe in myself and to nurture that attitude within others. We often never know how a smile to a stranger brightened their day but we do know the impact of those acts upon our hearts and our spirit. I will also keep taking pictures for they help me to remember to see and honor myself and they capture the magic that is my life unfolding as a woman, a mother, and an artist.

How will you keep the gratitude wheel turning? Who do you wish you could thank?


  1. Thank you so much for sharing this reflection. Many times we do not realize the impact someone has on us until much later. I have tried in the past few years to say more thank yous and to treasure those in my life.

  2. This is so beautiful Lisa...and it really opened something up inside me.

    Thank you.

    Big hugs!

  3. Oh, I love this!! Many others mention him... I wasn't around there long enough to know him. How awesome he ASKED YOU! What a privilege!! I don't know if he is on facebook but there are TONS of folks from our high school there. It has actually been healing for me to come to know them now rather than let their ghosts haunt me, which many of them did before...

    I am grateful you took out your camera again... and as for me? When I am home tomorrow, I'll blog on your question. I'm at my friend, Cameron's house. He is striking a set, I am hiding out, protecting my reputation. Back in the town where you and I grew up I gave up my main passion at the ripe old age of 11. Can you imagine? Now you can't get me off the stage, but it would have been easy to have never started up again. I wonder sometimes if Mrs. Wilson has any idea... most people will only ever know that one person who came from that same stage as I did. *laughter* LOVE LOVE LOVE YOU!, my friend)

  4. Hi Lis, just followed a link from Connie - this is such a touching story ... I'm your newest follower :)Jenine
    BTW love the name of your blog!

  5. Thank you so much for sharing this post! How beautiful your writings. This is so touching...and so very timely!

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  7. You have become a powerful teacher, Lis

  8. Dear Lis-thanks for your comment on my BSM-it was difficult getting a pic of Tara. She is 15 months old and won't sit still for a moment!! I really enjoyed reading your post on gratitude and some very candid memories of your teen years. Yes, there are people that come into our lives and really change, influence and encourage us. It's amazing how a "chance" encounter can change the course of our lives. Thanks for coming into my life:)

  9. Just read the other comments - you and Julie were at the same high school?!! How amazing is that, and you found each other through CED?

    Your story took me in several directions. Firstly, my dad was a keen B&W photographer and although I never participated in any of it, the darkened out-of-bounds rooms with the red light were very much a part of my childhood. I post some of his photos on my blog from time to time (under category Dad's photos if you're interested.)

    Secondly, I was taken back to some of my teachers and the faith they showed in me. I had a very good experience with almost all my teachers all the way through school and have a lot to thank them for. Just a couple that I really don't think should have been teachers...

    And finally, to today - I haven't been taking many photos lately and thought it had maybe lost its charm for me, but this week I was in London for two days and only this morning have been working at some of the images in Photoshop and realising I still love it, and yes - what we point our camera at is an indication of what's important to us, isn't it, so it's a form of journalling in itself.

    I agree with artyowza - you are a powerful teacher, Lis!