Childhood Memories with Ms. R


Julia Maushardt, Writer

We always hear that no one knows their future career in high school. There’s a good reason undergraduates aren’t required to choose their majors until their sophomore year. Yet most students have a decent sense of where they plan to go in life, even if it’s simply knowing what they don’t want to do. So it may come as a surprise that our own Ms. R., the popular and well-like photography teacher, never even took an art class in high school. The young Ms. R. had always seen herself as a writer and, with family hardships to bear, found herself floating through her teenage years without a true sense of where she was headed in life.

Her freshman year in college, Ms. R. decided to try something new and chose to take a course in ceramics. Even though she had avoided art all through high school, her teacher admired her work and recommended a career in architecture. She was shocked to hear herself described as having a “creative mind.” And while she was considered legally blind, she became hooked on darkroom photography after being introduced to its complex and beautiful process by her boyfriend. She boldly told her sociology teacher about her lack of interest in his subject, and declared that all she really wanted to do in college was make art while still getting credit for his class (it still surprises her today that he accepted her “brazen” request so easily). And so the young Ms. R. began her journey in the visual arts.

She chose to transfer to the Rhode Island School of Design, a small art school in Providence, and double major in photography and ceramics. Now on her third and fourth majors (originally having studied social work and sociology), Ms. R. found herself struggling to meet her teachers’ expectations and still follow her dream of teaching art as a social service. While she planned to use her creativity to make a difference in her community, her professors expected to train her for a professional career as an artist.

At the time, the ceramics department chair was “an absolute tyrant.” He espoused the idea that no woman could ever be a great potter. When Ms. R. requested to spend the rest of her semester at a ceramics workshop in Denmark, he threatened to force her out of the school, withdraw her scholarship, and fail her for the semester. She now views this as a defining moment in her life―the choice she made to escape an oppressive environment and forge her own path abroad at the risk of losing everything she had worked for. Returning a week before the semester ended, she marched into the department chair’s office and, while masking sheer terror with a calm confidence, displayed the work she had accomplished in Denmark. “Here is my work,” she told him. “I want full credit, I want my scholarship back, and I want to graduate when I’m supposed to.”

To her utter shock, he simply replied, “Okay.”

Ms. R. graduated RISD on time with a major in art education and went on to teach photography and ceramics for the past twenty years (with an interim twenty-year chapter working with refugees in between). She now sees her art school experience as a life lesson: stand up for what you know is right, believe in your abilities, and don’t let bullies drag you down. And maybe the biggest surprise of all? “You can still choose art as a career and pay the bills!”