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May 20, 2010, 09:45AM

What I learned in Kindergarten

Fear, mostly.

Over the past 25 years, my local elementary school has conducted the same annual ritual with their kindergarten classes. It happened when I was there, and it happened about 20 years later as my niece attended the same classrooms where I'd once very publicly wet my pants. Each year, the kindergarten teachers shepherd their borrowed broods to their tables, hand them a piece of paper and some markers, and make them design a plastic plate.

Some months later, the plate was sent home with the student—not for eating, but as a display on the mantel as an icon of their child's impossibly creative mind. I don't know exactly how they conducted this particular ceremony for my niece, but I have vivid, crippling memories of the 1985 Plate Incident.

I was always serious about pursuing a career as an artist, even before I knew what “art” was, or understood that a life of abject poverty and obscurity wasn't the most desirable choice. In a Sesame Street magazine that I'd received around this time, Grover set forth an interesting inquiry about my aspirations, although not in so many words. So, on the line that asked what I'd like to be when I grew up, I wrote “artist” without any hesitation. I try to remember that I'm placating the blind dreams of my four-year old self whenever I look at my bank account, and that this is some kind of intense, unquestionable self-altruism, but I was serious. I've always been serious about pursuing art, but the Plate Incident built a mental block that prevented me from having fun with art for about 15 years.

On that day in 1985, all of the kindergarten teachers gathered the classes into one large room and sat us at the usual low, hexagonal tables. Taken out of our familiar group of kids and intermixed with the Others was disconcerting enough for a kid with anxiety issues, but when the teachers told us that we'd be making art for a real, actual, honest-to-god plate, it was too much.

We were given a piece of paper with a large circle printed in the middle. If we extended our drawings outside of this area and into the outlying ghetto areas of the paper, we'd be deemed miserable failures and ostracized from all future activities. What was even more terrifying was the fact that we each received only one piece of paper, with no exceptions. Until recently, I was convinced that this was some kind of special paper which could be chemically treated to turn into a plate, thus the reasoning for getting a single piece of paper was absolutely justified. In actuality, this was just a Xeroxed piece of copier paper with a circle on it which would later be photographed and printed onto a plate, but the impression that the teachers conveyed was that every line you created was a death sentence, and marker is not a great medium for masking your mistakes.

So, I completely froze.

I sat there as the room was washed with a deathly, enforced silence. All of these kids were contentedly drawing the first thing that came into their minds. Were they stupid? They were making a plate. This, as far as I'd been told, was the most important thing we'd ever do with our lives. You'd never be more important than the moments that you were a plate designer.

I stared at the paper for a long time. As the time neared to a close, I quickly drew a star with as many different markers as I could grab, colored in some parts of it, and turned it in. A few months later, we got the plate back, and I barely remembered even drawing it. I'd totally suppressed the memory, until recently.

While the kindergarten teachers likely had no idea what they were doing in the larger scheme of things, I didn't drop the idea that every line would be your last, irrevocable mistake until I was in college. I mastered my high school art classes and art AP courses with a dangerous, frightened meticulousness that didn't start to breathe until I actually left the school system that had suffocated me and I embraced acrylic painting, which I now approach as a series of mistakes and corrections until something interesting emerges. You're not controlling the image as much as making decisions about where to stop letting it control itself.

When I taught art for a year, I tried to deprogram my students of this “do it right the first time” mindset, which schools still instill. It was difficult for them to accept the idea that over-painting, painting in layers that didn't match, and making mistakes was part of the freedom and beauty that makes up genuinely good painting. All art is not good art, but the ability to accept and embrace imperfection is an important first step towards writing your own version of perfection.

  • Great story. What I learned in kindergarten is that your teacher can turn on you, or fellow students, on a dime. Mine was an angel one day, a bitch the next. In fact, that was sort of my experience in all of public schools: most teachers were well=intentioned but not particularly bright or imaginative.

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