Friday, September 6, 2013

Fifth Grade: Fifty-Year Puzzle

A lot of things happened in Mrs. Wilson's classroom. Some of it must have been good, but I remain haunted by one incident. I was only ten, and I still struggle to understand it.

Our class was assigned to do the February school newsletter. Various students visited kindergarten through sixth grade teachers to collect information. Some talked to the principal, the nurse, the band leader, the cafeteria staff. It was the primitive era of mimeograph machines and typewriters.  Pages were stapled together. Photography wasn't possible, so everything had to be drawn by hand.

The front cover art assignment was the plum. I wanted to do it.

When Mrs. Wilson asked me to stay after school for a minute, I knew it had to be good. It was. She showed me a cover from several years ago and said, "I'd like you to draw profiles of Washington and Lincoln like this." I was excited because I knew my art would be better.

The picture she showed me was really "young." You would never have guessed who the two men were without labels. I knew a side view of an eye did not look like an oval. I knew a nose did not look like a banana. I knew an ear was not a curve. Mine would be realistic.

When I got home, I studied their profiles on coins and began drawing and erasing and starting again and again until they were perfect. When my parents proudly announced my work looked exactly like the presidents, I was thrilled. I left my picture on Mrs. Wilson's desk the next morning.

She asked me to stay after school again. I knew she'd be happy.

"This isn't what I asked you to do, Karen," she said.

"But it is," I insisted. "You asked me to draw Washington and Lincoln."

"I wanted it to look like this," she said, holding up the childish version.

"I can draw better than that," I said. "Mine really looks like the presidents."

"I know you can make yours look exactly like this one.  Do it over tonight."

My face flushed. I was confused. By the time I walked home, I was crying. I told my mother what Mrs. Wilson had said.

"Why would she want me to draw like a baby?  Why wouldn't she want me to do my best?"

My mother leaned against the kitchen counter with her arms folded. She was silent for a long time as she looked at me. This was not like her. My mother was a chatty, bustling woman with the energy of five people. It was unusual for her to be still and quiet at the same time.

"This will be a hard lesson," she said.  "You're awfully young to be running up against it, honey."

She told me there were people in the world who wouldn't be interested in my best efforts. She said some would be resentful. She said they wouldn't understand my determination. Doing things my way, not their way, would irritate them. She said I might be right but that it wouldn't matter. They wanted what they wanted and my arguments wouldn't make any difference. She said the more I resisted, the more insistent they'd be to prove their point at any cost.

She said I'd have to learn when I could back down or compromise or hold fast.

She said that being true to myself would come at a price sometimes.

"You'll have to decide if you'll stand by your work or not, Karen."

I told Mrs. Wilson I would not re-draw it. She got another classmate to do it exactly the way she wanted it.

To this day, I remain baffled. Why would she want me to be mediocre?

I asked my husband Cliff, who was a sensational teacher before he became a principal.  I have never seen him be wrong about any aspect of education.  He said, "You're trying to make sense where there is none." He told me about Harry Chapin's song, "Flowers Are Red," where a little boy drew a page of flowers and leaves in every possible color and refused to change it for the critical teacher who responded:

Well, the teacher said, "You're sassy.
There's ways that things should be.
And you'll paint flowers the way they are.
So repeat after me."

And she said, "Flowers are red, young man.
And green leaves are green.
There's no need to see flowers any other way
Than the way they always have been seen."

There really is no sense to what happened to me or to the little boy. Some things in life are not about talent or happiness or what my daughter calls "the magical rainbow universe." It's about understanding when to draw a line in the sand.

I drew mine. Mrs. Wilson drew hers. And that's the long and the short of it. 

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