The Chinese restaurant danced with life as my classmates filled the room. We laughed as the candles flickered from the center table. Flames illuminated shadows on the rich red and fake gold walls. Dark figures cavorted with overlooking dragons as we finished our meal. It was the last time the senior art class would meet like this, carefree and uninhibited with our artistic styles.
Our teacher stood, his gray goatee trimmed perfectly. Even in this dimly lit buffet room, his aura glimmered. A glow mixed from equal parts love, pride, and melancholy. He spoke of his years of being a teacher. How this mix of students could be the best class he'd ever had.
I turned to my best friend and said, "I bet he says that every year." She smiled, her long hair twisted upward in a clip, little wisps poked upward defying conventionalism.
"I have a few awards to give out," Mr. Mastagni said. We looked at one another, this was not on the agenda. I shrugged; I'd never known our art teacher to be conventional. He would send us on daily coffee and bagel runs during first period. He taught us to be adults in the short time that we were in his class, helped us through emotional and private matters. He helped me.
"The next award goes to a student who took the idea of a shoe and twisted it into something extraordinary. She embodied the idea of what women go through and encompassed it into a sculpture of beauty and pain." His words tumbled out of like every sentence he'd ever put together. Words perfectly constructed, arranged with such care, and delivered by way of currier pigeon to your heart. From the floor, he pulled up my high-heeled sculpture, "Jeannie will you come up?"
My heart fluttered as I stood and snaked through round tables overflowing with cloth and dirty dishes, plates waited for men in white coats to pick them up. Students with forks tapped lightly in admiration while I maneuvered to the front of the room.
"Tell us about this idea." Mr. Mastagni said as I nervously stood beside him. These were my friends. Nevertheless, as I stood there and looked out at the glowing faces my fingers started to tremble. Mr. Mastagni touched my shoulder, the perfect encouragement to calm my fear.
"You wanted us to create a shoe," I said. My lips still quivered as I continued, "I wanted to create something feminine first. The high heel, is about as feminine as it gets." I looked up from the sculpture to my friend and fellow tablemate Trisha. She was part inspiration for the project, always in heels. "But beauty," my finger lingered on the twisted metal, "beauty can be painful. This shoe, perfect in form signifies the outward face women put on. And the nails, they are symbols of what we as women put ourselves through in order to be beautiful."
My classmates stopped. Instantly I was aware of the dish boy as he moved behind the group. The wheel squeaked while he pushed the stainless steel tray to the next table. Clattering of pans came from the kitchen over sounds of disgruntled cooks singing in Mandarin. I waited for someone to breathe. Someone to move, to disengage this awkward stare that would've allowed my heart to pump blood once more.
"And that," my teacher said as I turned to him. "Is why I'm pleased to award you the Upcoming Artist Award."
The room roared with applause. My mentor, a man who shaped so many aspects of my thinking and career, revealed a red, white, and blue striped cloth attached to a medal medallion. The gold dragons above us must have endowed me with their mysticism as Mr. Mastagni placed the medal around my neck. Things were so clear. Friends hugged as they asked questions about my sculpture. Words floated out of my mouth faster then they came to mind. And here, as the dragons looked down from their protective perch longing for the dancing shadows to join them, I solidified my philosophy on life. Do everything beautifully.