Pete

color-spheresAs 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.

You have to love it.

First Saturday

holding handsI’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.

 

 

Aisle 2

 

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“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.

I exhaled.

Mom in Germany

Dear Mom,

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.

Mom in center 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.

180512_0001But 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. 🙂

 

 

 

Footnote

legoIt’s cold here in Mineral Wells, Texas today and we had indoor recess at my elementary school. Part of my recess gear is a tub of Legos, which includes windows, doors, propellers for making planes, wheels, basically any kind of gizmo to fill a child’s imagination.

I’m at my desk listening and watching the kids play, when I overhear one child say, ” See I made a Doctor’s office.” Uh oh. My ears perked up for a possible intervention, but I did not say anything right away. She went on describing how the patient would be lowered through a window onto a slide that deposited them neatly onto the examining table. I’m thinking, ” That would be better than sitting in a germ-laden waiting room.” “This is the doctor. He’s just finished my mom’s examination. ” Now I’m up out of my seat moving in for a full-fledged intervention before any more details emerge, when she says ” Yes Mam, your foot fungus is cured!”

Sorry mom, there are no secrets in the elementary classroom. But it made my day.

Drive Time

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I was thankful today for Delmar Day.  I remember he was in charge of Human Resources when I was hired. He knew I lived in Weatherford and told me during my interview, “You’ll have the sun at your back when you drive to work and the sun at your back when you drive home.” I also remember something else about Delmar. He never forgot your name once he met you. What a gift. It made me feel pretty special when he called me by name whenever I saw him.

What Does Art Mean?

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#mwisdthankful

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.