Posted by: mew | September 10, 2009

the tale of a creative champion, part I

“My creativity leads me to forgiveness and self-forgiveness.”

— Julia Cameron, from Week 1 of The Artist’s Way

It all began with some froot loops.

img-4027Well, not exactly.  They do figure into the story, though.  Or rather, they figure into the backstory.  Because to understand the story of my creative champion, we have to go back.  Way back, to a creative monster.  Only I don’t think she was really a monster.  I think she was a really exhausted and frustrated woman who had chosen the wrong career path and was just marking time until retirement — or until a freak tornado or car accident took her out of this plodding misery.

I have a lot of sympathy for her now.  But when I first met my nemesis, she was just plain scary.

To be fair, it wasn’t just Mrs. C who was intimidating; the whole situation was a little nerve-wracking.  We met on my first day of first grade.  Not my first day of school, but my first day of public school.  I’d come from a little private kindergarten, with about 10 students in a class taught in a homey atmosphere by a gentle elderly soul.  School meant curiosity and playtime and getting to ask questions and friends and drawing and trying new things and laughing.

Suddenly, the word “school” took on some frightening connotations.  At Mount Zion Elementary, there were hundreds of students, and their boisterous voices echoed and magnified in the cavernous, cinderblock corridors.  It was plain to see, on my very first day, that some of them were bullies who delighted in violence, and because there were so very many of us and so few adults, it was going to be nearly impossible to catch them at it.

I took a seat in my assigned classroom and watched a touching little drama unfold.  A boy (Neil, we’ll call him) was standing near the entrance to the classroom, clutching at his mother’s sweater and weeping piteously.  His mother finally detached herself and rushed away.  As soon as she was gone, our new teacher entered the room.  Her body filled up the entire doorway, and her voice was just as massive as she boomed at Neil in passing, “Quit your crying.  First grade is not for babies.”

I knew then and there I was in trouble.

Of course, most of that year is a haze in memory now, for which fact I should probably give devout thanks.  But a few moments do stand out stark and clearly defined, because unfortunately, they defined me.  I’ve already mentioned Mrs. C’s unfortunate habit of leaving the room to “get some air” at frequent intervals, putting the rest of us unfortunates under the supervision of a six-year-old bully, and the resultant scarring episode.  And I’ve mentioned, but not explained, the froot loops.  So let me get that out of the way.

Our teacher needed us to take a little nap once a day, for at least 20 minutes.  She would have preferred much longer, I’m sure.  It might have suited her best if we’d all gone into diabetic comas after lunch… but alas!  the gods are capricious and don’t grant all our wishes.  Nonetheless, it is difficult to get 30+ 6-year-olds to fold their arms on their plastic desks and bury their heads in them and pretend to sleep for 20 minutes.  For no one can sleep in that position, I’m convinced, even with the lights out, and we always had the soothing accompaniment of a slightly buzzing bank of fluorescent lights — and orders not to peek.  Or swing our legs.


Or move at all.  There’s a good girl.

Thing is, I was a good girl — or at least, I used to be unquestioningly obedient to authority, so I tried my darndest.  I did.  I kept my head down although it gave me a feeling I was suffocating.  (Did I mention we weren’t allowed to turn our heads to the side, either?  Even if we kept our eyes closed?)  I got quite familiar with the shadowy texture of my desk and a macro close-up of my arms.  But most of the class needed a little more incentive than just pleasing teacher, and so Mrs. C provided a little carrot.  A reward for good behavior.

Oh, goody.

At the end of each “nap,” Mrs. C walked between the rows of desks and silently slid a few froot loops beneath each student’s elbow — but only if you’d behaved.  Some kids thought this was really fantastic.  They munched their loops with enthusiasm, often showing cavity-riddled teeth.  And it was a good thing they did, because when I first saw the little brightly colored Ohs, I had no idea they were a food item and needed some context clues.  My parents had never let me within arm’s reach of a sugary cereal before, and I’m not sure, but I have a suspicion you have to be conditioned early on to like the taste.

I hated them.  The next day, when the froot loops came under my arm, I politely, but firmly, pushed them back out into the light.  Mrs. Cohen said, “Why don’t you eat your treats, dear?”  I answered meekly, “No, thank you.”  (I thought it would be impolite to say what I really thought.)  Unfortunately, Mrs. C thought I was being a little punk, so this went on… wait for it… all year.

Yes, I continued to behave perfectly during naptime, and the dear lady continued to slide processed breakfast cereal in front of my face as a consequence, and I continued to push it away, and she continued to ask or urge me to eat it.  All year.  She even got to the point of refusing to allow me to throw away my rewards until the end of the school day.  So a little corner of my desk was reserved for the manically cheery Ohs from about 1:30 onwards every day.  We were both equally stubborn.  I persisted in the belief that froot loops tasted yucky.

And I think it bothered her a lot that someone didn’t appreciate her generosity.

aa 036a

(Thanks, Teach.)

Had it been limited to that one incident when she was out of the classroom and an ongoing tug-of-war over the sugary snacks, Mrs. C would probably not have made it into my monster hall of fame.  Unfortunately, her influence was rather more far-reaching.

You see, on the first day of school, we all were “tested” for reading groups.  That is, we presented ourselves in front of the teacher’s desk when she yelled out our names and were handed a text and asked to read aloud.

I’d been reading since the age of two, and when I was a toddler my mother even had me demonstrate for visiting door-to-door salesmen to discourage them from coming around with home phonics courses and such.  I loved to read.  I even remember the book I learned to read first, and the story it told, which I realized much later was foundational for my way of perceiving the world.  My grandfather liked to have me read newspaper headlines aloud to astonish his friends, and he reports that when I was no more than “a little bitty thang” I sounded out the name Evinrude from staring at the boat motor when we went fishing, shocking all aboard.

I loved to read.  Still do, actually.

But when Mrs. C hollered my name out, she scared me.  I went as slowly as I dared up to her desk.  I was absolutely trembling by the time I reached her.  She was red in the face, and I could feel the irritation radiating off her massive body.  I hesitated, and it felt as if I were facing a fire-breathing dragon as she snapped, “Well?”

I don’t know to this day why it happened.  I could read the text in my hands just fine.  But I couldn’t speak.  I tried a few times.  I swallowed and took a deep breath.  I opened my mouth.  Then I glanced at her and shut it again.  I think if I’d stood there long enough, I might have gotten up the courage to read a few lines.  And I like to hope that in today’s school system a phone call to the parents would be in order, at the very least, before putting a blanket label on a student.  But from that moment forward, as far as my elementary school was concerned, I was learning disabled.


Being learning disabled meant a lot of things in our school system in the 1970s, but I won’t go into that now.  This post is already headed toward 1500 words, and that’s quite enough.  Suffice to say that it did affect my life to be labeled L.D., that it was a snap decision that echoed through the years and affected my self-image quite dramatically.  And not in a good way.

In part II, I’ll tell you all about a lovely and unorthodox teacher who helped me begin to heal some of the damage.

[Note:  This essay based on two exercises in Week One of The Artist’s Way.  I am blogging about my process as I go through the course, and this is a belated post, as we are now in Week Four.  Nobody said following a schedule was my forte.]

(Photos  from morguefile)


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