There may be teachers who lost heart during the protracted and unpredictable COVID crisis, but John Provenzano is not one of them. In 1995 he had intended to paint a mural at the Boston Renaissance Charter Public School as an artist-in-residence and then return to what was, and is still, an accomplished life as a painter, but once there, his life changed.
“The principal said, why don’t you paint in front of the kids. I thought now why would I do that? I’m naturally shy, but then I saw the curiosity of the kids, and I fell in love,” he said. He has served as the art teacher since and has developed a philosophy creatively based and deeply respectful of his K-6 students.
“The learning is mutual,” he explained. “I see how they look at materials, and they have a natural ability to explore. I never saw myself as a teacher because I didn’t think I could communicate well enough, but that became a strength. I say less and make room for them. During COVID, I had to learn to teach again remotely, and the kids said, “Mr. Pro, use that tab on the right.’ We taught each other.”
A study in resilience not unlike many of his students, John Provenzano has a seizure condition that began in sixth grade, and he had a seizure early in his teaching while on a school trip to Thompson’s Island. The man who imagines himself to communicate little decided to forego art the next day and explain to the kids what happened. “I thought that I would just go back to studio work, and I usually wouldn’t have told anyone, but when I met with them it turned out three were in on the same medication. There were in my heart, and I stayed.”
So, in COVID times, he didn’t pass the time passively but had the kids create an art project from the junk mail they found at home, and surely, it could be at the ICA or other contemporary museum. He was the creative force behind an inclusive and original video called “Reimagine,” which involved the entire school community, including parents, who artistically connected each person to something or someone else they were interested in and thereby changing.
“It is all about connection,” said John Provenzano with endless ideas and appreciation for the unique and wonderous qualities of each child. Of course, one could ask if this takes precious time away from his own work, and characteristically, he steers from such dichotomies. “It makes my work better. The kids are honest in what they see and that helps me,” he said.
A private man intensely connected to others, John Provenzano was raised in South Boston by parents, Kathy, and John, who still live in the family home, he is married to Karen, and has two daughters, all of whom he clearly adores. In addition, he has the support of the current head of the school, Alexandra Buckmire, as well as past and present school leaders. “This community has the most amazing people. The school has made a commitment to art,” he said, now noting with pleasure that he teaches children of children he taught previously.
Every Boston Public School is mired in problems with transportation, transitions, and decisions in a complex time. Teaching has been in person, remote and back again during a frightening time. John Provenzano, who fashions himself a shy and private artist is clear and eloquent. “Yes, there was fear in these recent years, but there was joy, humor, creative leaps, and playfulness. There is nothing I would rather do.”
(Carol Masshardt can be reached at email@example.com)