My seven-year-old son brought home an art project from school. A poem called “The Rain” was handwritten on a raindrop-shaped piece of lined paper and glued to a piece of construction paper shaped like an umbrella. His handwriting was neat, and the sweetness of the poem nearly made me teary.
Pitter patter, raindrops
Falling from the sky,
Here is my umbrella
To keep me safe and dry!
When the rain is over,
And the sun begins to glow,
Little flowers start to bud
And grow and grow and grow!
I turned the umbrella over and discovered a diabolical illustration of deadly rain, robot monsters, umbrella-holding victims, and overall obliteration and destruction.
My son’s mind is fascinating. His imagination is fierce and intoxicating. His artwork, albeit (occasionally) dark and menacing, has palpable energy, movement, and strength. It’s wild, unpredictable, and honest. I admit I wonder sometimes where his extreme inspiration comes from, but never want to get in the way of his gift.
In Kindergarten last year, my then five-year-old son colored a Thanksgiving booklet filled with pictures of Indians, pilgrims, and other images of the holiday. His teacher sent the booklet home with a note written on the front cover that said, “Please color realistic, people are not yellow.”
I was shocked. When my son saw the note and asked, “What did I do wrong, Mommy?” I was enraged.
He did nothing wrong. He was a little kid with a box of crayons and an active imagination, and if he’d drawn the pilgrims blue with purple stripes, he would’ve been right then, too.
My son struggled in Kindergarten. He wasn’t ready for the workload. He wasn’t ready for the lack of free play or the monotony of the curriculum. He wasn’t ready to have his spirit crushed because of his crayon color choices.
I have a memory of being in my kitchen with my mom and uncle when I was a little girl. While they talked, I created a masterpiece of colorful combs in my mom’s hair. When I was finished and delighted by my originality, my uncle looked at my mom’s hair and then me and he said, “It’s a good thing you’re cute.”
This seemingly insignificant moment wasn’t the only time in my life that someone planted a seed of self-doubt – a healthy root of you’re not good or smart enough – inside of me, but the fact that I remember it so vividly is illuminating.
As disappointed as I was in my son’s Kindergarten teacher, I was even more upset at myself for not calling her out on planting a seed of insecurity in my son. I wish I had spoken up about her foolish criticism, but I learned an invaluable lesson. I vowed to be a better advocate for my children, I promised not to let anyone squeeze them into a box in which they didn’t fit, and I swore to protect and nourish their creativity.
Making art – or expressing our true selves in any capacity – is the epitome of bravery and vulnerability. Each time someone’s words or actions make my son feel wrong or embarrassed or ashamed or not good or smart or strong or realistic enough, his spirit will wilt a teeny bit. I don’t know which moments will take root and stay with him throughout his life, and I can’t prevent the rain from coming, but I can try my hardest to keep him safe and dry.
Thankfully, my son is thriving this year. His teacher has given him the time and space to explore his creativity, build self-confidence, and let his talent bloom unfiltered and uninhibited. In fact, considering all of the “great job!” stickers and “very creative!” notes I see on his schoolwork and art projects, it’s possible that she admires his beautiful (and wacky and funny and wild and bold and very unrealistic) mind as much as I do.