When Stacey Houk talks about her childhood, it’s intertwined with her memories and affection for the West End of Davenport. She grew up on Rockingham Road.
“We walked everywhere,” she said, “and there were no cell phones.”
She remembers hanging out at Harbor Road Park as teenagers. She remembers walking on the frozen Black Hawk Creek as a child, sledding at Fejervary Park and long walks along Telegraph Road. What she remembers most is the access to nature that living on that edge of town afforded her and her friends.
“I loved it,” she said.
The house where she grew up is now a parking lot. Johnny’s Meat Market is gone and so is the little laundromat. But she still loves the neighborhood and loves teaching art to the children who live there through her job at Jackson Elementary.
Houk reached out to me when I started this column series about what we believe and why. She sent me this note: “I’m 57, female, an art teacher in Davenport Schools. I have lived in Davenport and Bluegrass all of my life, except for six months in San Diego in 1977. I am married and have three children in their 30s. I watch MSNBC every night and Bill Maher is the reason I subscribe to HBO. I voted for Barack Obama in two elections and Hillary Clinton the past election.”
I drove out to Jackson Elementary expecting to talk about politics, and in a way we did. But mostly we talked about mentors, the people you meet early in life that shape the course of the rest of it. It was my first time to Jackson Elementary, surrounded by farm fields at the far edge of west Davenport. It was quiet and beautiful, and I promised myself to return to explore some of the nearby trailheads.
Houk graduated from West High School in 1977, she told me. By 19, she was without parents. She never knew her father and her mother was a heroin addict who lived a hard life and died young at 35. Her mother’s death changed her life, she said. Houk had been rudderless, but her grandparents stepped in and helped her enroll in college.
“It put my life on the right track,” she said. She had a mentor to guide her through the following years, an art teacher from West named Don Heggen. He helped her through community college, giving her advice and framing her art and when she went for her bachelor’s at Marycrest College, after having her children, he was there to help her launch her teaching career.
She has two of Heggen’s paintings from his “pig series” in her classroom. “He knows he was like a dad to me,” she said.
Heggen would start each class with a quote. His art and his teaching style was very expressive, she said. Houk modeled her own teaching after his. “I use positive feedback and focus on the kid’s strengths. I believe kids love art and if you meet a kid who doesn’t love art, it’s the teacher. Everyone has their own way. It’s not like math; there’s not one right answer.”
Houk starts her class by turning on some music. It helps create a feeling that her art room is its own world. On the day I visited, she had students making papier-mâché with the White Stripes playing in the background. “Are those hearts,” I asked, trying to figure out what the shapes were meant to be. “They are whatever the students want them to be,” she said.
Even though Houk describes the West End of her childhood in an idealized way, she remembers the poverty and she sees herself in the struggles of her students.
“Art kept me in school,” she said. “In the ‘70s, in this neighborhood, everyone was dropping out of high school. But I knew I could go into Don Heggen’s art room.” Houk is an advocate for art education, but she doesn’t like the argument that art has value because it leads to better test scores. It’s about more than that to her. It’s about building confidence in students by giving them a path to self-expression. “Art, music and physical education … I hate that these subjects have to be validated. We have become so test score driven.”
She uses her own life to encourage her students when she sees potential but no effort. She reminds them that finding something you love and working hard at it is the way out of poverty.
“I don’t know what they have going on in their lives as far as poverty and what that means. When there are shootings going on all the time, I don’t make a big deal of the little things, like if they don’t have a pencil. These kids might have just been evicted or dealing with domestic violence at home. The one thing I can offer them is mutual respect.”
At 57, Houk is looking toward the next chapter in her life, wondering what she can do to give back to the community. It's an interesting thing for her to wonder about, considering that this community has literally been her canvas. She has worked with students and artists to build mosaics all over Davenport.
If you’ve seen the huge mosaic in McKinley Elementary telling the history of McClellan Heights, she made that happen. If you’ve seen the mosaic at the Davenport School District Administrative Offices, or in Hayes or Eisenhower elementary schools or the large sunflower mosaic in the library at Jackson Elementary, that is her work. The mosaic in the entrance of Jackson Elementary is a Grant Wood-inspired portrait of the building, surrounded by fields. It’s made of broken dishes and she can point to the origin of each shard – a gift from a friend, an artist in town, her grandmother’s egg dish. The sign next to the mosaic says “Guided by Stacey Houk and David Houk and David Schaeffer. Funded by Isabel Bloom.”
“Mosaics allow kids to create art and then they can come back years later and say, ‘I did that.’”