Sparked by Words

Posts tagged ‘teaching art’

The Best Little Kid in Class

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

 

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I, Wanderer

The commencement address at your university is supposed to inspire the graduates to go out and conquer the world with great deeds and a vision of peace for mankind. Or at least get a decent job and pay the bills. I panicked when I graduated from college. It was the moment when I realized I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. I didn’t attend my college commencement; the motivating keynote address never reached my ears. If college was a five year delay before starting my adult life, then the day after graduation was an immediate decline into uncertainty and failure. Nearly everyone I knew was ready to start grad school in a few months (or had already begun,) or had a terrific entry level position in a job that would lead to a productive and independent future. So I thought. So they thought.

 

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I’d been lazy about my life till then, getting homework and assignments completed but without the incentive of solid accomplishments that would look great on a resume. I’d worked too, at a bunch of dead end jobs that kept me fed on fried rice and thin sandwiches, housed in roach infested apartments in the run down sections of a graceless city. The idea of being a Writer had only been sustained by marginal success in college. I’d earned a degree in creative writing validated by a few essays and short stories noteworthy for nudging by professors toward possible journal submission. But there were no jobs in the classified section of the paper advertising for entry level writers. (Yeah, if you’re 40 or under, you don’t know what that is – no worries.)

Over the next decade I fell into a roll call of aimless jobs. Employment in a few dead end trades paid bills until marriage; then children sidelined me even further from any serious expeditions toward a writing career. Not wanting to risk my sons’ safety at daycare, I stayed home with my young children, dodging regular work until they were in elementary school. For a person full of remorse over many squandered opportunities, that’s not one of them. I’m not attempting to persuade you that my decision was the only one you should also consider, but for me, it was right. I nurtured my children with religion, play, music, trips to beaches and nature parks, sports, Scouts, theater, picnics, friendships, fun, and challenges.

I raised my sons and I loved those years and I harbor no regret.

The next derailments happened because I pursued a different creative path, first doing occasional art work while the kids were small, and then as a full bore career because it became the path I traveled. At-home work as a free lance artist eventually led to paid art teacher positions through a city rec program and as a volunteer artist at my son’s school. [I don’t know which of those words paints a funnier picture: “free” because of how little I got paid by people who thought they were doing me a favor by letting me do something constructive with my time by designing logos and signs for their businesses, or handmade invitations for their weddings; “lance” because I felt pierced by every person who paid me less than promised after demanding more work than we’d agreed upon; or “artist” because I never got to sign my name to a single piece of artwork. Still, inks and paints were used, and I was never lashed to a mast to do the work. And yes, I do know that “freelance” is a legitimate word without the separation.]

Those experiences segued into a stint as a commercial artist in a studio where I learned to paint designs for active wear (bikinis, board shorts, Hawaiian-style shirts) under pressure and with peculiar requirements, like board shorts with no orange hues as the owner of the company simply didn’t like orange – damn that the buying public at the time, teenage and college boys, loved it. I also found that office politics in a commercial studio is the norm, that stealing creative proprietary product is standard, and jealousy of anyone else’s artistic skills the motive for lies (Art director, “She didn’t paint that,” pointing to what was clearly my design – everyone had seen me paint it and it was my identifiable style) and theft (“I did,” as she held aloft a barely altered piece of my work and claimed it as her own.) More than one artist has stated that commercial studios raze your soul, but maybe you have to be there to understand such truth. Too many episodes down that miserable path and I gave it up, with great relief.

At any rate, I took what I’d learned, to paint fast and accurately, and marched off to the first of several positions as an art teacher in private schools. I’ll leave out the administrative/business dealings and report only that I loved working with kids, kindergarten to twelfth grade, and exposing them to the creative energy that every child owns. You just have to help them unlock what’s percolating there, show them how to hold a brush, why paint colors contrast better with some colors more than others, how to move a pencil to craft the line they envision in their head. Children can learn to capture what they dream and record it as painting, drawing, original print, sculpture, collage or ceramic art. It’s a remarkable experience when a child hangs a work of art on the wall and says, “I made that!” Yes, with my guidance, but a few thousand kids did in fact make thousands of pieces of art. Many kids went on to become fine artists, designers, sculptors, art teachers, architects, art historians, commercial artists, and all manner of professionals and lay people whose lives are touched and enriched by exposure to art. I did that!

Art is a primal urge, evident by the 20 – 30,000-year-old treasures deep in European caves on rock walls that could only be reached via precarious scaffolds. Just imagine: wrapped in bearskin, walking on grass sandals, you hide behind boulders or as high in trees as the slender boughs will afford you. When you drop to earth, you tread softly so as not to awaken bad spirits, enemy tribesmen, or stalking predators twice your weight, and trek until you find the tiny hole in the embankment. You push aside the branches that keep its secret, enter the darkness, and plunge through space, uncertain where you will land or if safely. Or at all. Once there, you light a fish oil lamp in a shell, pick up a ragged-edged twig, a dollop of red-brown ochre, and a stub of charcoal. You may be famished and thirsty but nothing, not even desire to calm urges for food, can keep you from the calling of the muse, born before you were conceived. You pay homage to the spirits whom you revere and fear by creating massive images of horses and bison on rock ceilings reached only by standing on a rickety ladder built of broken limbs. You ask for blessings and success. You do what you’d come for: you paint.

I taught children to create art and I loved those years and I harbor no regret.

Eventually a roadblock stopped me. They are meant to. A horrendously unjust situation developed and I couldn’t control or reverse it. A kid cheated on a project and her parents demanded that I take the blame for her poor judgment by insisting I not be rehired. They were rich enough to hang a noose woven of dollar bills. Truth to power is a noble cause but sometimes you just can’t win and I didn’t. I lost the art teacher position in the school where I’d built their upper school art program. Knowing that it was up to me to heal, I sought a creative outlet. Still teaching art, I returned to my first love, the one I’d identified as a child. I began again to write. Finally I knew what I needed to know after college graduation: it was up to me to write my own commencement address, so here it is:

Do whatever you do as well as possible. Make deep and wholesome imprints on earth and in the hearts of others. When you go, it will be all that is left behind. Listen to your adversary and be vulnerable to change, because you may have made the first mistake. Compromise is often the most fair but sometimes justice is not. Work at granting forgiveness and be grateful to those who have afforded you theirs. Stake high standards for yourself, slightly less for acquaintances, and none for those who are unable. Be authentic in voice and action, and do something instead of nothing at all. You were not born when your parents were; stop blaming them for the miseries of their lives. Be angry and then make something wonderful from your anger. Forge friendships as if you are forging new stars. Hold family as if your life and theirs depended upon it. Fix what you broke and then help someone else fix what they broke. Build something new and keep what’s old in good repair. Bless those around you for their presence in your life. Thank God in whatever way you find meaningful. Do this every day. And harbor no regrets.