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Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, Mary Cassatt, 1878
Abilene Alderson

Middle school is a tumultuous time -- on this, I think we can all agree. It is a time when, as human beings, we begin to form our own convictions. We learn that we like certain songs better than other songs; we prefer certain books over others; we enjoy certain subjects in school more than the rest. In this developmental stage, we become very attached to these preferences and love to defend them to anyone who will listen. I think a classical school is the best place for a middle school student, because this tendency is fostered, encouraged, and refined. 

Indeed, a teacher’s most rewarding moments occur when students start taking ownership of the material presented in class -- when they start grappling with it, reflecting upon it, and forming their own convictions. All of these activities come naturally to the middle school mind, and it is an honor and joy to learn from one’s students as they vocalize their thought processes and argue with others who disagree.

My 6th grade art class has been rich with discussion since day 1. Every week, we talk through the artwork and methods of a specific artist or art movement, and then work on projects inspired by the theme of the week. My students consistently bring up questions that challenge and inspire me, and I thought that I would share a snapshot from the classroom and a bit of French history for this blog post.

In the midst of a conversation about Mary Cassatt, the American Impressionist who lived and worked in Paris, France alongside the likes of Renoir and Monet, the topic of the Dreyfus affair arose. In a short video snippet I showed in class, it was revealed with no further explanation that Cassatt was pro-Dreyfus, which caused a rift with her close friend Degas, who was anti-Dreyfus. But wait -- what does that mean? Who was this man, and why were people for or against him?

My students were intrigued by this subject, and wanted to learn more. During class, we conducted some research together and learned that Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a 35-year-old man of Jewish descent, was a member of the French military who was sent to prison on charges of treason. Two years later, evidence was revealed that proved a different, non-Jewish soldier was responsible for the treasonous act; however, in an act of blatant anti-Semitism, high-ranking officials in the French military buried the evidence that would exonerate Dreyfus and falsified documents to ensure that he stayed in prison. However, the French people could tell that something fishy was going on. Consequently, pressure was put on the French military to re-open the case and exonerate Dreyfus, and the affair polarized the nation.

This story had a real effect on the students, and on that day, Captain Alfred Dreyfus gained 25 more fiercely dedicated supporters -- referred to as “Dreyfusards” in the time of the Impressionists -- and Edgar Degas gained 25 sworn enemies. This is now one of the facts that the students recall most easily about the Impressionists, and it was brought to light purely as a result of their own curiosity and desire to challenge me to delve deeper into the subject matter. 

All this to say: teaching is a fabulous opportunity to learn. Being a classical educator opens up a myriad of opportunities for going beyond the surface and delving deeper into the intricacies of, for example, the intersections of French history and Impressionism. I am thankful for The Saint Constantine School and the students who teach me every day.