A retired art teacher and I recently discovered that we have a mutual friend, Mike Fink. Although well known to readers of The Jewish Voice and Jewish Historical Notes, he is even better known for teaching literature and film courses at the Rhode Island School of Design. Indeed, for more than half a century! As a confidant to legions of students, faculty and alumni – and its presidents and custodians – Mike has gracefully earned the title “Mr. RISD.”
Another artist friend remembers encountering Mike in 1968, when she was a sixth-grader at a Providence parochial school. Having been invited to briefly discuss the boundaries of human imagination, he jumped up on a table and urged the girls to “rock the status quo.” This St. Margaret’s alumna saw Mike’s presentation as a pioneering example of performance art.
So, I asked myself whether I ever had such an unforgettable educational encounter. Such a question may sound academic, but I taught art history for many years and still lecture occasionally. Some of my best students were only in grade school; alas, some of my worst were earning masters’ degrees. Go figure!
Yet, if most students feel fortunate to have been touched by one or two wonderful teachers or professors, I have been truly blessed. More than a dozen intrigued, uplifted and inspired me.
For example, I stayed in touch with three of my favorite high school teachers for decades. Don’t ask me why, but I still have textbooks and papers from their classes. I also saved a few of their hand-written epistles.
In college, I felt close to many professors, including one art historian with whom I’ve remained in touch for 47 years. We’ve corresponded, spoken occasionally by phone, and visited each other in at least four states. He has autographed some of his books for me. Once, I was thrilled to arrange for him to lecture at Brown.
When attending my 40th college reunion, Franz and I once again schmoozed about current art world thrills and disasters. I later decided that I wouldn’t want to attend my next landmark reunion unless I could see him. Then, to show my abiding admiration and respect for him, I helped organize a campaign among fellow alums to endow a scholarship in his honor. He told me, in turn, that he loved me and that I was his best student. My reply: no, I was merely his most loyal.
A decade after completing my doctoral studies, I earned a master’s degree in Jewish communal studies at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. I quickly discovered the brilliance, dedication and eccentricity of many rabbinic professors, including several who treated me as a junior colleague – much to my surprise.
In a required course on medieval Jewish history, for example, I remember asking a professor what I thought was a simple question. It was something like, “But how does textual study lead to or enhance faith?” It merited a 45-minute response, which my classmates resented. Michael later served as one of my thesis advisers, and he attended the dedication of a historical exhibition I organized at my family’s temple. Sadly, soon after joining the faculty of Notre Dame, he was taken from us.
Somehow, I became close to another HUC professor, Stanley, in whose classroom I never sat. A few years after my graduation, I sought his advice, which he generously provided. He also offered his encouragement on numerous occasions. Even after his passing, I feel our friendship.
Now, almost all of my HUC professors are deceased. Fortunately, the youngest, only a year older than I, is still with us. David Ellenson later served as the college’s dynamic president, from 2001 to 2013. He was kind enough to write a praiseworthy blurb for “The Jews of Rhode Island,” an anthology I coedited in 2004. Although David denies that he made much of a difference in my education, we have been able to visit and correspond on a few occasions.
Do good students inspire and empower good teachers? Most likely, but I keep returning to my buddy, Mike Fink. Neither of us has much patience for scholarly showmanship and even less for pedantry. We’re mostly fascinated by what cannot be easily grasped: beauty, irony, humor, wisdom and spirituality. Accordingly, Mike is drawn to gypsies, faded movie stars, Hasidim, outcasts and winged creatures. He teaches best when he is not even presuming to teach – when, for example, we gather for coffee.
GEORGE GOODWIN, a member of Temple Beth-El, is editor of “Rhode Island Jewish Historical Notes.”