On an average day for a painting student, the teacher beckoned me to the other room, for a quick chat. It was the middle of class, and everyone was silently working, or staring at their work, or praying for their work to somehow start forming into something significant.
I followed, hesitantly. He set me down. His eyes filled with tears. I braced myself.
"You're good," he said slowly, smiling. "You've got it."
I knew this was his last year as an older teacher, and perhaps the momentousness of this approaching end was too much for him to take. Perhaps he was wishing we could change places; him with more time to run towards his dreams. Or perhaps they were tears of satisfaction. I tried to respond sensitively; I tried to hold together the compliment he was thrusting towards me.
"You don't like to wear shoes do you?" he smiled, eyes crinkling. I smiled with him, shaking my head, both of us amused by my tendency to walk around the studio barefoot. It rooted me, somehow. We both sat there, floating with the possibilities of my future success, active spectators.
I returned to the main classroom. The teacher and I never really spoke again. We hadn't been close to begin with. The compliment, this earnest message, packaged and planned and given to me specifically, with the knowledge hoping to propel me forward, lodged into my consciousness. I carried it around with me, wherever I went.
Years later, a rainy night at a community art opening, I happened to overhear three women discussing my work. They began by praising my first two paintings. I smiled, and leaned in closer. But the third painting, a new venture into a different type of painting style, received a dreadful response: " It's so ugly!" the same praising woman declared to her friends. "Why would she have this in it?"
A year previously, while in Jerusalem, I had met a thriving Jewish artist who had one question for me: " Are you willing to continue painting after having 1000 people reject your work? How much stamina do you have? "
I answered him truthfully, instantly:" I can take it. I can take a 1000 people telling me my work is terrible, ugly. I believe in myself."
And I do. Because deep in my consciousness, lodged into a permanent part of my brain, my teacher sits. He sits and he delivers the same compliment again and again. I see his tears welling up all the time, the pain and joy simultaneously in his heart as he tries to delivers what he sees as a valuable message that needs to be heard. I hear it. "You are good." he says. "You got it."
He's what hold me together, keeps me going. When the critics are high and the paintings aren't forming. When colors run together and inspiration crumbles. I go back to that room, with my bare feet sauntering around studio floors, squinting at the canvas, imbued with an environment of confidence and support.
It's been 11 years since he took me into the room and sat me down. Where he is in this world, I don't know. I hope he's healthy and I hope he's painting his heart out. But in my mind, he's certainly alive and well, and he's pushing me forward, constantly.
For the sincere compliments that exit one's mouth and enter another's heart, cannot be forgotten. They are played on repeat. They sustain identities and dreams. They are the fuel that pushes artists forward when the rest of the world raises their eyebrows in mild confusion.
"I don't believe you," a voice pipes up within me when my work is negatively judged, (sometimes by myself). "There's a man in my head, and he says I'm good. He taught for twenty years at as a university arts professor. He says I've got it."
And at the end of the day, there's no arguing with that.