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Former Student Honors Art Teacher for Encouraging His Dreams

Current Students Help Make Film About ‘Mrs. Clapp’

It had been nearly 30 years since Ruth Bitting taught art at Northview High School. Now here she was back there, surrounded by student artworks and student admirers.

“We’ve heard so much about you,” senior Julie Case told the 90-year-old retired teacher. “I feel like I’m meeting a celebrity.”

On this night, she was. The former Ruth Clapp, in her teaching days, was the woman of the hour at Northview’s District Art Show. She was honored with a new art award named after her, and with a film about her made by a former student, using current art students and their teachers as actors.

The Last Lesson,” a 20-minute film by Steve Harryman, a 1981 graduate, tells of the inspirational influence “Mrs. Clapp” had on him, and her memorable final exam that motivated him to follow his dreams. It was shown in the Max Colley Performing Arts Center during the art show, and Bitting was recognized on stage by art teachers Tricia Erickson and Tanya Lockwood.

“I’m overwhelmed, I really am,” Bitting said after seeing the film. “I didn’t expect such a wonderful honor. I’ve always been happy that I was an art teacher, but not any happier than now.”

Advanced Art students Julie Case, left, and Poppy Foster tell Ruth Bitting how much they admire her

For Harryman, it was his first chance since graduating to tell his former teacher how much she meant to him.

“You had a big impact on my life,” Harryman told her in the crowded lobby. “I never thought we’d be meeting like this again.”

‘I Loved That, When They Got It’

Bitting taught art at Northview from 1960 to 1986. In her telling, it was more calling than job.

“I loved teaching,” she said amid the crowded art show. “It was hard work, because you want to instill the love of art in these children, and some of them don’t want it instilled. But some of them got it – and I loved that, when they got it.”

Steve Harryman wanted to be instilled, but he was a quiet student. Mrs. Clapp was one of the few teachers he could open up to. He recalled talking to her after classes about his dream of filming wildlife in Africa.

He eventually realized part of that dream with a documentary about the trumpeter swan, footage from which was used in a recent Hallmark Hall of Fame production. He wanted to make a film about following dreams based on Mrs. Clapp, but didn’t even know if she was still alive. He was elated to learn she was.

“I’ve been carrying around this story for years,” Harryman said. “Seeing her now is validation that this is a story that’s just meant to be.”

He approached teachers Erickson and Lockwood to see if they and their Advanced Art class students would act in the film. They were all for it. Senior Dan Carwile portrayed Harryman, and Erickson played Mrs. Clapp, in a two-day shoot in December.

“It’s very humbling, because you recognize this person had a huge impact on someone,” Erickson said of her role.

She and other art teachers evidently made an impact on Marissa Boerma, who won the first Ruth Clapp Choice Award for her drawing, “Paper Cranes.”

Bitting was gratified to learn of her lasting impact on Harryman.

“I just hope I would have that same effect on everyone I taught, but that can’t be,” she said. “But one of them showed me, and I’m just delighted.”

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Northview Visual Arts Program

The Last Lesson

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio or email Charles.

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