I finally found my calling in my senior year of college. Of course I intended to be a writer but before I started signing autographs in copies of my runaway best seller, I needed a job to pay the bills. I’d suffered enough soul scorching gigs to know I didn’t want to wait tables, work the phones on an answering system switchboard, burn plates for a printing company, or even manage a tiny art store on a street no one ever walked so no one ever entered. I’d done all those and a few more, earning enough to pay for plates of fried rice and cups of stale coffee.
So when my university offered a temporary teaching assistant position for students in their last semester of college, I took it. And there I found kids. Lots of sweet but very poor and sometimes very hungry kids. I hated the school system, a plodding curriculum that was certain to deaden any glimmer of affection for learning in any child, but I loved the kids. I’d found it, thank heaven, a goal for a career.
A few more divots snagged my steps along the way to teacherhood. I found myself newly married and working in a Detroit podiatry office (oh my God,) then newly pregnant and working in a Denver computer center (oh my Lord.) As a mom of two young sons, I supplemented our family’s meager income as an art teacher in the city recreation program, teaching little kids to paint pictures of trees and turtles and tide pools (oh yes.) I became an assistant resource teacher in an elementary school (on the right path,) then an artist in a commercial fabric design company (oh no.) Finally my chance came to gather my skills, invent a few others, and serve as the art specialist at a tiny private elementary school. I’d arrived: I was a teacher.
No one, especially school administrators, knows what an art curriculum should look like so I was entrusted to create my own. Fortunately for every school where I ever worked, I was ambitious. I took more college classes, intending to earn a master degree in studio art and a teaching credential. From all these experiences I built an art curriculum that exposed my students to a range of media and techniques and taught them that the journey was everything, the finished artwork merely a byproduct of their explorations.
Despite all the skills I learned and all the classes I taught, every day was a frontier of unexplored territory. One of a small school’s best assets is that a teacher gets to work with the same students year after year, helping them find their strengths and interests, developing their proficiency. As a teacher I got to know the kids as individuals, to encourage their talents and dreams, sometimes to witness their foibles and peccadilloes.
Rhys was a beautiful child, at seven all giant eyes and peachy cheeks. He was also a handful, the center of every fracas. Gia was another little seven-year-old beauty, all long curls and sweet grin. She was the classroom angel, no matter what room she was in. At seven it’s hard to find a child who isn’t a baby-faced beauty, snaggletoothed smiles, matted hair, and all.
One day the commotion in art class centered on Rhys and Gia, a mess of paper, brushes, and pencils strewn on the floor around them. I called both kids to the front of the room and asked Gia what had happened.
She pointed at Rhys, her injured feelings as palpable on her face as the red juice stain on her blouse. “He threw all my stuff on the floor.”
I turned to Rhys and asked if he had dumped Gia’s art supplies on the floor. He nodded. Struggling to keep the irritation out of my voice, I asked why he’d done such a thing.
“Because she threw my things on the floor first.”
I asked Gia if she was the provocateur. Innocence blazing on her face, she nodded. Little Miss Angel had made the first naughty move, and Rhys the Imp had simply responded in kind. I told them to apologize to each other and then clean up the mess.
Rhys and Gia taught me something that day. The best little kid in class misbehaves at times, the little troublemaker gets labeled with an undeserved indelible mark if we’re not careful, and a seven-year-old is an adorable, endearing, mischievous person who benefits from adult moderation. Sometimes they point fingers at each other; sometimes they tell the incriminating truth. We teachers had best be alert.
There’s a lesson in all that: the little surprises we bring to our stories, making them true at heart.
Photo of child creating art courtesy Pixabay