“If you help others, you will find the happiness you want. This is the secret they don’t tell you at school.” Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche
How do we end up in our personal (and public) situations? How do children with big problems, those born into poverty, ignorance, and crime, find real happiness inside a box of paints or a piece of cake?
I saw them with my own eyes, two hundred K-3 kids at New Orleans College Prep, a public charter school for grades K-8, expanding soon to K-12, available tuition-free to all children in Orleans Parish, regardless of demographics. With dedicated and highly skilled teachers and a hands-on principal, this school instills a desire for college from day one with strict academics and discipline, a code of honor complete with advanced concepts and vocabulary, and a tremendous amount of fun, such as the zoo, sports, music lessons, art therapy, and dance.
In a school in which more than eighty percent of their parents lack a high school diploma, these students have their eyes set on college and their hearts set on the person sitting next to them.
One little boy grabbed my hand to show me not only his own painting, but also that of several of his friends. They painted hearts and sunshine and flowers. Their dogs weren’t just blue, but also purple and yellow and red. When I told one child, “Look at your painting! You’re an artist!,” she smiled big and opened her arms wide,
“We’re all artists, Ms. Wendy!”
I spent much of this week thinking about growing older and about life’s circumstances. I should have been born twenty years earlier, I thought to myself as I toasted John Bullard, a dear friend and the former director of the New Orleans Museum of Art, who recently retired after thirty-seven years.
Looking around the room, I couldn’t help but wonder what I was doing there, why I was included among this distinguished group. I fought back thoughts of losing my friends, so many of them approaching seventy, eighty, and even ninety, and all of them significant contributors to the arts in the New Orleans community.
(pictured, cakes for the students of NOCP, donated by New Orleans’ culinary artists: Chef Matt Murphy and Chef Thomas McGovern of M Bistro at the Ritz-Carlton, and Chef Ziggy Cichowski of the Maple Street Patisserie)
This aging conundrum weighed on my mind since presenting a lecture the day before to The Freedom Foundation of Valley Forge. With their modest budget these dedicated Americans, most of them senior citizens, devote their efforts to sending at least one student a year to school in Washington D.C. They speak of changing our community, instilling a sense of pride in young people so that they appreciate our country and understand the importance of practicing and preserving its values:
“…To share with others our appreciation of the benefits and obligations of freedom…” from the “Bill of Responsibilities” of the Freedom Foundation of Valley Forge.
George and I ended our week with a painting demonstration and lecture for the Louisiana Art Educator’s Association during their fall conference in Baton Rouge. The two hundred teachers from all levels came from around the state for a weekend devoted to (according to their flyer) “altering our ideas and passions as a necessary continuous process of growth, both personally and professionally.”
You are my favorite type of audience, I told them, as George painted for an hour alongside me. They already understand Louisiana terms such as loup-garou and Jolie Blonde, and their art knowledge opens my discussion of Rodrigue to comparisons with Degas, Picasso, and others, along with an easy understanding of his academic roots, namely the 1960s art scene.
These teachers share the arts with their students. They are the administrators of our goals through the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts. Without them, none of it works.
What did we do with our time before we had a foundation? I asked George Rodrigue this week.
“Book tours and museum shows,” he reminded me.
Oh yeah, I forgot.
(Update 2022: Today, this in-person education outreach continues in George’s memory through the Life & Legacy Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization established in 2017. Learn more.)
I was surprised when a friend of my sister’s asked her recently,
“Are you ever jealous of Wendy?”
“No, I’m not jealous” Heather said, “and besides, she’s tired all of the time!”
*Sprinkled throughout this post: photographs from our afternoon at New Orleans College Prep
*Special thanks to Forum 35 of Baton Rouge, Char Thian of the Ritz-Carlton New Orleans, Chef Matt Murphy and Chef Thomas McGovern of M Bistro, Chef Ziggy Cichowski of the Maple Street Patisserie, our wonderful GRFA staff and interns, and the many volunteers that helped us create a special afternoon for students at NOCP
Coming later this week: “Doctor on the Bayou”