Michal and Kulsum interview Ms. Mac, beloved Art Teacher at FHS.
Ms. McNeil has been an adored teacher at Franklin High School for years, with a classroom constantly full of creative and dedicated students.
Michal and Kulsum have taken both ceramics and Murals & Mosaics with her and have taken it upon themselves to ask a bit more about what it is like to teach ceramics as a busy mom.
We started with an easy question: what is your favorite flavor of ice cream?
Ms. Mac: “I like coffee, mint chocolate chip, rum raisin… only haagen dazs flavors. I would say mint chocolate chip. Maybe coffee chip too. I do love coffee. They all taste good!”
M: When are you retiring?
Ms. Mac: “This is my 17th year teaching, so I think I can’t retire until I’m 55. I think it’s a combination of age and years worked, so I have to do 25 years. So 7 years, I'm 46, *counts 47-53* I think I can’t retire until I'm 55.” definitely at least 50
K: Edward or Jacob?
Ms. Mac: “Edward or Jacob? I didn’t watch any of that show. What is it? Is this lord of the rings? No ones got time for any of that crap. I never saw it, is it like the werewolf things? Vampires? No, all of that is corny. So corny. I did like Lord of the Rings years ago, but only because my kids liked the soundtrack and I used it to put Ronin to sleep.”
K: What’s your favorite book?
Ms. Mac: “I haven’t read a book probably since college, what do you mean? Favorite book? I have art history books in my room.. This is gonna make me look bad. No ones got time for reading. I do not like art history books. I don’t read.”
M: Do you know The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney? Have you read it or seen the movies?
Ms. Mac: “I do, because my son was into the books so I got them. I didn’t read the books or see the movies.”
M & K: Do you plan on reading them soon?
Ms. Mac: “When are we gonna have time to read them? I have the books because I bought them for my son, when would I have time to read them?” During class? “In class, when I’m supposed to be teaching? I could read them to you.”
M & K: “No, stop, I don’t need you to read them to me.
Ms. Mac: I will put it on my list to watch the movie”
Do you prefer The Diary of a Wimpy id or Dork Diaries?
Ms. Mac:“So Maeve did Dork Diaries, I know neither so I have no opinion on it.”
K: What drew you to ceramics?
Ms. Mac: “With an art education major, you have to take the beginning level of each art course. So when I took the beginner ceramics course, I had a lot of fun. I was kind of good at it, the time flowed, so I was engaged and motivated to work. That’s what really drew my interest. As I spent more time, I saw my skills develop, I got engrossed in it. I was always very close with my art teachers from elementary all the way through high school. I had a great relationship with them which inspired me throughout my education. In my senior year, I was taking an independent study photography class.
I had no intention of going to college, I just didn’t have the money for school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. My teacher, Ms. Meehan, sat me down and made me apply to RIT for photography. And she said ‘I want you to submit the essay to apply and see what happens.’ And so I did that, and because it was a private school, because my mom was like broke raising four kids, I got a lot of financial aid and a lot of support and private funding, so I was able to go.
I always loved the idea of being an art teacher, but I just didn’t feel like I could do it - I was intimidated by it. So originally I didn’t go for art education, I went for photography. I ending up leaving school after two years because my mom got sick. During that time, I worked for a educational publishing company for a few years. I did multimedia sales for a year, then I was an editorial assistant.
During that time I was working with two authors that were head of the graphic design program at Montclair State. I knew I wanted to go back to school, I knew I needed my degree to get a good job, and they said ‘you should come to Jersey, we have a great program here.'
My dad lived in West Orange at the time; after my mom passed away I decided to go back to school. I said to myself no matter what happens, even if I decide to not be a teacher, at least I still have my degree and have fun doing it.
My aunt was VP at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, but she had a biology degree. Sometimes back when we were in college, you didn’t necessarily have to have a degree in the same field to get a job.
So it was one of those things where I said ‘I'll still have my degree, it doesn’t mean I have to be a teacher, I could still get a job because I have a bachelors degree.
After student teaching I always thought I wanted to teach elementary school. I did a test lesson. You know the book the rainbow fish? I did this kindergarten art lesson after reading the book. In the lesson we used watercolors and salt, which eats away at the watercolors and gives it this cool texture, so I thought it was great for the kids. I went to the dollar store and bought the salt shakers for it. Was so pumped until I actually did the lesson with them. the kids started licking the salt, they’re like shaking it all over, and it was like the most stressful thing I ever dealt with.
I remember I went home... and thought, ‘No matter how desperate I am, no matter how long I go without a job, remind me of today so that I never take a job teaching elementary school.’
Then I found Franklin High School. it takes a special person to teach elementary school, even middle school for that matter. I student taught middle school, I thought they were way too immature. I never pictured myself doing high school, but I wouldn’t change it, ever. I prefer high school hands down. We connect more, you guys are young adults, you probably won’t eat salts. I feel like I have a better rapport with, my personality, I feel like I vibe better with older kids vs younger kids for sure. I remember I had one kid start crying because her trees were too thick and she thought the kids trees next to her were better, and I was like, I don’t have time for this, its too much. And I’m like, you know, its just that they’re very antsy, like they’re always moving, and I’m like.. just chill. So it was too much for me.”
K: Who are your biggest influences and favorite artists?
Ms. Mac: What’s interesting is that if you asked this question years ago when I began my career, I probably would have a great answer, but I feel like as you get older and your personality changes, with the responsibilities of becoming a mom, you put your own stuff on hold. So I feel like I haven’t really done any personal, life long fulfilling, like if someone asks what are your hobbies, I don’t really have stuff for myself anymore. I feel like I used to but I don’t now.
Some people will say "Oh, do you do this at home and I’m say no, when I leave here - like yesterday I stopped at my friends house to pick up something for soccer for Maeve, come home, pick up Ronan, dropped him off at guitar lessons, went back to the house, picked up Maeve, dropped her off for flute lessons, picked him up, dropped him off, changed into workout clothes, picked up Maeve, dropped her off, I said peace out, went to the gym, came back, showered, looked over their homework. And then when they’re doing it, I’m doing laundry, dishes, and then trying to go to bed. And it's on repeat, like the movie “Groundhog Day." Now, I’m gonna leave here, normally I work detention, then I have to take her to dance, come home, make dinner, so its like, I feel like those kind of things don’t happen.
I haven’t done any ceramics in years. Since having a family I put all that stuff on hold. Would I like to? Sure, but it’s like you’re waiting for a time to open up and it never does. That’s why even yesterday, at the gym, I didnt wanna go but I knew if I don’t make time for it, and I’m hoping those kinda things make me feel better, and so forth.
Over the summer when I’m off with my kids, we definitely like to do things, like I’ve taken them to Grounds For Sculpture, and you know we’ll explore, we love to go to the beach, I like to try to travel when I can with them. We kinda like, I don’t wanna say women, i don’t wanna be stereotypical but I feel like a lot of women lose their identity once they become a mom, and you know I also commute 2 hours a day in the car, so when I say I’m tired here I get up at 5:15, leave at 6:15, like yesterday was a 14 hour day. Its on repeat, it just becomes a lot.”
M: What attracts you to Franklin and keeps you here?
Ms. Mac: “Im truly doing what I love - it doesn’t feel like work to me. There’s an expression my dad told me years ago, which was ‘do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life’. Its kinda like one of those things where, it’s hard to get out of bed some mornings, but when I’m driving here, i’m never like ‘ugh, I don’t wanna see them or I don’t wanna do this..’ Sometimes I joke around about it, like when we came back from vacation everyone was like ‘I don’t wanna work’ and I was like me too. But I truly love all my students, I love what I do, and I love that my class is usually the best part of everyone’s day and I’m a part of that. Feels good.
M: What gave you the idea to start a class about painting school walls?
Ms. Mac: “The murals started with painting the bricks here in the room. It was more to keep students engaged - if someone is the only one done in class with a project and everyone else is working, I don’t wanna introduce a project to them when I’m waiting to introduce it to the class. So, to kill time, if I keep them engaged, they’ll stay out of trouble. They get to beautify the class and make it feel like an art room when you walk in. it really developed on its own - when people come in here, they’re like ‘wow, you should do this outside of here’ since one of our first murals was outside our classroom door. We got a lot of feedback from that and they were like ‘I want a mural outside my door!’ and so forth, and thats how it progressed. It was a way for kids that wanted to continue with me by developing the class, which gave the kids art credit and let them leave their legacy while beautifying the school for everyone to enjoy.”
M & K: Whats your favorite mural?
Ms. Mac: “Oh snap, I think the one in A200. One of my former students Zaya came back during her break from SCAD, and she did it. I stay in touch with many students that left from here because I love to hear where they are and what they’re up to and so forth, and so I reached out and asked her if she wanted to work with students along with other alumni. She came during break and that mural was created in one week with several of my current students that wanted to participate. She dedicated her time and my students being a part of it was really cool, I loved the whole concept of it. She was talking to the students about the mural, where her life was at and that kind of thing.”