06 July 2009

Blue squirrels and other creative endeavors

I've always had a problem with unimaginative teachers, when I was a student, and later as the mother of a smart little boy with a creative meteor trailing behind him.

One day my son came home from school with a large picture he'd drawn and colored. It featured a curly branch with a few green leaves and a big blue squirrel eating an acorn. It was magnificent.

When I took it from him to put it on the refridgerator, as was our usual practice, I noticed a note stapled to the corner.

It read: "Dear Mrs. Whatever My Name Was Back Then, Please tell the Jaybird to color things the correct colors."


We were an artsy family. My father painted in watercolor and made us a fake cardboard fireplace to hang our Christmas stockings on. My mother embroidered and crocheted elaborate patterns in thread and yarn. I sculpted, first with Play Dough and later with air-dry clay. One of my sisters drew little girls with big eyes and decorated them with sayings about love and determination, and my other sister made dolls. My brother constructed vehicles of meticulously layered brown paper sacks (I think that was only one summer) and by high school was painting complex paintings in oils. These are just a few of our talents. We never saw a craft that we thought was worth buying; "I can do that" was our motto.

We played cut-throat Masterpiece, our favorite game. My siblings and I still play it when we get together. My brother, who attends the Art Institute in Chicago, now can show off by telling us which of the masterpieces he's seen in real life and what size they actually are. As I said, we're just an artsy fartsy family. Neither of my parents finished high school, but they knew what they liked.

The best thing my parents provided was a shelf full of art books with every painting of every old master known to man, starting with the cave paintings and moving up to Pollack and Hopper. I used to like to look at them because they contained so many naked people, but I was also absorbing centuries of color and style.

So I ripped that snotty little note off the Jaybird's squirrel and told him to go to school the next day and ask his teacher if she'd ever heard of Picasso. The Jaybird knew what I meant. He could identify all the paintings in the Masterpiece game too.

I was always doing things like that. I always thought I knew more than the teachers, and I was not willing to let them mold my child in ways I found short-sighted and designed to make him docile and unthinking and dull.

When the Jaybird got off of the bus the next day, he said, "Yes, Mom, the teacher has heard of Picasso, and Picasso is not in second grade." He handed me a summons to appear before the teacher.

My mom refused to go to the school unless we killed someone. She told us to fight our own battles. She said that if she heard that the teacher had paddled us, she'd paddle us again when we got home. If we wanted her to come to an open house or Halloween parade, she'd look toward the ceiling and sigh out a lungful of cigarette smoke. That was the end of it.

I wasn't that thrilled about going to school, but I got a ride into town the next day. I met with the Jaybird's teacher in her miniature room. I'm not going to go into what I said after I sat on a very small chair and listened to the teacher suggesting that I was doing my child a disservice by being less than conventional. She explained how she had been taught to interpret a child's mental state by whether or not he could color items the colors they were in real life.

Oh, boy.

Suffice it to say that her eyes were wide and her hands were clenched when I left.

I did not tell my child to color the correct colors. I said, "You can look outside if you want to see a brown squirrel. Color things whatever color you want."

He looked at me and said, "I love you."

Isn't that what we mothers do everything for? To hear that.

Children are naturally creative. A good teacher can bring that out and make more of it, and a bad teacher can squash it into a little puddle of mush on which the janitor will sprinkle that smelly green sawdusty stuff.

Some kids are lucky enough to have a shelf of oversize art books, along with tape and glue and macaroni and paint and modeling clay and oil cloths to spread like picnic blankets. My parents, no matter how odd - and they were odd - and no matter how lacking in academic credentials, provided us with materials and adhesives and ideas.

Please do that for a kid.


amy grace said...

You are an awesome mom.

powdergirl said...

Before my sons could form a comprehensive grip, I pressed big fat markers into their involuntary grips and swirled their hands across paper, they grew to love the shape of things, each in their own way.

All respect to the huge number of teachers, the vast majority, who do it right, a hard job : ) done wrong, its a dangerous vocation.

SugarCain said...

Thanks, theamygrace.

Good point, powdergirl. There are wonderful teachers. We just didn't have many in our little town of 2,600 people. Too bad.

The Green Stone Woman said...

One thing we were encouraged to be at home was creative and thank goodness it's now back in my life after laying dormant for many years. I don't remember anyone ever telling me what color something was supposed to be. I guess I was lucky.

Warped Mind of Ron said...

I so agree with you on this. Art is about creativity and thinking new things. If the teacher wants everything to be exactly as it is she should send the kids outside with a camera. At most verify that the child understands real squirrels are not normally blue? LOL...

Evil Twin's Wife said...

The art teacher at Buddy's school used to be a horrible woman. The Evil Twin and I spent a lot of time correcting Buddy on her bad behaviour. Enough parents complained and she got the boot, thank goodness. And, The Evil Twin is a graphic designer, so our house is FULL of art books, design books, all kinds of mediums.

Even Sissy, at only 3.5, is already a master with crayons!

Tristan Robin Blakeman said...


La Belette Rouge said...

Wow! That teacher sure has a limited sense of what is possible. I bet when Picasso was in the second grade his teacher sent home a lot of notes.

SugarCain said...

Green Stone Woman: I think you were lucky. Like me.

Ron: Good point. I believe "thinking new things" is the whole point of sending them to school.

ETW: I like how you corrected Buddy on the teacher's bad behavior.

Tristan: That was one of the best comments I've ever had. I really felt like I had a big audience who agreed with me!

La Belette Rouge: ha ha ha ha. I'd never given Picasso's mom a thought before. I wonder if she went to school or was like my mom.

Thanks, gang.

Lydia said...

When I was in 8th grade I had a really dumb teacher. She said "Kelper" instead of Kepler at which point I decided I was mentally finished with the class. I had to do a big multimedia (back then that meant posterboard, people - settle down)presentation/report on Lincoln. I made the whole damn thing up, including the fact that he was from Colorado, which was the backdrop for my poster story. My dad helped me.

One of our fondest memories. Creativity is the most important flexibility in life. At its heart it is adaptation to the universe.

Libby Hickson said...

Wonderful post. I can only hope I'll do that well as a parent.