Monday, April 19, 2010

“All Right, Children, Line Up for Art”

Let me set the scene for you. The year—1956. The place—Anna C. Scott Elementary School. My grade level—First Grade. Picture her, this girl. Blonde pony tail, cute dress with a sash that tied in the back, sturdy shoes. It’s a Friday, in spring. And Friday is Art Day.

After lunch and some Math, the teacher would finally make the announcement. “All right, children, please line up quietly. We’re going down to Art.” Those words, those wonderful words. I loved school; I loved the teacher; I loved my friends. But Friday was not just the start of the weekend for me. It was Art Day. All week I waited and planned, charged with anticipation for a new project. And it wasn’t any dinky amount of time, either, it was the rest of the school day!

I never dared to say a word after lining up—what if I got in trouble for talking and (gasp) missed Art? The line moved along, out the door, across the linoleum to the main hallway, our steps on the hall’s shiny wooden floor loud and echoing. Then down the stairs, into the inner sanctum of the janitor’s lair, halls and floors painted shiny apple green. Turn left here, right there, following the asbestos-wrapped pipes above us like a map until, at last, we reached The Art Room.

The Art Room was a corner basement room, but in my memory it is filled with sunlight. Nice big tables, fresh supplies laid out for us, and oh boy—the wonderful smells would hit you. Like a bloodhound, I filled my head with those scents—crayons, chalk, paint, turpentine, and the indefinable smell of sunshine on paper.

This day, the project was almost magical. Bowls of beads in every color sat squarely in the middle of each table. Curliques of thick wire. And our very own tweezers! The project was a bracelet for Mother’s Day. It wasn’t the first thing I had made for my mother in Art Class, but it was the first gift that seemed tangible. A bracelet! Something she would wear!

The world narrowed to silence as I carefully chose each bead, sorting them into groups, re-selecting, sorting again, organizing them into a line, threading the bits onto a wire, clamping the ends with my tweezers. Pink and orange looked so wonderful together, especially when I added a bit of opalescent white and a bit of woody beige to blend into something my eyes liked to look at. I was transported. I imagined my mother’s face when she saw her gift. She would put the bracelet on and she would be happy.

Imagine my six-year-old astonishment when the Art Teacher approached. “Oh, Alyson, pink and orange don’t go together at all. Wouldn’t you like to pick some other colors?”

I looked around at other bracelets. My friend Cynthia had used all white beads. Very pretty. Ellen had made a red/blue/yellow/green vibrant mix. I liked them, but I didn’t want to change my colors. I thought my mother would love the bracelet. I shook my head. The teacher shrugged. This week, I was a disappointment to her.

You might think that a six-year-old would be swayed by the judgmental eye of the teacher, but even at six I knew something very important: There’s no right or wrong in Art Class. Unlike other disapproving moments from authority figures, this one rolled right off my back. I went home with my bracelet, somehow aware that I had made an important decision. I wasn’t worried about the teacher’s opinion. I wrapped the gift, and when my mother opened it, she loved it. She kept that bracelet safe; I found it after her death, carefully stored in her jewelry box.

I still love the colors.

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