Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Joy & Value of Choice

In 1977, my mother and aunt trundled me off to art classes at the Fleisher Art Memorial in Philadelphia. My mother, single and working, paid for the classes even though money was tight.

Recently she reminded me, “You didn’t like going to classes. You just liked doing things on your own at home. You used to paint and draw all the time. But then you took the class and you just moped around about it. You finished all the classes but you didn’t want to go back. ”

A painting of mine from college. Using oils.
I painted a portrait of Eugene O'Neill on
a canvas of egg shells and cardboard. I did it
for me, on my own time, and not for a class.
Even though I was nine-years-old, I can still vividly remember the blinding white light bulbs throughout the studio. I remember the bright lights forced my eyes low towards the floor. 

The staff, friendly and encouraging, set me up at an easel with pastels. They clamped a pad of white paper to the frame of the easel. The paper gleamed like fresh, smooth ice. Every place I looked--at their faces, at the paper, at the artists next to me--it was clean, white, light.

I remember feeling the weight of never having worked upright on an easel or on paper so perfect. I had never held a pastel. 

Used to drawing at home, sprawled across the floor with cheap pencils and wax crayons, I was now afraid to make a mistake.

Wedged in between other students and a maze of easels, I peered at the other sheets of paper to see what others did with pastels--large circles and half arcs, haphazard lines. This didn't look like the drawing I was used to. I smudged a bit of red on the paper.

We were to draw the still life of bright round oranges by a pink-flowered tea set. 

I remember not liking the idea of being told what to draw. And I remember not liking how the soft pastels mashed against the paper and smeared onto my fingertips like stage makeup.

My mother laughs when she remembers, “No, you didn’t save anything from those classes.”

Not long afterward, I tried guitar lessons. A nice man owned a small music shop right around the corner from us on Percy Street. I remember banjos hanging on the wall and I remember thinking about my Uncle Joe teaching himself to play the banjo. At the time, I was amazed that someone could teach himself how to play an instrument. 

When I recently asked my cousin whether my memory of his father is accurate, he replied:
To my knowledge, yes, my Dad was self-taught on the banjo and guitar. I remember the guitar more. He like to play the acoustic as it was easier to keep handy than an electric guitar. He also played the mandolin. My brother Joe took some lessons when we were younger but he didn't stick with for more than a few years. I do recall my Dad hearing Stairway to Heaven and saying what crap it was. He picked up the guitar and started to play it after hearing it the first time, and playing it well.
The adolescent me reacted the same way to the guitar lessons and the art classes: turned off! And I loved art.

These memories make me wonder today--as a teacher and writer--in what ways do we move students away from being writers? In spite of all of our good intentions, what conditions make our kids feel less like writers? So many of my young writers tell me stories about how much they used to love writing...before school entered their lives.

What conditions can we be mindful of which actually move kids closer to not only feeling like writers, but these conditions actually move students closer to being writers?

In the case of the guitar lessons I remember I sat on a stool in a cramped space, curtained-in on four sides with my instructor. I remember that he demonstrated the notes, and that I imitated him. 

The best way I can describe the feeling is that I felt like a caged gorilla because of the conditions of the physical space. 

It was confining. It did not feel like home. It did not feel like a place where I could explore. It did not feel like a place where I could play.

And I felt like a caged gorilla because of the rules. So, I did not practice the guitar. The rules caused me misery. Actually, I resented having to practice the chords. It required effort. It felt hard. And, more importantly, the rules and the chords suddenly meant I could be wrong.

I found no joy in the rules.

I found no joy in the still life.

I found no joy in the possibility of being wrong...or being corrected.

I can still remember the joy, however, in drawing what I wanted. I can still remember the joy and the value of choice.

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