Yesterday my sweet friend, Hannah, sent me a blog she wrote several years ago which I've posted below. I have known Hannah since she was a young girl and her story has always impacted my life. She is one of the bravest souls I know and even though she is approximately 20 years younger than me, I hope to be like her when I grown up.
By now, for most kids and teachers in our area, school is in full swing. At the sight of those classic, yellow buses, my thoughts drift. In my mind’s eye, I see wide-eyed children, new pencil boxes, and snazzy backpacks. If I think hard enough, the wonderful, waxy smell of crayons actually fills my nose.
Crayons. Art supplies in particular spark some of my most vivid memories from elementary school. One memory, specifically.
We’ve all had painful experiences in life. Perhaps they were small things, but we unwittingly allowed them to become much bigger than they ever should have been.
Unfortunately for me, this memory was one of those experiences.
I was in sixth grade. Like many adolescent girls, I didn’t dare fancy myself as “cool.” Especially considering my big glasses, prominent front teeth, and my embarrassing propensity to burst into tears at the tiniest provocation. On top of that, I’d barely made peace with the permanence of my Cerebral Palsy, a status complete with heavy, plastic leg braces and an even heavier heart.
So you can probably picture my reaction when my art teacher—I’ll call her Mrs. C.— flunked me.
Yes, you read that right. Mrs. C. flunked me. Okay, okay. So maybe she didn’t exactly flunk me. But she gave me a less-than-satisfactory score. As a gal who practically lived for those “As” and “Bs,” I surely felt like she’d flunked me. In my broken state, I reasoned, albeit incorrectly: if I couldn’t excel in school, what else could I excel at?
It was so unfair. Logically, I understood that—just like my special needs rendered me unable participate fully in gym class—they also hindered my ability to hold scissors properly and draw a straight line. Still, I hardly expected my art teacher to punish me for that. My gym teacher certainly didn’t. She rewarded my efforts—limping, though they were—with a sterling grade at the end of each marking period.
Not so with Mrs. C.
I’ll never forget it. During that particular grading period, the project du jour was a pencil drawing of a butterfly, which students then embellished with bold, black dots. My attempt was deeply flawed, as usual. But for once, I remember feeling pretty darn proud of it. That butterfly was imperfect, but she was still beautiful!
(-Broken wing: the infamous sixth grade art project)
Yet, there was still an ugly mark on my report card. And—I’m almost ashamed to say this, but it’s true—there was an ugly mark inside me as well. Even after my mother demanded a meeting and had my grade changed.
Because from that point on, I decided I was simply bad at visual art of any kind, and I should never try it again. Forget that I’d loved doing art projects in the past—messy, colorful combinations of paper, crayon, and glue. What was I thinking?! Mrs. C. didn’t appreciate my work, so why should anyone else? Immediately, I relegated visual art to the same category as say, tying shoes, cutting steak, and roller-skating. It wasn’t only that I was bad at those things. It was that my challenges had prevented me from doing them at all.
Fast forward about a year. To my dismay, middle school required a nine-week art class. There was no way I could get out of it.
Delightedly however, my seventh grade art instructor—a warm and quirky lady I’ll call Mrs. B.—regarded me much the same way as my former gym teacher had. She never penalized me for things I couldn’t do very well. And she encouraged me relentlessly.
“See, look at you!” Mrs. B. praised as I clumsily worked a wad of clay or dabbed a paintbrush. “You can do so much more than you thought you could!”
(-A cartoon I sketched in Mrs. B.’s class, barely believing it was I who had drawn it.)
You’d think Mrs. B.’s kindness would have been enough to get me over my hang-up. Yet, my inner artist remained stubbornly wounded. My fun box of home art supplies continued to sit forlornly, atop a high shelf. Every now and then, I dragged it out, always feeling like I was doing something I shouldn’t. Always hoping no one would come in and catch what a terrible artist I was.
But finally, healing came. Ironically, that healing came out of some of the worst sickness I’ve ever had.
The October after I turned fifteen, I endured a grueling orthopedic surgery. (I’d already had three.) Severe complications meant many weeks of feeding tubes, excruciating pain, and I.V. meds with scary side effects.
Yes, I know that’s peanuts compared to what a lot of people live with. But for me, at that point in my life, it was the hardest thing I’d ever faced.
Within a couple months, my physical symptoms tapered off. On the outside, my body slowly returned to its own version of “normal.”
My insides, though, were another story. It’s hard to describe, really. The only way I know to explain it is to say: that illness broke something in me that nothing else ever had. Worse, despite how mightily I tried to avoid it, I found myself standing in a vast ocean of why did this happen to me?
And I had no idea how to make it ashore.
Gradually, I resumed some semblance of routine. I recall the relief that flooded me when I returned to school that January. At last, I had a distraction from – not only the ghost of pain in my belly – but the unanswered questions that gnawed at my spirit.
So, as much as I could, I filled my days with books and essays, regaling my family with stories of my history teacher’s funny antics.
But, although I couldn’t verbalize it, I wanted more. More of what, though? I wasn’t quite sure.
Perhaps searching instinctively for that bit of “more,” I gathered my art supplies again. By that time, it was February; I intended to make Valentines. Like usual, my fingers faltered as they pushed scissors across red paper and colored unevenly with bright markers. And suddenly, I had a revelation: it felt fantastic. So what if I couldn’t draw a straight line? Maybe for the first time since sixth grade, I no longer feared the “art police” glaring over my shoulder.
In the coming months, I did a lot of artwork. Most of it wasn’t that different from the childish scrawls of my younger years, imperfect as ever. But shockingly, I didn’t mind so much. Because somehow, all that paint, that color, that creating made me feel better. No, it didn’t erase what happened to me. No, it didn’t answer my questions. But – in some way that I can’t fully articulate – I suppose it did help me carry those questions.
I later learned that art therapy is used to help people, particularly children, recover from trauma. I didn’t realize it then, but that’s exactly what I was doing: my own form of art therapy.
(-I suppose this watercolor represents my attempt at a peaceful scene–perhaps in hopes of quieting my inner turmoil.)
I wish I could say that in the years since, I haven’t experienced any more trauma. However, that harrowing surgical ordeal was only one of numerous fiery trials. (One of which involved an actual house fire. Imagine my joy in discovering that my artist’s portfolio hadn’t been lost to the flames!)
Through it all – not counting the times I was bedridden – art therapy has continued as a welcome consolation. Admittedly, I remain a tad insecure about my offerings. After all, I’m still labeling my art “imperfect.” But that doesn’t detract from the comfort it brings me. It’s as though God restored the gift of art to me– not only so I could deal with what lay behind me – but to help me bear what He knew loomed ahead of me. Indeed, He has truly redeemed Mrs. C.’s insensitive treatment. I guess I haven’t told Him how grateful I am for that.
Yes, in the grand scheme of things, this was a small victory. But for me, it was a significant one nonetheless.
So. Remember earlier, when I said that we’ve all had painful experiences in life? Experiences we allowed to become much bigger than they ever should have been?
Well, maybe you didn’t get flunked in art class, like I did. Perhaps instead, somebody said you were a bad singer or a lousy dancer or a rotten cook. And you’ve been scarred ever since, some small part of you stuck in the mentality of the unjustly treated.
Allow me to encourage you: don’t let those wounds define you. Invite God to redeem them, in whatever surprising, backward way He may choose to do so. Because He will.
Permit me to go a step further. Maybe, it’s not that you’re among the unjustly treated. Rather, you’ve been the one doing the mistreating. (Though I think it’s fair to say: we’ve all been both the mistreated and mistreater.)
Still, as the school year begins, a word to teachers – and really, anyone else in a position of authority: you wield tremendous influence. Please be careful how you use it.
Finally, let us reflect: in a manner of speaking, this is all any one of us is – an “imperfect butterfly.” But we are still beautiful.
(-Most of my art these days takes place on handmade stationery. Note the “imperfect butterfly” in the top left corner.)
~Originally composed between August 13 and August 24, 2013
~Written in honor of back-to-school month.