Last spring, I was invited to teach a painting class at Friday Harbor High School. Our art teacher of 30 years, Pat Speer, had retired and her replacement, Andy Anderson, had yet to arrive, so the district had cobbled together a temporary program. My job was to teach one class, an hour a day for the semester. Although I've taught at several colleges over the years, and I've been a guest speaker in many elementary and secondary school classes, this was my first daily interaction with high schoolers. I had a class of 25 kids, from freshmen to seniors. It was an illuminating experience.
As the semester progressed, reports of a swine flu epidemic, first in Mexico, then worldwide, became increasingly prevalent in the media. The school staff received daily briefings on the outbreak from the state health officials and the school administration. I brought a dispenser of hand sanitizer to the classroom and spent a few moments of class time discussing the truths and falsehoods circulating about the epidemic.
Student chatter and texting began to include talk of H1N1. Although many students were outwardly casual and dismissive of the fuss, their comments laced with overtones of irony and teen ennui, I detected, among some students, an undercurrent of anxiety. Who was well? Who was sick? Hadn't a student on neighboring Orcas Island been sent home with swine flu? Weren't the Lopez Island schools going to close? Day by day, my supply of santizer diminished.
I gave the students a lecture about artists of the past who had responded to the events of the day with memorable art: Da Vinci, Goya, Sargent, Kollowitz, Shahn. I todl them about my book Outbreak, and its chapter on the 1918 Spanish flu. And I gave the students an assignment: on a 16x20 piece of illustration board, create a piece of art about swine flu. Unlike previous assignments, which had focused on compositional, aesthetic and technical concerns, this assignment was open. Students could do as they pleased, as long as it was about the flu.
By semester's end, not a single student at Friday Harbor High School had come down with H1N1.