The Art of Miss Chew
By Patricia Polacco
Women’s History Month, which is running March 1 through March 31 of this year, has adopted the theme of Women’s Education – Women’s Empowerment.
In viewing their web site, I found it filled with information I found surprising. For instance, women far outrun men in the numbers attending college in the U.S. And though it may not raise many eyebrows, there was a time in the not too distant past when this was not so. In fact, women participating in higher education were a bit of a phenomenon. How quickly we forget! And if we do, how much more can the young girls of today not quite conceive of a time when this opportunity was not even open to women.
I’m an admirer of the picture books of Patricia Polacco. Several of her books depict themes of inspirational teachers and their effect on the future potential of their students and those students’ beliefs in themselves. The quote, “Great oaks from little acorns grow” sort of dovetails with Ms. Polacco’s view of one teacher’s ability to influence and empower.
If I dig back into my high school Latin, the term education comes from “educare” meaning to draw out, implying something that’s already present. So, it seems appropriate during Women’s History Month and especially because of its theme of education empowering women, to feature Ms. Polacco’s newest book, The Art of Miss Chew which speaks to one young woman empowering another.
In Patricia Polacco’s realistic telling of a relationship with her high school art teacher, Miss Chew, Patricia is again in familiar territory. In a letter to the reader Patricia Polacco shares Violet Chew’s transference of a gift to perceive, evaluate and appreciate the beauty of art.
A substitute teacher, Mrs. Spaulding, enters the picture filling in for Patricia’s regular teacher, Mr. Donovan, who is aware of Patrica’s learning needs (Patricia is dyslexic) and has allowed Patricia to enter the rarefied world of high school art in a specialized class. Mrs. Spaulding attempts to thwart this with the quote, “Your time would be better spent studying for your tests, instead of leaving this school to take art classes. And I’m going to see if I can make that happen.”
The stage for confrontation is set but Miss Chew and a gathering of principals and other administrators agree that Patricia, because of her dyslexia, does see things differently than most children. Patricia thrives and is validated when she is asked to be part of the high school spring art show as the only exhibiting student who is not in high school.
I love this book because it is very inspiring, enlightening and affirming. The real Miss Chew went on to become Patricia Polacco’s art teacher at Oakland Technical High School during the 1960’s. And according to Miss Polacco, it is only because of her that she was able to earn a scholarship to California College of the Arts.
While Women’s History Month may bring forth images of the Elizabeth Cady Stantons, the Eleanor Roosevelts and the Marie Curies, legendary giants of women’s entry into a host of once primarily male fields of interest, it is also well to remember women like Violet Chew, who in their interaction with generations of students sent ripples across the ponds of many women’s lives.
I am so proud that I had my own version of Miss Chew in my sixth grade teacher, Ms. Alida Kratnoff who inspired excellence and confidence in anything one set one’s hand to attempt. She is the reason I chose teaching for a profession.
The example of role modeling set by all of these women is still the strongest teacher for future generations of women.
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