My husband, Zvi, and I were bringing our grandson, Zellik, and his friend, Asher, to the High Museum of Art. We were about to turn onto Lavista Road when I glimpsed a remarkable sight moving along Lavista. But we were stopped by a red light. If we could make that turn quickly, the boys would still be able to see what I saw! Luckily, the light changed just in time for us to spot the vision moving slowly ahead of us.
“Everybody, turn to your right,” I exclaimed. “There’s a Sikh, riding a bicycle.
He’s that man in a turban, wearing green shorts, and he has a big American flag waving from a box on the back!” Happily, our passengers were able to get a good look at the fellow, someone completely unique in our neighborhood.
In our car, we imagined scenarios involving the interesting flag-bearing fellow – it was July 3 – and I, ever the enriching family matriarch, told them everything I knew about Sikhism. (More about that later.)
One of the boys said, “I guess he can’t afford a car, but he should wear a helmet.”
“Could a helmet fit over a turban?” the other boy asked.
Later, we spent an hour at the museum viewing the Duncan Phillips art collection.
My “teaching-moment” obsession kicked in, as with the Sikh on the bicycle, and I saw it as my duty – even though each work of art was accompanied by information – to tell the boys more about the artists.
In the second room of the show, we, and everyone around us, were amused by a woman sashaying about, wearing an outrageously capacious yellow hat. She came up to us, pointing to Asher’s shoe. “I was about to tell him that his shoe was untied and he was going to trip, and then I twisted my ankle and I tripped myself. Can you imagine that?”
Asher bent down to tie his shoe, and when the woman moved on, I activated my self-appointed role as in situ youth educator. “Did you see that amazing hat? I’ll bet one of these artists would have loved to paint her. I know that I’ve seen a hat like that before, but I don’t know where.” Then, recalling the Sikh on the bicycle, I added, “Isn’t the world full of interesting people?”
One of the boys responded, “Why would anybody spend money on a hat like that? She could have bought hats for a hundred poor people instead!”
As we headed to a second show in a different building, I grabbed the opportunity to make a salient point. “Imagine Mr. Phillips acquiring such a collection, turning his home into a museum and sharing his personal possessions with the world!”
One boy had this to say, “How could anyone spend millions of dollars for paintings when there were people without food or a place to live?”
There were many possible responses to that, but I, the zealous pedagogue, didn’t offer them. That was a pretty good question. In fact, a great one.
The second show, featuring the whimsical work of Maira Kalman, was a lot of fun, a perfect end to the afternoon. I couldn’t help wondering, however, if one day her art, books and furniture would be in a multi-million-dollar collection.
Later, Zvi and I talked about the Phillips masterworks and the ways rich people spend their money. Throughout our lives, Zvi and I benefitted from schools, research centers, museums, parks, symphonies and literature funded by the wealthiest members of society. Several museums, showcasing remarkable private collections, have opened in the last 25 years, and they continuously nourish the lives of thousands of people.
Remember the Sikh on the bicycle and the woman in the huge, yellow hat?
That evening, I discovered that half the Sikh facts I glibly gave the boys were wrong. Would it be educational overkill to now feed the boys the right information? And the attention-getting chapeau? I eventually recalled seeing its twin as a very costly “must have” in an elite magazine. However, that frivolous hat provided delightful free entertainment for a lot of art lovers.
So now I, the teacher, ask myself a question: Is giving pleasure to millions the equivalent of giving soup to multitudes? Just asking.