My son says he likes school, but he offers one caveat. “I want to draw. Or if they won’t let me draw, I want to paint,” my son says. “And we can’t make paper airplanes. They say it makes too much trash. And I was blowing on my paper and it flies. Dad, it really flies. My own breath. But my teacher gave me a look like I’m not supposed to breathe.”
I want to take him out of school at that moment. I want to weep with him. I want to tell him that no amount of rules and reading and important test-taking is more important than a sketch and a painting and a paper airplane.
But then he says it. “There’s always home. I can make these at home.”
I nod my head.
I’m not depressed. Not even really sad. But something about the conversation lingers with me for the next few hours. And so my students are excited about learning. Way more excited than the eighth graders I taught. I have kids who call school “a refuge” and who describe it as the one way they will be able to make it in this world.
I am trying my best to give them choice and freedom and everything that’s missing when a kid says, “I can’t paint and I can’t draw and no one lets me make an airplane.” I want them to be creative, critical thinkers rather than compliant automatons.
Sometime after lunch, my kids leave me to go to art class. If they’re lucky, they’ll paint. Maybe draw. But I’m doubtful. I’ve seen far too much paint-by-number to trust what passes for art in schools. Too many teachers trying to make the subject more important than what is already self-evident: without art, we die. It’s no exaggeration. We need it like we need air.
And far too many art teachers try to fight the battle to prove that what they do matters and in the process do just the opposite.
My kids stay quiet-on-command as they walk toward the art room. The “alternative” kids are already there in their small group, with their aids nervously hoping they can act normal. There’s something about the “alternative” label that breaks my heart. Depressed. Deeply depressed. Schizophrenic. Unable to fit. I see why people turn their heads. It’s hard to know that sometimes life is hard, really hard, for people. Sometimes just staying alive and figuring out how to function is damn near epic.
No, that’s not entirely it. I teach kids who are hopeful, even when the Dream Act isn’t passed. Even when the language is foreign, they hope. It’s amazing. It makes me want to weep for opposite reasons.
That’s more like it. If you shake it too hard, it’s completely shattered. Like a snow globe made of plastic wrap. But somehow we do it. Somehow we manage to persevere. Stained glass windows. Beautiful, but still stained. Colored by a light we didn’t choose, but still creating beauty at the most in-opportune times.
And I’m left with nothing else than the conversation about painting and drawing and making air planes. I’m struck by the fact that the most important parts of teaching are the ones we never talk about. What makes us human? How do we view the world? What do we do with the fragile beauty before us?
I don’t know.
Or maybe not.
Love. It’s not the word we toss around in the staff lounge. It’s not the word in the P.D. we attend. But if I have any hope that this whole education thing will pan out, it has to be through love. Pithy, perhaps. But not in the face of the hope of an immigrant student struggling through the present progressive and wanting so badly to believe that hope exists in this land.
Love in the midst of the beautiful and the broken.
And maybe that’s what drives my teaching. I don’t know. Not yet. Maybe never. But if I believe that humanity is bold and beautiful and fragile all the same, maybe I have a shot doing something meaningful this year. It is in these little moments that the big questions matter the most and it is the big questions that ultimately drive everything that a teacher does.