Friday, December 22, 2017

Staying Within The Lines

Parents often ask me about their child's artwork. They sometimes worry that their four-year-old, for instance, doesn't seem to be capable of painting within the lines or drawing recognizable trees or flowers the way their friends do. "When will that start to happen?" they ask, to which I answer, only half joking, "Maybe never."

One of my earliest school memories was the day me kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Jennings, handed out pre-printed pages of train car outlines for us to color, each of us with a box car or passenger car or coal car that were, when finished, to be arranged on the walls of the room as a complete train. I felt somehow honored to have been entrusted with the engine, for which I chose red with yellow accents. She gave us careful "instructions," urging us to not only strive to stay within the lines, but also to try to only employ horizontal strokes as we filled in the various white voids.

My rebelliousness is not inborn, but has rather has come to me with age. I didn't perceive Mrs. Jennings' instructions as anything particularly confining. To the contrary, I recall taking pride in adhering precisely to her rules, and in the end admiring how accomplished my looked looked when all the crayon strokes went in the same direction. The completed classroom train ran along the wall above the blackboard for the rest of the school year, where I often admired my own handiwork. From that point forward, whenever the opportunity came to color within the lines, I took it on eagerly, employing the techniques Mrs. Jennings had taught us.

I was a boy who enjoyed coloring books and could spend hours practicing and perfecting my side-to-side-within-the-lines technique. I'm not surprised that adult coloring books have become popular. To this day, when I doodle, I often draw shapes or find shapes pre-printed on my page, then carefully fill them in. I find the process meditative.

What I also recall is that many of my classmates did not follow Mrs. Jennings' instructions, that perhaps in all fairness, may have been offered more in the spirit of "suggestions." The proof was right there on the wall of the room all year long, each train car colored by a different hand, and not all of them stayed within the lines. Still, I mostly remember that train as a whole, not as individual components, other than my own and the wonderful caboose that Mrs. Jennings colored herself.

Whatever we may now think of Mrs. Jennings' project, it seems apparent to me that she did one thing brilliantly: she did not make it into a competition by comparing our finished work or making us otherwise feel that we'd not toed the mark. There they all were in the end, side-by-side, inside and outside the lines, smooth strokes or scribbled, linked one after another along the wall. I imagine other children looked up and admired their own work, being pleased perhaps by their choice of colors or swirling crayon strokes, not even noticing or even being aware that there was anything wrong with a few stray marks outside the lines. I also imagine there were others who got the project done as quickly as possible, sloppily, not caring at all for the process, never even later noticing the train on the wall.

Each year, we do a handful of potentially "inside the lines" types of projects at Woodland Park. For instance, around Halloween we always spend at least one session painting jack-o-lanterns that I've pre-drawn in permanent marker on their paper. Naturally, I don't say anything about staying within the lines, but the lines are there and a few of the older children will always accept the challenge of staying within them. In the end, whatever they look like, just like in Mrs. Jennings' class, they all get hung up on the wall, side-by-side, equally, with no editorializing or comparisons from me. Some of the children will eagerly show their parents, "That one's mine!" while others can't be bothered to even look that way again.

The same goes for drawing or painting "tree or flower shapes." Occassionally, we attempt "art" projects that involve following step-by-step instructions. For instance, each year I challenge the oldest kids with "If" paintings, with a proscribed process of 1) conceiving and articulating a concept, 2) drawing the picture in pencil, using an eraser if necessary to get it "just right," 3) tracing over the pencil lines with permanent marker, 4) choosing colors, and finally 5) painting. My object is not for them to produce a work of art so much as to expose them to a 5-step process. Most of them, as I did with Mrs. Jennings' instructions, take it on as it's intended, a challenge not unlike balancing across a beam or assembling a puzzle. There are always one or two, like me, who really dig on the process itself and work through it several times, taking pride in their work. And, yes, there are almost always a few who either don't or can't accept the challenge.

I'll always remember Jarin's "If" painting from several years back. Drawing was not one of his fortes, but he gamely joined the others at the table, starting with the concept: "What if 1 were 2?" As the others went about putting wings on elephants and candy on trees, Jarin sat there with pencil poised over paper, his mind apparently blown by this idea -- What if 1 were 2? As the others marched through the steps he remained there seemingly both stuck and struck by this impossible mathematical concept. In the end he wound up with a paper topped with his question "What if 1 were 2?" a pair of very faint pencil marks, and nothing else, but what a lot had gone on inside his head during the time he struggled with this big idea.

I didn't hang the "If" paintings on the wall, but if I had, Jarin's would have looked feeble compared to the "tree and flower shapes" of his friends, and how unfair it would be to judge the work he did the "painting" he produced.

It's as impossible as expressing Jarin's concept, I suppose, to expect humans to not, at least at some level, look around at what the others are doing and compare them with our own children. How tall are the other kids his age? Are any other 3-year-olds still in diapers? Everyone else seems to be able to draw a tree or a flower or to stay within the lines. And there is certainly some valuable data to glean from this, especially if one's child appears to be an extreme outlier, but there is real danger, I think, when this kind of thing makes us feel competitive or inadequate on our child's behalf.

The paintings on the wall, the test scores, the grades, only measure how well a child manages to stay within the lines, which is, after all, at best, a limited grounds upon which to form judgments. It tells us nothing, for instance, about what happens along the way.

Coloring within the lines is a fine thing, but all you need to do is take a look at the paper train that is humanity to know that life itself is an outside the lines endeavor and that each of us strays outside them every day. If our child's caboose or box car diverges from some arbitrary "norm" it is indeed not cause to be overly concerned. In fact, it is usually cause for celebration.

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