Candles, Mirrors, and Intellectual Property in K-12 Education

This past Spring, I attended a juried Art exhibition for students at a local gallery. Several of my colleagues’ students and my students had artworks displayed in the show.  I was irked to see that the student submissions from my colleagues featured projects I had taught them how to teach.  It was surprising to me to realize I was perturbed by this fact. In my mind, my students’ works were competing against very similar artworks, which put them at a slight disadvantage.  Annoyed, I thought to myself, “Well, I need to quit teaching everyone else all of my secrets.”
At the museum during my 2nd year teaching

When I graduated high school, I borrowed a line from Edith Wharton for my senior quote, “There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” I had no plans, at that time, to be a teacher. In fact, teaching as a career didn’t occur to me until nearly six years later. I chose the quote because it sounded intellectual and educated. In an interesting series of events, this quote had come to define who I am as an educator.
My siblings and I during my senior year of high school (I’m second from the left)
 The simple truth is I don’t have that many original ideas; most people don’t have that many original ideas. Original ideas, you see, are rare.  And, we inherently understand this fact as humans.  We revere those purveyors of originality and celebrate their ideas and accomplishments. We quote them, admire them, and emulate them.  Original ideas have far lasting consequences, and as such, originators of ideas have thought processes that are long-respected.
Fydor Dostoyevsky recognized that many original thinkers struggle against the status-quo, and often have ideas that aren’t fully understood by humanity until a generation or so later. He called such people “second category persons.” Dostoyevsky writes, “The second category all transgress the law; they are destroyers or disposed to destruction according to their capacities. The crimes of these people are of course relative and varied; for the most part they seek in very varied ways the destruction of the present for the sake of the better.“  This quote can be misconstrued as the concept is used as defense in the novel Crime and Punishment, for a murder. But, destruction isn’t necessarily negative. Destruction is often the impetus for renaissance. Sometimes, some things, need to be destroyed. The Berlin Wall was torn down, Gandhi starved himself to fend off colonialists, Dr. Martin Luther King marched against racism, people self-immolate to bring awareness to ideas and circumstances, and revolutionists founded America on the idea of rejecting their home nation.
So, no. Emphatically, no, I do not have many original ideas.

My colleagues and I at our B.F.A. Senior Exit Show (I’m second from the right)
What I do have, is a specific skill set and talent for acquiring and dispensing information. I can build almost anything with my hands, and can break down how to teach others to build the same thing with their own hands. To use Wharton’s metaphor further, I am very seldom a candle, but very often a mirror.  And, I am a pretty good mirror.
Our current, modern society reveres originality and celebrates it as something to be coveted. This covetous relationship can be seen in how we dress, how we behave, how we prepare food, and even how we permanently mark ourselves as different and therefore, original.  My grandfather used to say, “There ain’t nothing new under the sun. Only new people doing it.”  And, he is right; true originality is few and far between.
Artwork from my college senior exit show. I was desperate to be original.
When I realized back at the Spring Art show that I was really “just” a mirror, my response was to be upset.  My society deems originality is important, and suddenly, I didn’t feel so original.  It was distressing, and I felt an appropriate action would be to share my ideas less, so I can be more original.  But, let’s break down that idea.  I’m a teacher by training, by trade, and by choice.  Teaching is sacred to me; I feel there should be an oath all teachers take similar to the Hippocratic Oath of physicians.  Even though I have taken no verbal oath as a teacher, there is the oath and commitment I have made to teaching in my heart. I believe teachers are some of the most important people in a society; I believe teachers possess the ability to offer true equity to people through the sharing of concepts and ideas.  So, to keep an idea secret, to not share an idea for fear of a vain idea of not being original is tantamount to breaking that oath, no?

Two of the most talented students I’ve ever taught discussing a group project(Yes, they are arguing. No, they didn’t get along at all)

 As humans, we tend to prefer to do things we are good at. I LOVE teaching; I am very good at it. I enjoying sharing things I have learned with students and adults alike.  At what point did we, as a society, decide that those who reflect ideas are somehow less than those originate them? Originators of ideas are often geniuses, they are often misunderstood, and sometimes they even have a hard time socializing with others. Originators of ideas depend on mirrors to share their ideas.  Original ideas are all great and fine, but if there isn’t someone to share those ideas what good are they really?

You know how artists and art teachers like to say, “Art cannot be created in a vacuum”?  Well, original ideas cannot be created in a vacuum either. Second category persons need teachers (mirrors) whether it be through books, technology, or other people in order to possess enough knowledge to generate anything new.  Second category persons also rely on those same entities to share original ideas; it is, when people are brave enough to share, a very fulfilling cycle.

This artist was just 13 when she drew this (18 x 24 in, colored pencil on black paper)
Who am I, as a person who takes teaching as a sacred service, to break the cycle by not sharing ideas? I don’t have original ideas, but I am able to build upon the ideas of others. I share these ideas with my students and with my colleagues.  Early in my teaching career, I realized that I would be (and have) teaching artists whose skills, talents, and accomplishments would far outpace my own.  This fact has never bothered me; in fact, it has given me a great deal of joy to know I was able to participate in such an illustrious journey. Why then, do I allow the accomplishments of my colleagues, when they are brought to fruition by some semblance of something I taught them, to bother me? I allow it because, in short, I am insecure and afraid of being anything less than spectacularly original. 

But, we can’t all be candles.  Candles are brilliant, wonderful things, which spread light brightly in small, confined spaces.  It is, however, the mirrors, that spread light beyond boundaries.  It takes both candles and mirrors to spread light throughout a large space, and it takes both originators and teachers to spread ideas throughout the world. 

one of my newer illustrations (9 x 10 in, gouache on bristol)

6 thoughts on “Candles, Mirrors, and Intellectual Property in K-12 Education”

  1. I want to tell you how much I appreciate that you share your projects with everyone. This year one of the students in my county committed suicide, and many people believe it was due to bullying. I didn't know this person, but many of my students did. I wanted to give them a way to express their feelings. This was my first year teaching art, I was so overwhelmed by what had happened, and I didn't know where to start. That weekend I came across your website and saw the project your class did making anti-bullying posters. This was exactly what we needed. After the students made the posters, we printed them out, and they became a platform for the entire school to talk about bullying in their other classes. You sharing your project made a difference in my students' lives. Thank you so much!

  2. Wow! Thank you Anon. I'm really touched with your story. I'm so sorry for your tragic loss. I'm really happy that anything I've done here helped in some way. And, kudos to you and you students for working to make a difference.

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