In my junior year of high school, I signed up for an advanced humanities class that encompassed history, literature, art, music, and drama from the beginning of recorded time. This daily seminar was presided over by the legendary Mrs. Vivian Beattie, an extraordinary teacher amongst what for a public school was a remarkable slate of extraordinary teachers. (Remind me someday to tell you stories about my math and computer science teacher, Lenzi Nelson. When you ask, tell me you want to hear about the teacher who threw chalk.)
We adored Mrs. Beattie, a ferocious old iconoclast whose demands on her students' intellects and attention pushed most of us as far as we'd ever been pushed by a teacher in our lives. She asked us for all we had, but in return she conferred upon us the gift of critical thought, not to mention the kind of respect most adolescents never feel from adultsthe respect that says you are a worthwhile generation, no matter what anyone else tries to tell you.
That's usually how it worked, anyway.
If there was one thing Mrs. Beattie would tolerate, it was muddy thinking. I ran afoul of her cruel, casual dismissiveness in this regard one morning during our unit on 19th-century art. The topic was visual composition, the subject under scrutiny Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres's famous portrait of a nude harem girl, "La Grande Odalisque." Surely you've seen itit's Ingres's best-known painting. The Rubenesque slave girl (the titular odalisque) reclines amid the various appurtenances of a fantastic Turkish haremveils, silks, furs, pipes, jeweled belts, feathered brusheswith her inhumanly supple back to the artist and her face turned to gaze mildly back at him over her right shoulder. The ripe globe of one breast can be seen in partial eclipse, shadowed by her right arm. The painting was reviled in its time, but is today considered a masterpiece of French neoclassical portraiture.