Media and Art · Personal Entries

A toe in the pool of prepubescent crazy

We have two weeks of stuff to cover here, so let’s all pipe down and focus, shall we?

We have field trips with insane preteens,  a class mural,  swearing off dating forever and ever until I die and the pixie haircut which accompanied this decision,  and a graduation or two.   Where shall we start?

Although I’ve worked myself up into quite a state thinking about the haircut and the swearing-off dating,  I’ll start with the mural because it gives you something to look at.   Complaining about my bad attitude towards dating has no visual hook.

This year, as I have in previous years, I offered to do a painting with Matt’s class.  The idea is this: I provide all the materials, and guide the kids through the process of creating a large-scale collaborative painting.  I provide the steadying adult voice of reason, and they make all the decisions and do all the work.

After much brainstorming and voting, the kids decided to paint an amusement park scene,  anchoring the painting with a horizon line and a roller coaster, and setting the scene at night.  They would all add their own elements to the painting, and each would also draw themselves on the roller coaster.   They worked together to come up with a strong, cohesive theme, and I was impressed.

Which is why I’m so, so baffled about how we ended up with this:

Click to enlarge this fabulousness: 5th grade Amusement Park, 4 ft x 7.5 ft. Acrylic and watercolor on Arches paper.

An amusement park with an erupting volcano, under attack from nine space ships, three dragons, two bears, and many, many zombies.    I had no idea how much time zombies spend at amusements parks.

I’ve learned some things about fifth-graders:  They’ve dipped a toe in the pool of pubescent crazy.  They like to draw very, very small.  Their collective goal is to out-funny one another.  They don’t do collaborative. They erase each other’s preliminary drawings, and this goes about as well as you’re imagining it does.

1.  This, blogosphere, is Tiger Woods on the moon, in a bikini.  His golf club is floating away, and that’s why he’s shouting, “Nooo!”   “Let’s draw all his girlfriends, too!” Said the fifth-graders. “Nooo,” said Ms. Stein.

2.  This pretty little clock and the things drawn around it are the work of a very sweet autistic boy who joins the class for much of the day.  The kids collectively bossed him about his clock being off-theme.  When he left, they all started drawing clocks.  I urged them to erase their clocks, and they took this to mean that they should erase anyone else’s work that they didn’t like.

3.  Bears!

4. “Honey, what is that?” I asked.   “A volcano,”  she said. OK.  By this point I had realized that artistic coherence was a pipe-dream.

4.5.  “I’m confused about why you’re drawing ice cream cones in the sky.”   “I like drawing ice cream cones.” Later, these became ice cream cone rockets.

5.  An upside-down zombie paratrooper with an ice cream cone instead of a parachute.   This drawing was explained to me at the time, but because fifth-graders all talk at once, all I heard was, “MS. STEIN HE ERASED MY CAN I PAINT NOW ZOMBIE PARACHUTE FAIRY ROLLER COASTER FALLING HAHAHAHAHA BEARS!!!!!”

6.  This family of zombies did not make sure they were securely belted in before the ride started.  Luckily, they are the walking dead and so their fall can’t kill them.

7.  Several things are happening in this part of the picture.

a.  A dragon is heating up some pizza.  The dragon was drawn by child A, and the pizza was drawn by child B.  Child B did not discuss the addition of pizza with child A, and child A was not pleased.  Pizza made a mockery of the dragon.

b. Medusa and Frankenstein are getting married.  I have no idea.


The kids, somehow, came away from all that lovely planning with the message, “Go forth and draw twenty-three different pictures!  Make it as random as you can!”  Amused, shell-shocked, baffled; halfway through the first day I caught Matt’s teacher’s eye.

“Wow,” I said, shaking my head in disbelief.

“I know!”  She said excitedly, “this is the best they’ve worked together all year!

Teachers are not paid nearly enough.



Media and Art · Older favorites

And then we ate Riley

So.  Did anyone else spend Easter Sunday making their 12 year old up like a bleeding corpse and pretending to eat him?  No?  I win!

Kristin St. Martin is my teenager’s terrific photography teacher, and she’s assigned her students a project based on selected works of squirm-inducing Sally Mann, and gorgeously creepy Julie Blackmon.  Both photographers excel at taking everyday family scenarios and pushing them just beyond the edge of comfortable.  Aesthetically beautiful and yet not the kind of photos you’d hang in your living room, both artists create scenarios which aren’t quite right, and which require viewers to ask themselves why they are uncomfortable.

Two tame examples of Mann and Blackmon:

Sally Mann,  Candy Cigarette, 1989
Sally Mann, Candy Cigarette, 1989
Julie Blackmon, Family Portrait
Julie Blackmon, Family Portrait

Keeping these artists in mind, Jake was asked to photograph his family, with the option of creating a montage of the images.  Part of his project will be a manipulated image of a family dinner, with a very dead Riley for dinner (Riley will also be one of the diners).

I ask my children to think about what they are seeing all the time; I don’t want them to be passive viewers, but to question and take responsibility for the participatory act of viewing.   When Jake received this assignment we sat down and looked at Blackmon and Mann’s work more thoroughly than Ms. St. Martin could allow in a school setting, and discussed why we felt uncomfortable looking at the images.  Why are Mann’s seemingly candid captures of the almost-sexualization of children more uncomfortable to look at than the hypersexualization of girls that we see everyday on TV?  Why is Blackmon’s photoshopped child neglect so jarring ? Is it because there is a kernel of familiarity to it that makes us question our own parenting and ambivalence?

In assigning this project, Kristin St. Martin has broadened the spectrum of how I experience art.  I’m not just a viewer or participant in making art; I’ve been in those positions before, and never felt uncomfortable.  This time, though, I’m also involved as a parent.  Is it wrong for Jake to create this faux-gruesome tableaux, and was it acceptable for me to encourage him to explore that?  Like Blackmon’s work, Jake’s portrait of a cannibalistic family dinner will be photoshopped (we’re not really eating Riley until I get him fattened up a bit), and the set-up was no more than extreme make-up with some tableware thrown in.  While Riley had a great time being dead,  it did seem a bit wrong to pretend to eat my child, and I’m sure it’s one more thing Riley will need to discuss with a therapist in twenty years (“First she put fake blood all over my head, and then she pretended to EAT me! Do you think that’s why I’m afraid of intimacy?”).

My participation in Jake’s photo project makes me question wrong and right as a parent in a way I never have as an artist or viewer, even if it’s only pretend wrong.  Encouraging my son to push and explore artistic boundaries is very different from pushing my own, much in the same way that a teenager’s sexuality is frightening to a parent who was quite foolhardy with their own when they were a teen.   There are places in art and creativity that, while useful prods to society to promote debate and thought, are not necessarily healthy places for the mind to go.  If other artists are willing to go there, Mazel Tov. But, as a parent of a teenager exploring those places, what is my responsibility?  Do I have one at all?

This is one of the best assignments I’ve never had.

Older favorites · Personal Entries

Jocko the Clown

My teenager came downstairs wearing a new t-shirt last night.  Black, because badasses wear black,  and on the front it read “AP PHYSICS.”  Because badasses take physics.  AP stands for advanced placement;  it’s a college level physics class.  I hadn’t seen the shirt before, and asked him about it.

“Oh, this?  I got it from Tuttle.”  Charles Tuttle is Jake’s physics teacher, who my son thinks is the coolest man on the planet.  Tuttle knows stuff.  He knoows. Jake tried to look nonchalant, but nonchalance is hard to master when you’re wearing a new badass physics t-shirt, and no one has yet noticed the back.

“But look at the BACK!!”

On the back was this physics problem:

Jocko the Clown

“Wait,” I said, ” Owned?”

“Yeah!  Did you read it!?  Owwnnneed!”   He draws out this word, his voice dropping an octave. “He’s owwnned.”

“But…wait.  Why is he owned?  Is that the answer?”

“Mom.  Did you read the problem?  If Jocko is 60 kilograms, and the ball is that heavy and going 100 miles per second……Mom!  He’s owwwwnnned. ” Jake is cracking up as he explains his t-shirt.

“And the blood…?”

“It’s hysterical Mom!  Because there is no answer!  See?  If you do the math…..20 kilograms at 100 miles per second!    It’s sooo funny!”

“So the blood…..”

“Yeah!  It would rip Jocko in HALF!  He’d be dead!  See?  If you do the Math….?”

But I can’t do the math.  I struggled with Algebra 2, and Calculus is beyond me.  My son is poised to academically surpass both his parents.  We’re smart people.  We both did well in high school and went to Penn State University, which was not easy to get into.  But this boy?  He’s worked.  He’s screwed up at times, and then blown me away with how graciously he’s taken his lumps, applied himself, and carried on.  He’s overcome ADHD through hard work and hard exercise, and I could not be more proud or more happy for him as the future unfolds in front of him; a future for which he’s begun to lay a solid groundwork.  I admire him so much.  And now math and physics jokes are funny.

“So, honey.  They gave you this t-shirt when they made you King Of  The Nerds?”

“Mom.  We all got one. The whole class.”

“So Mr. Tuttle has outfitted a Nerd Army? And now are you going to take over the world with your nerdness?”

“Mom.  Tuttle is cool.”

And he’s right.  Tuttle certainly does seem to know stuff.

Personal Entries

Raised by teachers

On St. Patrick’s Day I wrote about my late grandfather, and I received a lot of lovely comments.  One comment was from my great-uncle Jackie, and in part it read, “so well written.”  I had to laugh.  I’ve heard that comment, along with its partner, “so well spoken” on many occasions.  And my response is always the same: I was raised by teachers.

From a very young age my sister and I were sent to my grandparents for the summer.  My Mommom and Daddad were both teachers from Pennsylvania, and they had a cabin in Maine, where we stayed.  No TV or indoor plumbing, “bored” was the ultimate four-letter-word, and nothing around but water and forest and blueberry fields.  It was a lot like heaven.

All my grandparents’ friends who came to stay were teachers.  The nuns and priests who came to stay were often teachers, too.  Half the relatives were teachers, and my grandparents’ best friends who owned the cabin next door?  Teachers.   My sister and I might not have realized it at the time, but we had stumbled into the best education ever.  There are several kinds of  teachers, and not all are so great, are they?  But my grandparents adored teaching, and those who gathered around them shared that feeling, and so we had the best kind of teachers in Maine.   Almost everything we did was greeted with encouragement and amused patience, every discovery was discussed enthusiastically.

The best science lesson I ever recieved was from a visiting highschool biology teacher.  We kids had found and brought home a bunch of baby snappers, and she, completely in love with each of the creatures, explained our find to us.  Their life cycle, their diet, their range, everything.  In the end, we notched the edges of their shells and returned them to where we had found them.  Thirty years later, I still look for snappers with unequal notches on their shells.

Impromptu art lessons, discussions of books, encouragement to write and put on a play;  this was standard on any given day.  We were egged on by those who were professionals at egging on.

There was Mary Lovall, English.  Jim Lammey, Industrial Arts.  Mary Lammey, Social Studies.  Jim Lovall, Social Studies.  Garland Hoover,  sweet-but-scary highschool principal. Ora Hoover, Math.  My Daddad, teacher-turned-librarian and my Mommom, an art teacher.  We were so lucky.

But the effects of being surrounded by teachers lasted longer than childhood.  Teachers spend their days telling kids that they CAN.   There are no limits, and there is nothing that can’t be accomplished with effort and brainpower.  And they usually apply this thinking to their own lives, and often out of necessity.  Teachers’ salaries make it necessary for them to be their own painters, their own repairmen, their own seamstresses, and my sister and I had a front row seat for that show.  We’ve grown to be women who think there is no project we can’t tackle, and nothing we can’t teach ourselves and accomplish, for better or worse.

While this attitude has led us to be confident in our abilities and accomplish some lovely things, perhaps there are times when it is best to throw one’s hands up.  While I’ve never heard a teacher say, “You know, you should just give up.  Throw it in because there is NO WAY you can do it,”  not every challenge needs to be met.   In that way being surrounded by teachers can have its downside, too.

I’m sure I’m not the only child of teachers who just won’t give up, even when it’s obvious I should.  While you can, perhaps you should not dethatch and reseed your 1/3 of an acre yard all by yourself whilst battling a stomach virus (and that is why my best friend calls me Rocky the Rockhead).  My sister’s husband, the son of a teacher, once said that hiring a cleaning person to come in every two weeks “was like admitting defeat.”   That’s silly, but I know just what he means.  If I can, then I should.  Gentle on myself had been hard-learned, largely because the voice in the back of my head is saying, “You can do it!”

I wouldn’t trade those years for anything, though.  They instilled in us a love of learning and an insatiable curiosity I’ve noticed most others don’t share, and I feel sad for those people.  Perhaps I do push myself too hard, and it doesn’t always end particularly well, but I wouldn’t swap that out for the feeling of being incapable, any day.  I’d rather be talked out of laying a houseful of hardwood floors than feel that it wasn’t within my ability to do so in the first place.

Because I totally could have done that, you know.