As long as I live I will never forget the special education students in my art classes. They have provided the most genuinely sweet moments for all the students in my classes over the years.
Today a little guy named Pete (not his real name) broke up my entire sixth grade class with his reaction to the color paddle chain I use to teach color mixing basics. This is a child who literally had to have his little fingers lifted off the door jam one by one as he entered the class. To say he was not feeling interested in attending art class was an understatement.
I took a calculated risk and brought everyone to the table where he sat with a paraprofessional to explain a color theory project to the rest of the class.
As I manipulated the red and yellow paddles over each other….I said to Pete, “Look, it’s magic…orange!” His face lit up like a Christmas tree…he grabbed the paddles and we were off to the races. He spent the rest of the class in a rainbow-colored trance, combining the colors, looking at his world through those paddles. The students gathered around us were smiling, laughing at his joyful reaction. God, it was a nice moment. Can you ask for a better explanation of the effect of color on the world?
As I walked around the room the rest of the period he kept looking up at me through the green paddle with this mischievous grin, saying “You look like the incredible hulk Mrs Strandberg, …..green…aaarghhhh!” I’d say “Aaaargghhh” back.
I’m sitting here at the kitchen table the first Saturday after school started this week. We had the students Thursday and Friday. What was old in May is new again in August. It is my nineteenth year of teaching elementary art in a small rural Texas school and my first days of school were good.
In the hallway the first day I saw a mom come in with her fifth grader. Mom had on what we used to call “a house dress”, big wire curlers and fuzzy house shoes. The daughter was holding her hand and grinning from ear to ear. The Granddad was carrying two bags of school supplies. They stopped and the Granddad said to me,”She said her mom couldn’t embarrass her the first day of school.” The girl laughed and posed with her mom for a selfie. As they separated and the girl walked on to the gym the mom looked like tears were close. But she also looked happy. And so did her child.
Harry Wong’s words ring in my ears. “The first days of school are so important.” As I welcomed my students this year I remember again that the first two things in their heads are, ” Am I in the right place?” and “Does she know my name?”
On the first day of school, your name is the only thing that really belongs to you. Everything else, your time, your brain, even when you eat and go to the bathroom becomes part of “the schedule”. So to a kid, ” my name”, “my seat” and “my chair” become a big identity thing. After a couple of months of summer freedom that comes as a shock to the system.
Lots of good things happen. Like a student that brought me a cookie at Meet the Teacher night. It said something like”May your days be great and your coffee be strong.” I can’t remember exactly because I ate that sucker the first day of school. It helped.
I get to see big brothers and big sisters walk their siblings around my room and say ” I used to sit here.” And “This room looks so small, I thought it was bigger!” I even had a former student bring their child to meet me because they were going to be in my class this year. I’m getting old.
Even the challenges are somehow familiar and endearing. “No you can’t say fart.” “No, you should not make a fart noise even if you are not farting.” There is nothing in the world funnier to a fifth grader than a fart.
I had a small sixth grade class practice safety drills. As we practiced the lock down drill the mood turned quiet. They were sitting on the floor, away from windows with their backs against cabinets. I turned off the lights to show them how the room would look, “See, we can still see each other with the light coming through the cracks in the blinds.” I told them how my number one job is to keep them safe, even before teaching art. And you could see the concern in their eyes. I hate that our world has put that concern there. The one student said, “It’s ok, I’m a black belt.” Everyone laughed and came back to their seat. But I got hugs as they left the class.
And so I realize once again how precious these children are and what a privilege it is to be with them each day. It was a good start.
For those of you who read about the nearly disastrous experience of Norman the fawn in our waterfall pond, here is a happy postscript. Having not seen Norman since Tuesday, we were not sure that he made it. We got a happy surprise last evening when he appeared at our donkey trough with his mom, seemingly no worse for his experience. Welcome back Norman!
I usually wake early, so I was up first this morning watching television when I heard my husband George open the front door and go out into the yard. When he opened the door to the garden room where I was, I knew as soon as I saw his face it was bad. He said, “The fawn is in the pond.” The “pond” is a waterfall with a fish pond that we built each other for our 25th wedding anniversary. We live in rural Texas, behind pipe and cable fencing. You can’t even see there is a pond or waterfall unless you look at it from our house.
It holds a thousand gallons of water and when my husband stands in the pond, which we only do to clean it, it hits him about hip high. In the fifteen years we’ve had the pond, countless animals have drunk from it, deer, squirrels, birds, raccoons, dogs, cats and God knows what else. Nothing has ever drown in that pond.
My heart sank. “Has it drown?”, I asked. We’d only seen this fawn for the first time yesterday when his mother brought him up to our donkey trough. “No, but we’ll have to get him out, the sides are too steep and he’s not strong enough to drag himself out.” Of course I didn’t take time to get my camera, but when I walked out I roughly saw the scene in City Slickers when the calf named Norman starts to drown in the river and Billy Crystal saves him.
My husband was talking softly to the little guy as I came out of the house; George said he had swum right over to him when he got there. He had his head up on the ledge of the pond, looking at him as if to say, “Can you please get me out of here?” The fawn was obviously exhausted; no telling how long he had been in there struggling. George put one leg in the pond and looked at me. “I’m going to hand him out to you. You think you can hold him and put him in the grass?” Adrenalin is an amazing thing. My first thought was how lucky I was to be married to this man who was about to grab this thrashing little deer in the middle of a thousand gallons of water to save it. “Yes!”, I said. I think I could have thrown a refrigerator at that point. By the way, to add to the drama of this scene, the mother doe was across the driveway in another pasture, frantically pacing back and forth, but too scared to come any closer.
In one swift motion, he lifted the struggling fawn to me and I scurried over to the nearest tree and set it gently down in the grass. I will never forget the sound it made as George handed it to me. If you’ve heard any baby cry for its mom, it’s pretty darn close. Surprisingly enough the fawn could stand. I let him go and he stood there shivering. Now mom was nowhere to be seen.
We looked at each other. “Now what?” We decided quickly to leave him alone and go in the house to see if the mother would get him. It was hard to leave him there. Several phone calls to our sweet neighbors whose son works at a deer reserve to see if we were doing the right thing. “Yes, leave it alone, don’t touch it, the mom will come back.” The fawn lay down under the tree and started cleaning itself.
The morning progressed with us peeking through the closed blinds for over an hour, to see if the fawn was still there. Finally, about an hour and a half later, he was gone. The lilies in the fish pond look like they’ve been in a veg-o-matic.
But no matter. The goldfish are swimming around through the shredded vegetation thinking…”What just happened?”
Later that morning….after I’d taken my blood pressure medicine and we were sitting on the front porch drinking tea my husband said, ” I hope we see Norman again.” “Me too.” He’s named him. Good sign for that little guy, I bet he’s got one whopper of a story to tell his friends.
“What’s your hurry Bud?”, I think as the teenager moved around me on aisle two. I’m grocery shopping on a Tuesday at ten o’clock in the morning. An unusual thing for me because my retired husband shops during the school year, but now I get to browse in peace during my summer break from teaching elementary school. Adults everywhere. Heaven. It’s quiet. Even the Musak is not too loud. As I look at this kid, I realize that teaching has made me watch people in a different way. I scan the expression on faces for intent, body language for the possibility of trouble. It’s hard to stop doing that, especially in these troubled times of violence at schools. It takes time away from that twenty year commitment to control. It’s only been a week since school’s been out.
I’m assessing him now, mildly irritated, as he moves past me, going around my cart. He doesn’t look up, intent on his phone screen. Surprise. T-shirt and jeans with a baseball cap turned backwards. Short shaggy black hair. No basket for the young, he has a few items clutched loosely under his arm. Keys in the other hand. He’s in a hurry.
And coming the opposite direction up the aisle towards me is an old man. He looks in his late eighties, white-haired and composed in a starched short-sleeved shirt and khakis, with a notebook paper shopping list in one hand. He leans heavily on his grocery cart with the other hand, but his back is straight. He glances up from his list just as the teenager approaches him. ” Hey, don’t I know you?” he says to the teenager.
All my teacher sensors go off at this point. ” I can’t help it. I think, “Don’t you be rude to that sweet old man.” I’m clutching the handle of my cart, pretending to look at something beside me on the shelf, furiously hoping…for what? Courtesy? Acknowledgement from a teenager of the old? What am I going to do if…. “Breathe,” I think.
And then it happens. The teenager stops and smiles at the old man. “Why yes sir,” he says, “Don’t you go to Midwest Church? Aren’t you Mr. Preston? I’m Ben, I saw you last Sunday. How are you?” “Oh Ben, of course, I’m great, just great, say hi to your folks for me.” says the old man. ” Yes sir, you have a nice day now.” Ben says. He moves on.
I’m stopped in my tracks. It wasn’t what the teenager said, it was the way he said it. Such a simple thing. The easy respect. It was expected of him, I knew. I suddenly wanted to hug his parents, then the kid. I can see the headlines, “Former teacher arrested at grocery store for hugging complete stranger.”
As I walked on I mentally slapped my own hand. “You didn’t give him a chance, did you?” I thought. “You thought you had his number…sheeshz.”
And maybe life is as simple as that and as hard as that. People don’t always telegraph their intentions. Disrespect isn’t always tattooed on a forehead, posted on a Facebook page or exclusive to an age. And perhaps rather than paranoia and mistrust, the key is trust, family and respect. For what will we have if that is not enough? For today it is enough for me on aisle two.
I smiled at the old man as I passed him. He smiled back.
One of the best legacies a mother can leave are stories. Even though I lost you physically in 2006 I can hear your voice today. You left a record in the albums you made for us. I wonder if you know how much that means to us now?
One of my favorite stories was of your trip to Germany in April of 1962. You flew to Germany to attend the North Atlantic Girl Scout Conference as one of the Girl Scout Leaders. You had encouraged us to be in Girl Scouts and as always was you were very involved in everything we did.
I love the story of this trip because it tells me so much about you as a person, not just as my mom. You visited Berchtesgaden…the photo (Mom is in the center with the sweater) shows you holding hands with the other Girl Scout Leaders there. Mom looks calm and dignified. The lady behind her, Lord who knows what’s going on there.
I know now that you stayed at the Hotel General Walker, which as I understand it was originally a hotel built to house Nazi dignitaries and after being heavily damaged during WWII was rebuilt as one of Europe’s finest luxury hotels, with a breathtaking view of the Bavarian countryside and the Alps. I have the menu of your lunches there and your itinerary.
But your words tell the story best. Talking about the crystal clear alpine streams in the villages you said…..
“In this stream I saw my first black completely round pebbles so smooth they were almost like marbles. This was the first time I had seen mountains and by the end of the day I had a crick in my neck trying not to miss any of them. It was in this village that we (her roomie) bought a bottle of German Beer, a loaf of black bread and a roll of German sausage. We set the beer in the snow on our window sill to cool and when the meeting was over we came back and had a midnight snack; with the windows open, snow on the ground and the moon lighting the mountains and the sounds of cowbells echoing from high on the mountain.”
You were 30 years old. I love the idea of you drinking German beer and watching the moon on the mountains. The poetry in your words reminds me how much you loved to travel and see new places, which is great since you were an Air Force wife. This must have been an exciting trip for a Texas girl from the small town of Jacksboro because you went by yourself. I wonder now how you talked Dad into that. My sister and I, nine and six years old respectively, stayed back in Texas with my Dad. I remember you saying that we told you,” We always got dessert when Dad cooked dinner when you were gone.” I’m sure Dad was just trying to bribe good behavior out of us.
You brought us back a box of the different salts mined in Berchtesgaden, which the pamphlet describes as their most important industry. You told us how you had donned miner’s clothes and sat on wooden rails and slid down through the mine. When you ran your fingers on the walls you could taste the salt. I remember the box of salts, different colored one-inch cubes. I secretly licked each one when you were not looking to see if they tasted differently.
I wish I had been with you as an adult on that trip. I smile every time I think of you whistling through the salt mine licking the salt off your fingertips. I bet you yodeled at the mountains too.
Thank you for telling us the story. It also explains why you loved the movie Heidi so much.
Happy Mother’s Day Mom.
p.s. After I posted this my very intelligent sister told me that 1962 was one of the three years we were stationed in England, which of course makes much more sense that my mom got to go to Germany because she was so close. Well my bad. Math is not my strong suit. 🙂
Combine an excess of scrap cardboard and 6th grade art students. Ask for them each to build a house that has a roof, four walls, a door and at least one window. Shake well and add end-of-the school year energy, paint and about thirty glue sticks. You get a small cardboard city and a lot of fun.
Lots of good discussions about hinges, doors, roof lines, balconies and interiors. The best part is the creativity my students showed in bringing their house to life. Good choices and problem solving were encouraged.
There are certain things I do each school year that are not just part of a curriculum. They are necessary to me as person. Necessary as part of what I want to teach children. I’ll tell you a secret. Every teacher teaches some things drawn from their heart. It’s part of the same package; teacher as a delivery system of a predetermined set of knowledge and skills and teacher as a human that filters teaching through their experiences, beliefs and communication skills.
In my realistic moments I understand that very few of my fourth, fifth and sixth grade art students will go on to be famous artists; if fame in that sense even matters. What I do hope is that I leave behind a legacy of kindness and commitment.
Kindness, in that from something I’ve said or shown to my students that they realize there is a common thread of good, decent behavior that runs through people, no matter where you were born or what life has dealt you. This presents the age-old question, “Is the glass half-full or half-empty when you are looking at humanity?” I want my students to choose half-full. Be realistic, yes. Cautious, yes. But giving, trusting and being kind is a risk that should be taken. No matter the outcome.
Commitment, in that seeing people as essentially good is a choice, and sometimes a tough choice. In the sea of negativity that my students face every day in the media, online and sometimes at home, choosing to create your own atmosphere and point of view is your right, really your obligation. It does not mean being a push-over or wearing blinders to the ugliness that exists. But choose to see the up-side. Choose to take a stand on what you like and don’t like. Choose to be kind.
So how does this connect to teaching art? What got me thinking about this is a story that I tell my fourth-graders each year. I told it last Thursday. It’s called “The Coming of the Bluebonnet” and is from a wonderful book called “Texas Tales with a Twist”. (https://www.amazon.com/Tales-Texas-Twist-Original-Enduring/dp/B0064XN59U) These are all short stories, tall tales and legends meant to be read or told aloud. (Spoiler Alert) Each spring when the bluebonnets first appear I tell a story to my fourth graders about a little Comanche girl who gives up what she most values most to save her people from a drought. She sacrifices her doll as a burnt offering and spreads the ashes to the four corners of the earth. She asks for a sign from the Great Spirit that her offering was worthy. In the morning, wherever the ashes of her doll touched a sea of bluebonnets appear. Then it begins to rain and the people are saved from the drought. The little girl gets her name, She-Who-Loves-Her-People.
I tell this story because it makes children think about giving. I tell it because it teaches about legends (I am careful to explain this is a legend) and interpreting the ideas presented in the story. Then we draw bluebonnets and talk about our state flower.
This is the concept that I really want children to understand. Visual art, like all of the arts, is a way of communicating what is important to people, a record of the good and bad ideas and events since our recorded history began. The stories, the ideas represented are what draws me to art, whether the ideas are abstract and mysterious or simple and obvious. I love the sophisticated artist and the folk artist all the same because of the thoughts that they show me. And I choose to teach that kindness, compassion, wonder, humor and understanding can all be taught through art. And that most of the wonderful ideas that humanity has cast upon the world are created, struggled for and born through the imagination and drawn from the heart. It is that idea that is important.
Today, Friday November 10th, I am thankful for the experiences my students give me.
As an elementary school art teacher, I get asked a lot about the meaning of art. What does this abstract art mean? What is the purpose of my child taking art? What did the artist mean when he or she painted that? My reply is,” What does it say to you?”
You want to know what art means?
Today it means a tall, timid shell of a girl, with wispy hair, standing at my desk with a paper card in her hand. “Today is my birthday.” she said quietly, not seeking the ranting Happy Birthday song that usually follows that news into a classroom. “Well, Happy Birthday!” I say, “Are you doing anything special?”
“I don’t know.” she says, eyes darting away from my face. I sense I’ve said the wrong thing. “But my Dad made me this.” She is holding out the card. “You want to see?” “Sure.” The card shows a princess in a Disney–style gown; a scroll proclaiming “Happy Birthday Princess” in elaborately hand-drawn tattoo letters. The card is a much folded piece of white paper, the image beautifully drawn in delicate pencil.
“My Dad is in prison. He made me this for my birthday.” Her eyes search my face for any sign of disapproval. I mentally bless this father who loves his child.
What does this art mean?
When I look at this card I imagine time melts away for the artist as he works and the air takes on that super-charged feel at the edge of a storm. That moment when the summer air is replaced with the cool rush edge of the weather and the first round, fat drops splatter your face. This art says all things are possible. It says “Child, you are loved in this world.” It says, Child, wait and see and don’t lose hope. Ever.”
“Tell your Dad I think this is wonderful and he is very talented.” She smiles at the father that is miles away, but here in the room as she folds the card carefully into her pocket.
That is what art means for me and for this child today.