“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” – Pablo Picasso
Alright, y’all. I need to start with some truths about myself: I got in trouble in kindergarten for refusing to color. There were “Letter People” worksheets; there were crayons. I was having none of it. In high school, I put off taking my fine arts elective until my final year. Grudgingly, I dragged my senior self to a 2-D art class where I perched on a stool among a sea of awkward freshman I didn’t know. I did the minimum. I took a single “art” class in college to fulfill my requirement: an art appreciation course that I approached with no joy or sense of investment. By all accounts, my academic life would indicate that I’m not a creative spirit.
That couldn’t be further from the truth, though. I’m a closet artist. My house is overrun with paint brushes and canvases and sketchpads. I have writer’s notebooks filled with story ideas and poetic scraps that will never see an audience. If a person can write with it, I’ve got it crammed in “my” drawer in the kitchen. (Obviously colored pencils and florescent paints belong with the whisk and the rolling pin, right? Bless my husband for accepting this mayhem.) I have old fabric and found shells and unwanted magazines stowed in containers all over the house just waiting to be used in a craft project I may never even find time for. My evenings alone with my son are spent dancing, singing, painting, coloring, building, and telling stories. My home is my maker space. I am a creator at heart.
So what happened to me in school? I don’t know exactly, but I do think it’s all tied up in choice, authenticity, and the way teachers respond to creative works. For me, school was a place where I was told: “Do this. Do it this way. Do it correctly and quickly if you want this work to be valued.” I’m not knocking my teachers. It was incredibly valuable to learn how to work within a system and be successful. That’s real life. I learned how to be organized, focused, efficient. But, for me, creativity can’t breathe in that space.
Art can’t be rushed. It wants to wake up slowly. It needs to go out for fresh air when it feels backed into a corner. Sometimes it nags me awake in the middle of the night. And most importantly, art doesn’t want to be graded. Not mine anyway. And this brings me to my classroom today, where I struggle to balance the demands of the standards-based system with the moral imperative to make space for real art. I teach language ARTS, and believe me, I teach artists. They create stories that rival the ones in any bookstore today, and when given the chance to write what they want to write, they crave an audience. They bombard me with their work when I travel through the room to confer. “Here read this!” Their narratives show up in my inbox at all hours of the day. “I added more. What do you think?” Kiddo, I think it’s inspiring. I think if I had half your guts and follow-through, I’d have a published book right now instead of a collection of abandoned notebooks. I learn from you.
I have to walk a fine line between encouraging my young artists and instructing my students. They need me to do both. They need me to remember when I show up as their teacher each day that, as Picasso suggests, they came into this world as artists, artists with voices and stories that are worth so much more than a letter grade.