TEACHER AND ARTIST, AGNES TIRRITO, REFLECTS ON LIFE IN AND OUT OF THE CLASSROOM
by AMBER SMITH ZALISKI
There is a William Stafford poem called “The Way It Is.” Agnes Tirrito has it handwritten on a note card that she pulls from the pages of one of her handcrafted journals from an art retreat she attended earlier this year at The Mabel Dodge Luhan House in the deserts of New Mexico. She reads it aloud from the other side of her kitchen table as she slides a delicate gold cross side-to-side on the chain she wears around her neck.
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among things that change.
But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread. But it is hard for others to see. While you hold it you can’t get lost. Tragedies happen; people get hurt or die; and you suffer and get old. Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
Agnes holds many well-earned titles. She is a freelance artist, an award-winning author, a poet, a small business owner, a “Loulou” to two precious granddaughters, mother, sister, friend, mentor, and respected teacher. Yes, she enjoyed a 30-year career in elementary education, as well as teaching college level courses, co-directing the National Writing Project at TAMU-T for many years, leading workshops, and designing educational programs, among other impressive professional endeavors, but beyond that - soul level - Agnes is a teacher.
At the heart of every teacher is an intense love for learning and for exploration and for sharing that with others. For as long as she can remember, these have been constants for Agnes. “Always,” she said. “Growing up, there were always pens and markers and paints, and we had access to them. Or we would play outside and make a leaf house or build something out of sticks. We are created beings, and we are meant to be creating things. That was always encouraged and nurtured in us.”
When she graduated from Liberty-Eylau High School, Agnes knew that she wanted to explore her passion for writing and teaching. “I really wanted to double major in education and journalism, but that wasn’t an option at the time,” she said. After earning an Education degree with endorsements in Early Childhood and Special Education, Agnes returned to LEISD as a brand new second grade teacher in 1984. “I was barely 21, and I remember walking down the halls in The Rock School looking in other classrooms to see what they had on the board, how the room was set up...” Agnes remembers well the difference between sitting in an education class and actually stepping into a classroom full of children. “I had a lot of teacher mentors that helped me, and I had a wonderful principal, Nolan Bryant. He gave me the freedom to teach children. I think it was more than luck that I got my start there.”
Over the course of three decades in elementary education, Agnes has had a direct influence on countless lives. After 8 years with LEISD, she transferred to the Texarkana Independent School District and taught at 15th Street, Kennedy, Nash, and Westlawn Elementary schools. She has taught every grade from 1st through 4th, and spent 9 years at Westlawn as a Master Teacher, responsible for mentoring new student teachers through an entire year in the classroom. “That was a really wonderful program,” she said. “Teaching is extremely difficult work. You are dealing with human beings, not a piece of paper. That mentoring program really supported new teachers, and they have gone on to win teacher of the year awards, and become administrators, and they are excelling in their roles as educators.”
Agnes earned many awards of her own during her time in the classroom. She was named teacher of the year on nearly every campus at which she taught. She was picked as TISD’s district teacher of the year in 2002 and 2006, and in 2003 she was named the Region VIII teacher of the year. There are more awards and distinctions to her credit, but these are not the things she mentions when she talks about her favorite memories. “One of the best memories for me was when I would get a classroom full of new first graders sitting down to a blank page,” she said. “I got to see the whole process of them learning how to express themselves with words. I got to see their excitement for learning. It’s supposed to be fun! I love thinking about the field trips we took, and I cherish all of the things we made together in those classrooms.”
You cannot truly appreciate the work of a teacher unless you’ve done it, and Agnes does not sugarcoat the fact that it is a demanding career, especially in this new era of high-stakes testing. “There will always be more work than you are able to get done, and it is always hard to see students that want to learn but are struggling for whatever reason,” she said. “But that is also the reason I want to be back in the classroom. If I can help someone move a little further along their path, I want to do that. I am a big believer in people.”
Retirement for Agnes has not meant an ending. The work continues, always. This June she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Theology. She will return to Texarkana College this fall as an adjunct professor. She attends and teaches art workshops as often as she can. She travels. She observes. She creates. You can find her artwork at the 1894 Gallery downtown or visit with her at TRAHC’s December Arts Market or the Alzheimer’s Alliance’s Twice as Fine Texarkana Wine Festival in the spring.
At home, even, the work is the same. A few days a week Agnes enjoys the company of her granddaughters, Sofia (3) and Emma (2). Together they draw and paint and read poems and build leaf houses, and they are learning and teaching – back and forth. “They remind me to look at everything – really look. Everything is fun. Everything is a question mark.”
This month Agnes’s son, Sam, will begin his sixth year as an English teacher at Texas High School. Her daughter, Sara, who has been living abroad for a couple years, is a key teacher and member of the methodology team at James Cook Languages, a language school in the Czech Republic. Agnes could tell you about how brilliant they are, and talented, but mostly she is proud of who they are. “I am most proud of my children and how they walk through this world. They are kind. That’s not always easy. They care about people.”
This past May, Agnes Tirrito set up her Eylau Lane Creations tent at the Twice as Fine Texarkana Wine Festival, her tables full with handcrafted jewelry, original paintings, organically-dyed silk scarves and other beautiful work. She also brought her red typewriter with her that morning to offer impromptu poetry to anyone that wanted to sit and talk with her for a bit. “I was terrified the night before,” she said. It was hot, of course, and the ink started running at one point. The woman in the chair asked Agnes to handwrite it for her, and of course she did. “It continues to be true for me, that this life is collaborative. It’s about the interaction and the connection. Happy is a momentary thing, and it can change. You have to find whatever it is that propels you. That woman walking away smiling with my poem in her hand? That does it for me.”