Art teacher’s life goes beyond tolerance
“Hey, how’re you doing?”
That voice, usually so friendly, sounded like a threat: “How’s the article coming together?”
Man, I really need to find another way to get to the Media Center.
“Great,” I replied, before shuffling away hurriedly. I didn’t have the heart to tell Mr. Hubbard that I was planning to sit on this assignment for as long as possible.
Every once in a while, I opened the document where the same 200 words of my notes for his profile lay resting for months. I was hoping that the guilt of avoiding the story—an important one, too—would eventually evoke enough motivation for me to start writing again.
I closed the tab until he greeted me again the very next morning.
The first time I talked to Mr. Hubbard was after Talent Show in ninth grade, when he came up to me and thanked me for the slam poem I performed about gay rights. The Orlando Shooting had taken place just months earlier, and after hearing of some homophobic incidents at school, I decided I had to do my part.
In a diverse community like Woodstock, we like to talk a lot about tolerance, but I knew about a story that revealed something more important. But for some reason, I could never get myself to actually write it.
But when the Love, Simon screening got canceled a couple of weeks ago, I knew I had to finally get around to writing this piece. Because if I had been able to stand in front of the entire school and call out homophobes in ninth grade, I really had no excuses to not write an article now.
I had to tell Mr. Hubbard’s story.
For many, Mr. Adam Hubbard, Upper Years art teacher, is considered the epitome of diversity, with an African-American wife and two quirky, mixed-race daughters. However, many would be surprised to learn that he hates the word “tolerance.”
“I hate that word,” he said. “It’s so much deeper than that.”
Born in Germany, where his dad was stationed at an army base, Mr. Hubbard moved to the United States when he was two and a half. His parents’ rocky relationship resulted in a divorce when he was 5. His dad got remarried and got custody of his son.
Living with his dad and stepmother was a “troubling” experience for Mr. Hubbard. He wasn’t close to his dad, and his stepmother was an alcoholic. He was a latchkey kid, fending for himself at a very young age: he cooked his own food and washed his own clothes.
During this period, he only got to see his mom every two weeks. Although his mom lived a considerable drive away from him, she would make the long trip to visit, even if it meant taking a day off from work just to meet him for lunch.
My second encounter with him was last year when I stopped playing drums for the chapel band. He approached me to ask if I still played in my free time. When I replied that I had stopped playing altogether, he was concerned and encouraged me to start again. Ever since, he would ask about my progress every time he saw me. Eventually, he made me miss playing enough that I would sometimes visit the music room to jam out during study halls.
Mr. Hubbard was in sixth grade when he first learned about tolerance.
His dad took him to his favorite Mexican restaurant only to tell him that he was leaving him to move to Chicago. Despite their awkward relationship, Mr. Hubbard was hurt and felt betrayed. He had to tolerate his dad moving.
He said, “If I have to tolerate something, it’s like I have to deal with something, even if I don’t want to. But when you look at the definition of tolerance, it’s not just to tolerate but to work with or sort of become one with a person or group of people.”
At the time, little did Mr. Hubbard know that his dad moving was, in fact, a change for the better—a change where he would encounter something that truly embodied the ideal definition of tolerance: acceptance.
On Dec. 17, 1983—he still remembers the date—Mr. Hubbard was halfway through sixth grade when his mom got custody of him.
Living with his artistic mom was a completely different experience; the house itself was far from typical. He said, “It was like all imaginable art supplies everywhere, different types of music, weird paintings, sculptures: things that we thought were normal but were different.”
Moreover, his mom soon came out to him as lesbian. He found it odd at the time but didn’t have a problem with it, a big reason for this being her open attitude: she allowed him to ask questions. To him, having everything out on the table was a pretty big deal.
Acceptance is to accept someone wholeheartedly, regardless of their beliefs, he said. To accept is to be “open.” Having to grow up without an active father, he relied on the mentors all around him to fill the role.
He grew close to his mom’s partners, who like her, were very artistic: painters, architects, chefs, designers. He considers one of them, Rebecca, his “second mom” and is still in touch with her. She played an instrumental role in guiding him and keeping him on track, treating him like a son.
He also spent a lot of time with his mom’s male friends, most of whom were gay. They helped raise him and became his “uncles.” One person, specifically, was his mom’s Egyptian best friend, Raouf. Similar to Mr. Hubbard’s mom, Raouf had been married to a woman knowing all along that he was, in fact, gay. After ending his marriage, Raouf fled Egypt and came to the United States to start his new life accepting his true sexuality.
Raouf wasn’t just there for the party; he would always ask Mr. Hubbard’s mom about him. In fact, he was the first person to visit Mr. Hubbard in his freshman year at art school. Not many others made that 400-mile journey.
We were sitting at the dining table while his wife, Mrs. Lexi Hubbard, was busy in the kitchen. I had asked to interview him, and he had invited me over to his place. I asked about his childhood and didn’t have to ask another question for the next 45 minutes.
At one point, Mrs. Hubbard looked visibly concerned from the kitchen counter right beside us. She interrupted Mr. Hubbard to remark, “You’re telling her too much.” He shrugged. Even she couldn’t stop him.
“I think most guys, as teenagers, they’ll dismiss two women being in a relationship,” Mr. Hubbard said. “But with men, it’s looked upon as taboo or gross. For me, I just looked at it as people that loved me and cared about me. They were just there for me, whether I was doing good or whether I was not doing so well.”
Spending time with a lot of people from diverse backgrounds, he found that it was through accepting these people as family that he was able to draw inspiration. This resonated in his own changing attitude towards people.
“Mom taught me to be accepting of everyone and not to cast judgment because of the way people act, look, talk, or their social status,” he said. “And that reflected because I used to confuse my mom when I brought friends home: one day it was the Persian Razi brothers, the next day it was my black friends, and the next day it was my Korean friend. And for her to try to pronounce their names was quite commendable—that was a big thing.”
His mom gave him exposure to a variety of different experiences. The most impactful of these experiences were pride parades, art functions, galleries, museums, and music festivals. She was fully supportive, not just for his fascination for art, but for surfing and skating, too. Even during awkward conversations about sex and drugs, Mr. Hubbard remembers it to be the least unpleasant experience possible. Seeing his friends rebel against their relatively conservative parents, Mr. Hubbard realized how he had no reason to rebel: he had the coolest mom.
“Her openness and blunt way of speaking taught me to speak my mind and be forward,” he said. “She taught me to accept life for its worth. She taught me that friends can really become like family members. But most importantly, she taught me to see from her lens—as a painter, artist, architect.”
Another person who played a significant role in fostering Mr. Hubbard’s passion for art was his high school art teacher, Mr. West. Mr. West was similar to Mr. Hubbard’s mother in the ways that he exposed Mr. Hubbard to different experiences. He took his students to art galleries and museums, and introduced them to different genres of music, all the while managing to be accepting of the teenagers’ sometimes-crude reactions. Mr. Hubbard is still in touch with the teacher today.
Mr. Hubbard said, “If we didn’t like jazz music, he wouldn’t tell us to get out of the classroom. He showed us the love of art and who he was. He was like a pillar—he still is.”
While his mom gave him complete freedom, Mr. West gave him structure. This balance helped shape him to become the artist he is today.
For the second interview, which took place months later, we were in his classroom. A couple of students were doing their own thing at the back while he was digging into his life for all to hear.
In the corner of the classroom, on the wall right above the sink, red palm impressions of me and my friends were imprinted with our initials painted in tiny white letters. It dated back a couple of months. We knew Mr. Hubbard wouldn’t mind.
His classroom was very familiar to me. Most of my closest friends took art, and so I often hung around. We also stopped by during the weekends; Mr. Hubbard was the only teacher who kept his classroom open through the weekend.
Throughout high school, he maintained a relationship with his father, who he called “vacation dad.” Vacation dad would see him during Christmas and summer breaks. Vacation dad bought him his favorite Mexican meals and some clothes. He bought his son’s love.
His mother, on the other hand, lived paycheck to paycheck to take care of him. When he was 15, Mr. Hubbard had a job too, working 20 hours a week on top of going to school. He applied his mother’s compassionate nature to his own relationships, taking care of drug-addicted friends.
“When you have to drive your friends to a mental institution because they’re paranoid and schizophrenic and literally afraid for their life and literally clinging to you,” he said, “it changes you and makes you realize how fragile you are.”
He realized that it wasn’t just about accepting people for who they are, but also who they became and how they changed. It was only through truly accepting people in this essence that one could become nurturing, concerned, caring. His first job after grad school was at a mental health institute.
For someone so willing to express support and acceptance, Mr. Hubbard’s mom often struggled to receive the same herself, even from her mother, who was in complete denial of her daughter’s sexuality.
Mr. Hubbard’s mom tried to have a conversation with her mother and brothers at various stages; however, they remained unsupportive and refused to understand or accept her. To this day, her brothers continue to make homophobic jokes. This has distanced Mr. Hubbard’s relationship with his maternal family as he was often forced to stand up for his mom by getting into arguments with his uncles.
To him, having the mother’s side of the family be so conservative, tolerance felt like a “cop-out.” The phone didn’t ring often, but he and his mom were fine with that.
Mr. Hubbard’s paternal grandmother, too, cut off all communication with his mom after the divorce. His grandfather, on the other hand, was neutral and remained a big and significant part of Mr. Hubbard’s life during the messy divorce. He taught Mr. Hubbard to cook, swim, and work, becoming a “father figure” to him.
Mr. Hubbard’s father was also uncomfortable with his former wife’s sexuality. He was worried that his son, being exposed to so many LGBTQIA+ people, would also turn gay, an idea that Mr. Hubbard calls “ludicrous.” Mr. Hubbard wanted to be able to navigate his own sexuality without feeling pressured; his mom didn’t pressure him.
He said, “I used to think to myself all the time, ‘So what if I’m gay?’ There are so many misconceptions about who a person is, and in all honesty, nobody has the right to tell you who you can be with. If you’re gay, or if I’m gay, it shouldn’t matter.”
Surprisingly, his father wasn’t the only person to mistake Mr. Hubbard for being gay. When he first met his future wife, she immediately took him as someone who identified as gay. Mr. Hubbard soon figured this was because of his relatively soft nature since the majority of his influences were from women.
He said, “I find that so funny because it’s like ‘Of course you thought I was gay!’ I was with my two female friends, and they were more intimidating than me. It’s funny when you’re so influenced by certain people that you take up that soft persona and that’s perceived as something that it really isn’t. That’s fascinating in itself because it’s like if I’m showing that I’m a sensitive person, or that I’m acting a certain way, or talking to a certain group of people, I’m automatically put into a certain category.”
He laughed at the memory, only to dive right back in.
Mr. Hubbard didn’t have any sex ed at his school. What he did have, however, were parents, including his dad, who were open to initiating conversations. But at a place like Woodstock, where most students live continents away from their parents, this role of starting conversations, Mr. Hubbard believes, needs to be taken up by teachers.
“Maybe this is a stretch,” he said. “But at a boarding school like here, we teachers become your aunties and uncles, we become the people that you trust and have a safe place with. It’s our job to make sure you’re safe.”
Grateful for roles of all mentors in his life, he wants to make a similar impact on others.
“Teachers are people in different forms that aren’t necessarily in a classroom,” he said. “They are people that we meet in our lives that teach us things and make a really profound impact on us. If we learn to be open and to accept people, we give them an opportunity to make an impact on us.”
Interestingly, Mr. Hubbard is not the only person at the school with this kind of family background. Mr. Curran Russell, drama teacher, also grew up with gay parents. In his case, however, his birth mother already had a partner when they decided to have a child. When Mr. Russell was 6, his birth mother and partner split up, and his birth mother got together with another woman. He feels that he has three moms, all of whom played equal roles in influencing him.
Like in the case of Mr. Hubbard, Mr. Russell’s mother had a hard time with acceptance from family. Although a lot of the conflicts took place when he was too young to understand them, Mr. Russell remembers that his grandparents did little to make their daughter feel comfortable with her sexuality.
Mr. Russell said, “One thing my grandmother said to my mom was, ‘It makes me sad I won’t see you in heaven.’”
He also remembers being called an “alien” by his friends in elementary school because, to them, having two moms was not “normal.” Apart from that, he had a relatively happy childhood and doesn’t remember a lot of bullying. He hung out with a “liberal crowd” and had lots of gay friends. He jokes that when people made “yo mama” jokes, he always had the best response.
He met his biological father, a high school English teacher when he was 19. He still keeps in touch with him today.
Somewhere along my conversations with Mr. Hubbard, the topic shifted to me. I guess he noticed how stressed I was about this piece, and in the middle of answering a question, he stopped to remind me that he trusted me with his story and so I needed to trust myself with it, too. I expressed my guilt for sitting on this story for almost six months. He told me the story of how he, too, got stuck on certain artwork for years at a time because he thought his art wasn’t worthy enough.
“Sometimes, when you sit on something, it can be beneficial,” he said. “Sometimes, there’s a reason why certain projects take a really long time.”
He invited me to hang out in his classroom whenever to kick back:
“You’re always welcome to come. Stop by, create artwork, play music, anything you want. I’d love if students just came here and created art. If they’re taking a class, great. If not, come as you are.”
I stopped by often. Every time I had a free slot, he had his interdisciplinary art class.
The first time I sat in his class, he handed me a sketchbook with the instructions, “Write your name, decorate it, make it yours.” He told me he was planning to get the class into clay modeling at the time, but once he figured that the students wanted to do their own thing, he let them.
When I informed him I wanted to create art that was political and involved words, he nodded and left the room. He returned with coffee for all students in the class while rambling out the names of all political artists and writers he could remember: Barbara Kruger, Lippard Lucy, Judy Chicago.
One time, his elder daughter, Paloma, stopped by. They joked around casually, similar to how I imagine him and his mom talked. His wife called in the middle to talk about dinner plans and soon, they started joking about her frankie-making skills. A couple more lame jokes later, he turned to me and whispered, “This is why my daughter and I are best friends.”
On one lucky occasion, I walked into his classroom just as he was about to video call his mom. He offered to introduce me to her, which I happily accepted. After connecting us on the call, he left to get some coffee, not before asking me if I wanted some myself.
The first thing she did was show me her studio. She had a lot of pictures and paintings of family. She showed me a picture of her pregnant with Mr. Hubbard and paintings of Mr. Hubbard’s daughters, Paloma and Golden. She told me that Golden actually helped paint the borders of her painting before Mr. Hubbard’s family moved to India. She had named one of her paintings “Finding Balance,” where she mentioned something about being able to find balance during difficult times. She also showed me a self-portrait at the beach.
Her studio, in many ways, reminded me of Mr. Hubbard’s classroom. I felt a strange sense of familiarity with both places. While her studio was filled with pictures and paintings of a family I had come to understand considerably well, his classroom was filled with student artwork, some of whose backstories I was fully aware of: for instance, right above his desk hung a painting about body positivity from a close friend who I knew had serious body image issues, and beside it was an abstract piece by an old friend created during the time we had stopped talking.
After a little more talk and bidding goodbyes with his mother, Mr. Hubbard returned with coffee and asked me how the call went. When I nodded approvingly, he smiled and said, “I’m glad you felt comfortable.”
He called back his mom and asked her why she was still awake at 4 a.m. She replied, “It’s always the stupid old time. I’m just waiting for the time to change.” He laughed. She laughed.
I laughed, thinking I was finally ready to write.
Featured image by Knema Gardner
Edited by Rohan Menezes