After years of teaching, learning,
'Mr. Spider' retiring to pursue dreams
(Nancy Stone, Chicago Tribune)
r. Spider stood up at the morning assembly in the Jenner school lunchroom the other day and delivered the shocking news.
He talked to the kids about the inevitability of change and the nature of goodbyes, a little too much philosophizing for some of them.
But when he said it straight out, that he was retiring, leaving, many of them gasped.
Why, they wanted to know, why did he have to go?
(Nany Stone, Chicago Tribune)
Twenty-three years ago, when Mathias Schergen arrived at Jenner Academy of the Arts to teach, he wasn't Mr. Spider. He was just Matt, the oldest of 11 children, raised in the white, working-class neighborhood of Marquette Park.
He remembers driving to Jenner for the first time, excited to know that he'd be teaching near the tony North Side art gallery district. To his dismay, he found himself surrounded by the red-brick high-rises of the Cabrini-Green housing project.
How do you connect with children who have been trained to hide when the gunfire starts?
He thought about how he'd loved bugs as a boy. He'd especially liked spiders, which he considered patient, self-reliant and creative, the qualities he would need to teach.
"..he's lean and muscular and flits from spot to spot like a dancer or a boxer."
"My name is Mr. Spider," he told them on the first day, and the funny name intrigued them. It stuck.
I met Schergen years ago while writing about Cabrini and ever since have admired the exuberant, tenacious way he has worked to help his students, which is why I'm writing about him today. His career deserves a bow of thanks.
From the beginning, though, Schergen has never spoken the lofty language of the missionary.
"Not once did you hear me say I want to make a change in people's lives," he said Thursday.
He was in his art classroom, a cluttered but neat space that the school's principal refers to as "spiritual." At 61, he's lean and muscular and flits from spot to spot like a dancer or a boxer. He laughs a lot.
(Nancy Stone, Chicago Tribune)
"Even grown-ups got dreams," he said.
"I just wanted to do what the Lord compelled me to do," he said.
That meant to teach what he could teach, learn what he could learn.
He learned, for example, that it was not a great idea for the white South Side art teacher to wear African clothes or play African drums in class.
"Mr. Spider," he recalls a student telling him after he made that mistake, "we are not African. We are brothers in Chicago."
Over time, he assimilated in subtler, more natural ways. He retained his native "dese" and "doze," but he learned the lingo around him, and the cadence of his speech relaxed to match what he heard, a shift that, oddly, helped him lose his stutter.
He learned that families in Cabrini might be structured differently from families he grew up with, but that family was important.
He learned that things he once couldn't believe happened—certain kinds of police abuse, for example—did.
And he taught.
He taught the little kids and the big ones, and later taught their children, as the old high-rises came down and luxury condos went up and families scattered.
Several years ago, students from two closed schools were transferred into Jenner. Kids from rival gangs now sat next to each other in the art room, where every crayon, pen and pebble was a potential weapon.
He struggled to keep the peace.
"I couldn't sleep for three years," he said.
Through the decades, he learned the hard art of discipline.
Whenever possible, when you had to holler, holler at the class,
not at the kid. Look yourstudents in the eye.
Let a troublemaker know you'd go toe totoe with him.
He came to care about Cabrini as if it were home, and when
it began to vanish he became an archivist.
He encouraged his students to make art of what they saw
and felt. The buildings, the wrecking balls, the violence, the love.
Their art is on display all over the school.
Now it's time for Mr. Spider to go.
"I want to be Matt again sometimes," he said.
He dreams of teaching a college class. Working on his own art. Watching TV. Going to sleep at night without worrying what went wrong at school that day, waking up without worrying what might.
Until then, Mr. Spider is getting hugged a lot.
"Who's going to be our art teacher?" Tareesa Dennis, who's 10, said Thursday morning. She threw her arms around his waist.
"He's taught me since I was a baby."
A while later, Schergen talked about the resilience he has witnessed in the children he has taught, how they've shown him what it is to keep getting up, keep coming back, no matter what.
"The kids," he said, and he began to cry, "have made me brave."
Mary Schmick, Chicago Tribune June 11, 2015