There are moments that define us. Sometimes, we know in the moment. Other times, we realize in retrospect that a particular event or occasion affected us in ways that were totally unexpected. While some of those defining moments move us forward, others create a sea of self-doubt that takes a long time to recover from.
I had such a moment in the 5th grade when I was ten years old. There were good things about 5th grade, but school was not one of them. Most people who knew me in high school and college would not believe that 5th and 6th grade were an academic nightmare for me. I’m not sure I can blame it all on THE defining moment, but considering the lasting effect of this moment on the rest of my life, I think it’s highly possible.
The event I’m about to share took place in a Catholic school, and yes, a nun was involved. However, I’m not going to do the Catholic School Bash, because I also had some amazing experiences in Catholic school. And regardless of where you go to school, there are good teachers and not so good teachers. And there are good teachers who occasionally make a mistake. Everyone makes mistakes. And in the case of this moment, I think a mistake was made. In other words, I don’t think what happened was intentional or that she realized the impact her words and actions would have upon me, but here it is.
I don’t remember art classes before fifth grade, except a project we did for 2nd grade when we were studying Spanish. I think my mother still has my la naranja (orange) embroidered on burlap. It has an orange on it, with little green leaves, and the words embroidered in both languages.I remember that it used as a cover for our phone table. Before we brought our projects home as gifts to our parents, our teacher sent a few of us to the office to show the principal, Miss Lamb. I was excited that mine was selected to show. And then we could give them as gifts to our parents. This was happening back in the 60’s when bilingual education wasn’t yet a part of regular elementary education.
Fast forward to fifth grade. Sometime in the first semester, we had an art assignment involving yarn, felt, and burlap again, but we could choose our project. Spatial concepts aren’t really my forte, nor is realism, but I had an abstract idea in my head for this art project. I still remember the colors and textures creating a free-form design over the piece of burlap, but I didn’t have the skills to execute my vision.
From my first cutting and stitching, I was disappointed in it, and I didn’t know how to make it better. But I kept working on it, trying to make something remotely artistic out of it. Apparently, my teacher was disappointed in it as well, because she not only gave me an F on the project; she also called my mother in to have a conference with her. I don’t remember if I was there or not, but I have a feeling that I was. The message was clear. My project was not acceptable, but the teacher would reconsider my grade if I did a new project over the weekend with my mother’s assistance.
My mother doesn’t remember this incident, but she was wonderful to me. I don’t remember her making me feel worse about the situation. But I do remember going through her sewing stuff and getting more burlap and some felt and yarn. I don’t know if the design was her idea or mine; but she helped me produce something that was not only acceptable–a cardinal on a branch. The picture on the left is NOT the one she (we) did, but it had a more sloping branch. It was actually quite good, but it didn’t feel like it was really mine. I did get a passing grade though, and at the time, that must have been important to everyone, maybe even me. I don’t remember that part, only the feeling of failure. And, luckily my mother’s willingness to help.
My memories of this incident have been colored by the passing of time, but I do know that from that time on, I didn’t think that art was something I could do. (Luckily, it was the same year I discovered that I loved piano and was good at it.) When it came to art, I not only doubted my ability but the ideas I had about art. Luckily, art isn’t a required class in high school, so I could basically just accept my limitations and focus on other things.
This story has a happy ending. It took many years, but I went on a retreat in 1995 that reaffirmed my artistic and expressive side. There are stories to share from that experience, but for now, the important thing is I began to heal. I began to trust my creative self again.
I had been planning to tell this story for a while now, but after yesterday’s post about my insecurities about quilting, I realized that I might have one more battle with this demon. I am encouraged to make this observation because I know all the other ways that I’ve regained my creative confidence. If I step outside my comfort zone with the quilting and take creative risks again, I cannot fail.