While I had an almost completely Catholic education — and I mean that in the religious and cultural sense — because St. John of the Cross School did not have a kindergarten, I began my education smack in the public sector.
My first visit to Hamilton Avenue School, a low-sling brick structure, was when it served as the ad hoc polio vaccine headquarters for Roslyn, PA. On that particular morning, a summer day one month before I started school, for the first time I had been allowed to dress myself.
“This is fabulous!,” I thought, as I chose my favorite blue flowered dress. Now, of course, I understand my pregnant Mom was just too busy tending to my baby sister. But it unleashed a feeling of power. The patent leather Mary Janes and white ankle socks were easy. But while my 5-year old arms could reach behind my waist, my 5-year old brain couldn’t visualize how to tie a nice big bow behind my dress. So being a problem solver even then, I wrapped it around to the front and tied one there. I thought it was dashing. My mother disagreed.
Once I’d been readjusted (lest anything be out-of-place!), we all took the short walk to Hamilton Avenue School. The vintage 60’s building had a modern entrance that could have served as a carport for George Jetson. Streaming in and out of this opening were mothers and strollers and children. But the thing that caught my eye as we entered the school corridor were the nurses. There were tables and tables of them lining the halls, starched, white and proffering tiny paper cups. And inside? A sweet cube — a sugar square dosed with magic medicine. You were invited to take it and suck on it. Or furiously chew it to bits. Either way, delicious fun. I liked this place! And this was where I’d be going to school? Sweet!
My next visit — the first day of kindergarten — was different and bit more daunting. There were no baby carriages or smiling nurses and all the traffic was going in not coming out. And this time my Mother walked me down the corridor into a bright, windowed room that smelled of chalk and permanent markers. She told me to be good, said goodbye and walked out the door. I stood still, afraid — not necessarily of being alone but of not knowing what to do. Even though I had yet to study the Baltimore Catechism, I was well aware that making a mistake was a CARDINAL SIN.
The teacher, Mrs. Roche, looked comfortingly like a cross between my own and my best friend, Judy Crouthamel’s mom. Tall with a familiar blondish hairdo and red lips. So, I relaxed a bit and looked around. There was a huge (or so it seemed at the time) round table in the middle of the room, large enough for everyone in class to gather round. An art nook around the corner featured easels, brushes and paints in primary colors, the kind that came in little glass jars which, when you opened them, smelled vaguely of clay and vinegar.
A huge stack of green mats sat patiently waiting for nap time, which I soon discovered was the daily activity following cookies and milk. I was not a napper and never slept during this period. However, not wanting to break any rules, I lay motionless on the mat with my eyes closed, steadily inhaling the perfume of plastic and floor polish as the minutes ticked by.
Everything in the room glowed, from the polished blond wood of the tables and chairs to the sun streaming continuously through the huge corner windows. I have fond memories of the day Mrs. Roche’s son (a strapping 4th grader who seemed super adult and dangerously exciting!) visited our classroom. We made butter in a mixing bowl using a hand beater. Everyone got to turn it three times. Then Mrs. Roche made her son do the real work. Our efforts were quickly eaten, spread on saltine squares and served with milk. And then, we napped. It’s still a favorite treat (the saltines with butter, have moved on from the milk…)
But I have a not so fond memory of one particular art class in early December when, decked in my protective cloth smock, I stood at one of those easels, dipping my brush into the little pots of primary color. I was valiantly working on my masterpiece.
Now, I knew what I wanted to paint, but something had gone very, very wrong. And every time I attempted to correct my egregious error, it was compounded instead by that nasty blue I just couldn’t remove from the end of my brush (RGB: 30, 59, 222, in case you need a visual.) I was becoming frustrated and annoyed — no way this was not a mistake and you know what we think of those…
As Mrs. Roche approached me, I started to sweat. My 5 year-old mind tried to will her away. I said a quick Hail Mary, but apparently God was already booked.
Her shadow fell upon me. “So, what are we painting today?” DRAT. Trying to ignore the third person address, which annoyed me even then, I avoided her gaze and mumbled the words “Christmas Tree” into my smock. Maybe if I didn’t fully engage her, she would go away. I was desperate to get back to the repairs at hand. Santa was coming to town and this was clearly bad advertising!
But, no such luck. “A Christmas Tree?” she queried, her voice clearly stating she was having difficulty matching the image to the title. A slight pause, then “And what’s that? On the top?” And then it happened. She pointed right at my terrible, awful, no good, very bad mistake. I froze, hoping to disappear. It doesn’t work for bunnies and it didn’t work for me.
The light actually changed as she reached over and tapped the paper right near that blaze of blue. “Is that a —present?” she prompted with a sing-song lilt to her voice. The word echoed in my head, “Present, present, present…”
The combination of her tone and the clearly illogical question immediately cast her as my very first “art patron-izer.” And I didn’t want one. I let rip with a serious “tchh” of the tongue followed by a sigh worthy of the most “oh my GOD. Mother, I can’t believe you asked me that” teenage girl. She didn’t flinch. I was cornered. So, like a wounded animal, I continued to lash out.
“A present?” I sneered, “At the top of the tree?” I swear, although I didn’t know the word, my tone clearly implied “…you bitch!”
But kindergarten teachers are tough, and she kindly ignored this. She did, however, bend down and in her determined schoolteacher block print using a black, permanent marker, forever saddle my creative effort with the mocking title: CHRISTMAS TREE. And then she put my name on it.
Cruelty, thy name is kindergarten teacher.
“She was five,” you’re saying to yourselves. “Clearly a bit of hyperbolic fiction.” Sadly, folks, I used to cultivate the annoying habit of cataloguing every slight and humiliation I perceived. I’d file them conveniently on a shelf ready to pull out should I start feeling too good about myself. (Ed. Note: See earlier reference to Catholic education.) Though I doubt Mrs. Roche remembered this conversation 10 minutes after it occurred, in my head it’s still clear as day.
Perhaps my retention has something to do with the fact that my parents immediately took said masterpiece, matted and framed it boldly in red. And starting that year and for several afterward, as the holiday season rolled around, displayed my CHRISTMAS TREE on Dad’s easel. And each year, it taunted me. Even when I was pretty sure he wasn’t real, I still worried Santa would find some way to use it against me…
Luckily younger siblings supplied artwork of their own and eventually it was relegated to the basement gallery (right next to my Dad’s college rendition of Toulouse Lautrec’s JANE AVRIL. We were an arty house.) At one point Dad repainted the red frame to black and that’s how it remains today — safely bubble-wrapped in my Manhattan Mini-storage locker. Where it can do no harm.
Okay, I admit. I got over the mistake of my CHRISTMAS TREE. In fact, I love that I still have it around. If I’d had kids, would have hung it in their rooms to teach them that making mistakes is the real pathway to making your own art. Instead, when I move to a bigger apartment, and finally have my office, I’ll hang it up for me — to remind me of that very same lesson.
So next time you’re in a position to judge someone’s creation, be kind but don’t pander. Because — to borrow from Three 6 Mafia and John Bradshaw — it’s hard our there for an inner kid.
Oh yeah, Merry Christmas!