Thursday, April 01, 2010

Remembering Norm

[Wherein we confirm that my choice in words sometimes has very little to do with what they actually mean to everyone else, but much more what they mean, apparently, just to me]

On Sunday, March 21, the first day of spring, my school lost one of its most beloved instructors, Norm Schureman. I received a message from one of my classmates, and by the time I’d called her back and returned to plug into the internet, there was already a message from the school president relaying the very sudden and tragic news and a flurry of posts on Facebook.

The past ten days have been hard for the school, for our department (I teach in the same department as Norm), and for our students. There’s been an outpouring of support in ways that no one could have quite imagined. There was an impromptu memorial service the very next evening. A physical memorial of student work grew to stretch almost the full length of the bridge walkway on campus, with sketches (copies as well as original work), cards, projects, notes and photos taped to the railing, throughout the week. There were flowers and candles, messages scrawled with chalk on the walkway, a six-pack of beer. Last Sunday, the school hosted a formal service and reception. We estimate that over a thousand people attended, some flying in from out-of-state, some from overseas. Hundreds more logged into the live webcast.

I’ve had people comment about mourning a colleague, that from the outpouring of emotion, the group must have been remarkably close. I forget sometimes, that there’s work that goes from 9 until 5. In school and in teaching, you learn quickly that interactions don’t work when classes end; the learning doesn’t stop at 5pm, or 10pm, or even after Friday, or ever. I’ve been lucky, a few times, also, to have worked with people that you genuinely … like. The faculty and staff in our department were best of friends; not just co-workers. It’s been sad and hard to continue on; it’s been hard to accept that this idea that Norm is gone.

For Norm’s service, our department chair asked for words, just descriptive words, that she could share. I’d been mulling over this for a while. What I would take from my experiences with Norm? My word, I decided, is ‘fierce’. J asked me, “Don’t you mean ‘fiesty’, perhaps?”. Norm was fiesty, indeed. But he was fierce.

Norm expected a lot from his students. In design, you communicate visually through sketches: you draw. A lot. In a school reknown for its design programs, you don’t just learn to draw, but you learn to draw like a fiend. We had drawing/sketching classes for at least three of our four years there. Compare this with the 1–1/2 to maybe 2 years of math I took when I studied engineering. Drawing is as fundamental as, say,  breathing. After we had learned to draw the basic shapes and could render them in appropriate materials, then we got Norm, and he taught us to draw dynamically, and passionately, with our own voices, confident and strong. He held the standard high. He was tough, but supportive and caring and always had us coming back for more. Did I mention Norm was tough? I admit that it took me a long, long time to warm up to his brand of tough love.

The other thing you learn in design is to think. You have to think broadly and quickly, without boundaries, then be able to assess your options and choose the best ones to go forward with. The other core classes Norm taught were Design Process and the beginning Product Design courses. He taught us to stretch, to follow through with our strongest ideas, then build them to make them real. We’d present our ideas and he’d pause, pull his glasses down the bridge of his nose and peer at us over those glasses, intensely, challenging us, without even saying a word. Everyone experienced that look; we all wanted to rise to meet the challenge; we all wanted that hearty smile and hug that affirmed for us that we’d done a great job. There is a lot of work you can go through to make yourself happy and satisfied with the final project for any given class. There are few other instructors, though, that we’d work so much harder to please and impress as Norm. We learned to think, all right.

So, Norm was imbedded in classes that are at the very core of what industrial designers do, the very heart of what you’d learn at school when you study industrial design. I imagine that he touched every student that’s gone through our department in the last 20 years. His father taught and continues to teach at Art Center. His nephew just graduated from the department, as well. His family truly is part of our larger, extended family.

What I came to observe and understand was Norm’s deep commitment. He was fierce, in his dedication to our school, to our department, and above all, to his students. That ‘Norm’ look? It was intense – it gave you a window into the fire that burned, yes, fiercely deep in him. And at our graduation shows - no one was prouder than Norm. His love for his family, his friends, of all of nature around him, of life itself – it was all deep, heartfelt and intense.

In looking up the definition, I suppose there are components of fierceness that are not so flattering in this instance: violent, aggressive, angry, menacingly wild, savage, hostile.

Okay, right. So, that is not what I had in mind.

I’d go with the option that reads “Extremely intense or ardent” except that, for me, it lacks a bravery and immediacy. The words feel a bit detached, a bit sterile. Even the modern slang entry “really good” is lacking.

For me, I have to ignore the definition I find on my screen and go with the definition I feel in my gut, the image that I see in my mind’s eye. The word ‘fierce’ works because it gives me a sense of spirit that Norm possessed, that he passed on to everyone around him, that now lives in all of us. We are all just a little bit more fierce in what we do because of what Norm gave us.

He gave us a lot.
And we sure do miss him, something fierce.


Kim Carney said...

That is so tragic!