I dropped out in first grade. I kept going to school, where I loved to read and write and add and subtract. But in the middle of my very first art lesson, I began to hate art. And all through grade school, I never changed my mind.
On the other side of the classroom windows, autumn had hit its stride as trees let loose their orange and gold and berry-red leaves. The teacher gestured toward this swirling show and brightly announced the fall art project.
I was with her. Already she had shown me that math was beautiful and precise, that words on a page opened windows to faraway places and long-ago times, that with my pencil I could transport a thought from my mind to a paper. So when she held up red and orange and brown construction paper and scissors and glue, I expected more magic.
“Snip the paper into little pieces,” she told us. “These will become leaves that you’ll glue to the branches of the tree you’ll draw.”
The gluing undid me. My fingers became so drenched that the snips clung to them instead of the branches. The snips bled their colors into the glue, staining my hands orange and gold and berry-red. And when I dabbed with a tissue, it stuck and shredded until my hands seemed trapped like a fly in the web of a spider.
This is when I gave up on art.
And this was a moment I remembered as I taught the dropouts in my classes. They were also caught in webs. Their brains worked fine but their pencils couldn’t deliver. Or their attention was hijacked by every movement and sight and smell in the room. Or their emotions were laid open, raw and bleeding from last night’s beating with a belt buckle.
The impact of a failed art project is nothing compared to being at the end of a belt buckle or learning with a brain that doesn’t fit usual teaching styles. But that first-grade memory made me a better teacher, moving me to provide ways out of webs, not enlarge them.