Friday, May 17, 2013

Childhood Lessons on Art from 'The Baby-Sitters Club'...

I remember none of the lessons they were supposed to teach in school as vividly as something I read in a "Baby-sitters Club" novel.

Claudia (the artistic one) was given an assignment in her own school to draw a self-portrait. She was never a good student, but art was her favorite class, her biggest outlet, and her number one hobby, next to baby-sitting, of course. She should have excelled there if not for her talent but her sheer passion. 

Claudia chose to draw a butterfly for her self-portrait assignment. It was her depiction of herself because how she felt and how she saw herself: a free spirit, just like that butterfly was free to fly around. In many ways, you could argue it was also because like that butterfly who had to beat its little wings against the cocoon until it broke free to be free, Claudia, too, had to overcome adversity. She was in the shadow of her big, brainy sister; she was a Japanese-American living in a predominantly white community; she struggled with feelings of misunderstanding and aloneness inside her traditional and strict family. 

But Claudia's teacher didn't see it that way. She wanted a traditional self-portrait: a picture of a face. Maybe a body, too, if you were feeling extra adventurous. This wasn't art therapy class; this was public school art class. Claudia received a bad grade on the assignment, and her grandmother had to step in and yell at the teacher, pointing out the immense creativity that went into such a design.

Interestingly, the book I am reading now has a similar story from the narrator's childhood. In "The Woman Upstairs," Nora always wanted to be an artist but her life took her in another direction. She, too, once felt misunderstood and alone within her family, wanting something they didn't seem to (don't all artists?). She, too, recounts a story from art class when the assignment was to put a bee inside a violin inside a pear, and everyone in class merely sketched that, while she built a model out of paper mache, gold ribbons, and an actual, asphexiated bee. She didn't get in trouble for it, though; her teacher acknowledged the true originality, uniqueness, and beauty in her design. It should have been the first step towards her inevitable success in that field, whereas for Claudia, I wouldn't have been surprised if the rejection of her piece from someone who was in a position of authority and power about art sent her in the opposite direction, and she retracted, following the rules and keeping her big ideas to herself. Of course, "The Baby-sitters Club" books were for kids, made to teach lessons, sure, but ultimately lift them up and teach them they could do anything to which they set their minds.

How you reacted to Claudia's drawing as a kid reading the books said a lot about you and the lessons being hammered into your own head from teachers or family members or even friends about expressing yourself. It could also say a lot about the adult you would grow up to become, as well. How you react to "The Woman Upstairs" now tells you exactly the kind of adult you have become. Hopefully there is not a great discrepancy in between.

I remember reading the story and being in awe of and immensely impressed by Claudia. Claudia was thinking outside of the box; she was a true artist. It wasn't that I would have been afraid to play with the parameters of the assignment (I proved to do that on a couple of occasions as it was), but it never crossed my mind to interpret a self-portrait assignment any other way than the literal "draw your face" design that her teacher so clearly wanted. I was probably eight or nine when I read this book, the time when I was first deciding I wanted to be a writer-- to tell stories for a living-- and I hadn't considered any other side to that assignment. In fact, in the passages when she described creating her self-portrait, I remember thinking she was bound to get in trouble because "that wasn't the assignment." I inherently understood the rigidness of minor authority figures like teachers and their desire to teach to tests rather than cultivate uniqueness. In fact, "That's not the assignment" has become a running joke I regularly yelled at television characters ever since-- sometimes even to this day. I did it in my head with "The Woman Upstairs," and in all honesty, if Nora's teacher, too, had said such a thing, it might have made a more palatable story. It would have explained why she never became the great artist she so desired and which childhood stories tell us we all can be. Instead, though, it would become clear that Nora herself got in her own way and distracted from her dreams-- something few stories like to share but ends up happening to most of us.

It happened to me.  

Though this part of Claudia's story always stuck with me, I wish I had actively taken it to heart more than I actually did during my formative years. I have said before that I don't think you can teach someone to be a true artist; it's something they just have to be born to be; but that doesn't mean you can't coax and massage greatness out of someone or some situation nonetheless. I tend to remember this anecdote-- something that became just a footnote in the character's life after hundreds of books, some dolls, and a movie-- only in hindsight, only after I missed an opportunity to do something really original or unique and realized it. It's something I've been thinking about a lot lately, though, and maybe stumbling onto "The Woman Upstairs" now is meant to be a reminder of such things. It's never too late for a teachable moment.

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