“I look back on my life like a good day’s work, it was done and I feel satisfied with it. I was happy and contented, I knew nothing better and made the best out of what life offered. And life is what we make it, always has been, always will be.”
✽ Grandma Moses
The year following my beloved Sister Ernestine’s class, I had the dubious distinction of having a “lay” teacher for third grade at Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Parish School (whew!). Mrs. McCister did not warm to my charms as Sister Ernestine had done. In spite of the fact that I regularly won the weekly spelling bee, was a voracious reader, had perfect penmanship, and was a willing class participant, she was very dismissive toward me. This came to a life-altering head in October of the school year.
We were given a full-sized sheet of blue poster board and told to depict a Halloween scene for our homework assignment. Classroom art period never allowed me the time necessary to fully realize my creative vision, but an evening of assigned drawing was bliss! I cleared everything off the mosaic coffee table, got out my large gold box of 120 Crayola crayons (loved that Christmas present), and spent the next five hours filling the board with a large gnarled tree, a huge golden moon with a witch flying across on her broomstick, a black cat with an arched back and splayed tail, and a scarecrow perched amidst glowing jack-o-lanterns. Drawing was like breathing to me and the hours flew by. Mom kept telling me it was time to go to bed, and I kept assuring her that I was almost finished (I am still like that, lost in creative flow). It was the proudest I’d ever felt toward something I had drawn—the warm glow of creative satisfaction.
The next day, my classmates huddled around my desk admiring my masterpiece. Mrs. McClister collected our artwork and began class. At recess, she asked me to stay behind. The pride and self-satisfaction that had filled me the night before and carried me through my classmates’ praise began to waver as I sensed I was in trouble for something.
“You were supposed to do this assignment on your own,” Mrs. McClister said sternly, “Who helped you?”
“No one,” I explained, a flush of confusion quickly eroding my joy. “I did it myself.”
“Linda, you will be in far less trouble, if you just tell the truth,” she warned.
“I am telling the truth,” I insisted, my mind awhirl with conflicting emotions.
This exchange continued for another five minutes. She read my “lying” as defiance. “Come with me. We’re going to see Mother Superior.”
My humiliation increased exponentially. I had never been sent to the office for anything more than delivering the daily attendance sheet and lunch money; I was a model of deportment. Now, my talent, honesty and integrity were all being indicted.
Mother Superior wasn’t able to “break” me either. Truth is a stubborn bitch. They called my mother and commanded that she come to the office while I missed class and squirmed in the “hotbox” outside the principal’s office. Behind the frosted glass, I could see the shadow of my mother’s arms punctuating the air. “I can’t even draw a straight line,” my mother raged, the one and only time she really defended me. “She did this all herself. She has always been artistic.” They didn’t believe her either.
I really don’t remember if I received a “D” or an outright “F.” My artwork was perceived as so good the powers that be were certain that an adult had created it. A deep sense of distrust toward the omniscient adults in my world developed, as did a basic distrust of my talent, my intellect, and my very sense of self.
A similar incident happened in seventh grade at another parochial school at the hands of Sister Regina Rose, who accused me of copying a poem I had written. When I told her of my inspiration from a sunset, she demanded to know the author and tome from which I’d copied. When she could not illicit her truth, she proffered a “D” for the “benefit of the doubt.” The central message seemed to be “you, Linda, are not exceptional. You could not possibly have created this work.”
There were bright lights too, of course. By fourth grade, my mother moved me to the neighborhood public school and I was blessed with the fabulous Miss Collins. After lunch, she would turn off the overhead lights and make us rest our sweaty heads on our desks as she regaled us with Island of the Blue Dolphins, Stuart Little, and Wind in the Willows. Miss Collins was simpatico to the creatives in her class. My classmate Christy and I were tasked with creating a large marine-life mural. Miss Collins entered the mural in the L.A. County fair and we won third place. Interestingly, neither Christy’s mother (I learned recently), nor my mother, deemed this meritorious enough to take our respective families to the fair to view our work or claim our award. Talent further diminished and dismissed.
As the years progressed, I had some teachers who saw great things in me and served as wonderful mentors. However, that most potent and damning voice in my schizophrenic head was my mother:
Prior to entering high school, I filled out my proposed class schedule with college prep classes and art electives because I had always planned on going to college and becoming an artist. The schedule required Mom’s review and signature. Negating my electives and college prep classes, she said, “Take typing so you have something to fall back on.”
“You can’t sing; you can’t even speak,” she chided prior to my first performance as lead soloist in a high school singing group (they thought I could sing—for nearly three years).
“You have to babysit this summer, so you can’t take the job,” she said when I was sixteen and offered a summer internship as a graphic artist at Pacific Outdoor Advertising.
“Well, I hope you finish this time,” she spat, her drunken words stinging like a knife in my heart when I told her, at the age of 30, that I would (finally) be attending college as a full-time student.
Sadly, there is an endless litany of mom’s disparagement. The self-imposed limits we place on ourselves are tragic enough, but allowing others to corral us within their limited view of who we are and what we are capable of being and doing is truly insane. And yet, our parents tug and pull at the strings of our self-esteem—their flailing puppets—until we get brave enough (or exasperated enough) to cut the strings. I moved 1600 miles to break free. At 50.
Langston Hughes’ poem Harlem, asks, “What happens to a dream deferred?” Nothing good, I assure you. Thwarted talent is a dark odious soup. And it turns out, it not only acts like a slow poison, but, in my case, is quite fattening.
My mother never lived to see me earn a living as a graphic designer—mostly because I didn’t really become one until I was 55. I certainly wouldn’t write as openly about my life if she was still alive to read this blog as she took even the smallest criticism or act of self-preservation as a proclamation of war.
I wonder what she would have said when the agency I freelance for won a platinum Marcom Award last year for an annual report I designed. I am choosing to believe that she would have finally recognized that following my dreams is a viable way to make a living and makes me a much happier person.
Sometimes I wonder what my life would be like today if I’d stopped letting other people tell me who I was supposed to be when I was still young enough to have truly changed the course of my life. But that is a fool’s game.
Grandma Moses didn’t start her successful art career until she was 78 years young. She and her husband had raised five children and worked as farm laborers, eventually owning and toiling over their own farm. She lived to be 101. During those later years when she became a working artist, she received numerous awards, was recognized by presidents, and saw the value of her paintings increase from $3 to $10,000. She had exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, as well as others around the U.S. and Europe. At 62, I am practically a youngster. Who knows what I can accomplish now that I’ve exorcised the creative demons (well, most of them).
P.S.This post was started over a year ago, but pulled out of moth balls and rewritten today because of a post I read on the wonderful blog Letters from the Inside. Thanks, Tia. Please be nice to yourself.
#writing101, #blogging101 | Day 15 (way behind the times)