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What makes you happy?

Today I found out that my high school art teacher, Ms. Edwards, recently passed away. She had been on my mind more of late since I started painting again after nearly 30 years. I still remember her calm voice with its distinctive Jamaican accent directing us students to use more contrast in our pieces, not to be afraid to use bold colors. Under her tutelage, the art room was always full of paintings In various states of completion. The students' smocks were often spattered with several layers of paints but we were happy doing what we were born to do.

The funny thing was I didn't start out doing art for my A' levels. For those unfamiliar with the British system of education, Ordinary Levels or O levels is a multinational examination given after 5 years of study. Advanced levels or A levels are done after O levels once you achieved a satisfactory grade in the subject. A few of the girls in my year did art for O' levels but during lunchtime and after school to give precedence to more academic subjects. With only 3 subject choices at A' levels (compared to the 10 I did at O' levels), I was strongly advised against pursuing art. So I chose Chemistry, Mathematics and Geography. Urban geography soon became the bane of my existence. After a year, the siren song of the art room became too strong to ignore and I appealed to my mother to change subjects. Of all the arguments we had, that one was one of the most intense. My mother ran the list of counter-arguments to my decision. It would ruin any chances of a scholarship to a foreign university. Financially successful artists in Trinidad were an oxymoron. Would I be able to complete 2 years of work in a single year while keeping up with my other subjects? Now that I am a parent myself, I empathize with my mother's concerns. She had my best interests at heart. And all her arguments had merit. But I was miserable so I went to Ms. Edwards for advice. She listened to my concerns and my mother's arguments with her characteristic patience then asked me a single question. "What would make you happy?" There was never any hesitation in my heart. I yearned to be in that art room every day for a year. It was where I belonged. So I switched from Geography to art in my final year at St. Joseph's Convent, Port of Spain, much to my mother's consternation. To her credit, she bought all my art materials and took me to the places I needed to go for my research. She woke me up when I stayed up all night to complete assignments and helped me put the final touches to my portfolio the night before it was due to be sent to England. She may not have agreed with my choice but she supported me 100%.

With one year to produce a 2 year portfolio, I worked at a feverish pace. I basically lived in the art room during lunchtime and after school. Under Ms.Edward's guidance, my skill improved dramatically from my O level days. The pieces below show the difference. The first piece - Granny's Singer sewing machine- was done in Form 5 (1992) while the second piece St. Mary's College Port of Spain was a piece fro my portfolio for A levels (1994). Even though it was an intense pace for a 16 year old, I absolutely loved it. And I was determined to succeed not only to prove my mother wrong but to justify Ms. Edwards' faith in me. At the end of it all I got an A in the 3 subjects I had chosen and best of all, I received the award for the best Art student that year. I still have that plaque as a reminder to myself of the rewards of perseverance.

In the end though, my mother was right about scholarships. I couldn't get one in my subject group because it's almost impossible to get 100% in art compared to science subjects like Physics or Biology. Although I got partial scholarships to US universities, we were too poor to afford the balance of the tuition. I thought of doing art at the National University but my mother's admonition about starving artists remained with me. I knew what it was to be poor and hungry. Did I really want to risk my future in the pursuit of happiness? So I chose the safe path. It took me many places and many different fields but none have brought me the same joy that painting has (although teaching Chemistry is a close second). So I find myself 30 years after Ms. Edwards asked me that definitive question returning to my true self. Now that she has passed, I think that her question is one that we should all ask of ourselves at some point of our lives.

What makes you happy?

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