At the school, faculty members got a five-year review of their teaching, scholarship, and community service, regardless of whether they had tenure. I’d decided to retire before my next review but told no one. That knowledge let me spring a surprise on folks in those corseted corridors.
For less than three dollars, I bought a box of children’s face paints. The six colors— red, yellow, blue, green, black, and white—proved enough for my purposes. I pulled the box out of a desk drawer every morning and painted my face before teaching. The school had rules to discourage novelty, but in it had failed to regulate face-painting.
I went to town. A bolt of lightning slashed down my cheek one day. A heart beamed from one cheek the next day. I painted a night sky, complete with stars and a quarter moon, on my forehead another time. A red question mark in the middle of my forehead garnered the most stares.
Students’ reactions held some surprises for me. I learned that a painted face trumped a brown skin when it came to their perceptions. The flowers and goldfish took them by surprise, threw off their expectations. The bees and spiders on my face swept away, or at least suspended, preconceptions. My students could take me in with less racial garbage. We had a straighter shot at connection.
The images also let me add sauce to the vocabulary I served up in Spanish 101. Few of my students forgot the meaning of bombilla after seeing the yellow lightbulb outlined in black on my forehead.
My two-dollar box of paints also helped me address the broader issues of college life. It provided a platform on which to stand against the frequent life-sapping grayness of academia. College teaching and learning rank as serious business, but they need not bury one alive.
I admit that I relished hard looks from some administrators because I knew my retirement plans put me beyond their reach. Faculty meetings seemed less poisonous when I joined them with a giant sunflower painted on my left cheek.
Yes, I savored the disapproval of those two years, but also the fun. One day, I painted my nose black and drew whiskers and a ruff on my face. A student asked, “Que pasa con la cara?”
“It’s International Cat Day,” I replied, “and I’m celebrating.” Only later did I learn that there is indeed such a holiday.
The face painting drew me closer to my students, who anticipated fun and, one told me later, bet on what I’d paint next. After years shrouded in grayness, my paint box also gave me a foretaste of rainbows that could come my way with retirement.