“Mom?” a week or so into the school year my six year old is showing me her homework with the signature “bird head” she always draws after her name. “The teacher said now I’m in first grade, and I can’t draw that as part of my signature anymore.” The bird head had actually started out as a mistake- a little extra line she drew after the last letter of her name- which looked to her like a bird beak and so she added a simple head and eyes and neck. Throughout kindergarten, she’d been allowed to draw it as part of her signature on class worksheets and homework. But having heard about her new teacher, I wasn’t surprised. “Well, yeah, you’ll probably have to just do that at home now,” I say, feeling sad.
For my daughter’s whole life, I’ve emphasized creativity in our home. We didn’t own a television until she was three years old. As a baby, my daughter played with colorful scarves tucked in an empty tissue box, finger painted, and sorted through bowls full of colored pom poms and felt. After my husband died, I decided the focal point of our home would be a large antique armoire filled with art supplies. And now, years later, this armoire is the first place my daughter goes when she’s looking for something to do. When she was two, around the same time we got the armoire, I bought her a table and stool set from IKEA and called it her “art studio.” It’s a powerful thing to be able to name things for your children. She’s six now and this is all she’s ever heard her table and stools referred to. “Where are you?” “I’m at my art studio!”
All of this was both on a conscious and unconscious level. I did read books on children and creativity including a 500 page book on the origins and philosophy of Reggio Emilio schools in Italy. I read about the importance of the third teacher- the environment, and the beautiful art ateliers and open piazzas in the middle of schools. I was inspired by the blogs of women not only making their own chocolate-scented play dough, but actually doing genuinely creative artwork with their children. I dyed different shapes of pasta rainbow colors, made a tree house out of cardboard, prepared a giant dress up bin for my daughter where new things – a scarf, a hat, sunglasses- mysteriously appeared every now and then. Last summer when I took my first sketching class, I bought her all of the same supplies I bought for myself- a Moleskin watercolor journal, and professional quality watercolors and brushes.
And so, art became an integral part of our lives, almost like another family member. Expressing ourselves through a craft was a part of who my husband and I were individually and as a couple. The first time we met it was to share our songwriting with each other. We produced a CD together, played gigs in the city together at the Bitter End and CB’s Gallery. After we were married, on a typical Saturday morning, I might be taking a collage class at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens while he road the train around the city filming this little paper man he’d made in different NYC settings as a video backdrop for a song. We attended churches full of fashion designers, artists, and musicians. We lived a creative life. So even though it felt like that life evaporated within the two years I had a child, moved to Jersey unwillingly, and lost my husband, finger painting with my two-year-old, or cutting up magazines for her to stick on clear contact paper collages on the wall- was a way for me to maintain some kind of continuity with who I was.
Art therapy had also been recommended to me by my own grief therapist as a way to help my toddler process her grief, and I found that beyond the grieving process, it became one of my most utilized parenting tools. Not to mention, the first couple of years after my husband died, I was so drained from grieving, and had so little energy, making art gave us both something low-key to do that didn’t require a lot of physical effort.
I praised any of Audrey’s creative efforts, and as a struggling perfectionist myself, I emphasized the fact that there are no mistakes in art. Probably as a combination of nature and nurture, my child’s creativity flowed freely. She had at least five imaginary friends as a toddler. During her princess stage she called herself, “Arianna.” “Ari means all and Anna means princess- I’m a combination of all the princesses.” By age 4 she had created an entire land named after her, with written rules pinned up on her bedroom door like “It’s always summer, but never hot.” “Glue doesn’t dry on your fingers.” “You can eat as much candy as you want, and never get cavities.” She drew a flag for her country, and a map that included special instructions to head to Hawaii and then take the flying unicorn to outerspace to the planet where “Audreyland” exists. I delighted in these creative expressions of who she was.
What I wasn’t prepared for was that just a few short years later, after I’d poured all of my efforts into growing an independent, creative, artistic child- I’d be sending her to a public school where the focus would be on raising her hand to speak, walking in a straight line behind another student, and sitting quietly at her desk- doing worksheet after worksheet. It was one thing if she was bored, or unengaged; I could supplement at home. But the bird head was part of her very identity- and I was slightly heartbroken to see it leave so soon- at just barely six years old.
A few weeks later, her homework came back with a “Regular writing on homework please” in green ink at the top. She hadn’t done the bird head, but on that particular day she had added some lovely swirls to her name. She promised me she had extra time to write her name on the homework and it in no way impeded her work. I knew this to be true, so I wondered- what’s the big deal? She can’t add anything at all to her signature? I could understand if she was struggling to write, but she has very neat handwriting, and she’s in the most advanced reading and writing group. Now, I felt a little ticked off. I even posted a picture of the worksheet on Facebook and artistic friends and musicians- many of them my husband’s, rallied around me. Still, I wasn’t sure what could really be done.
In November, my daughter’s folder contained a thick packet of worksheets about Thanksgiving. One of them had a picture of the Mayflower they were to color in (with the word Plymouth Rock misspelled no less). I noticed half of her ship was rainbow colored, and the other half was pink- but it wasn’t until the next day she explained why. “I wanted to do my ship rainbow colored, but the teacher came around and said, “Ships aren’t rainbow colored, Audrey.” “What color were the other kids’ ships?” I asked, feeling myself start to tremble. “Brown,” is her answer.
I take the worksheet with her swirly letters and the green admonishment to my first parent teacher conference a few weeks later, wondering how I can bring it up without sounding antagonistic. I end up saying, “I brought this. I was just wondering what your take on it was…” Her head shakes no. “No, this is first grade.” “But, if it doesn’t impede her work? She’s very creative and I encourage creativity in our house.” “When she’s in the business world, she’ll have to know how to write her name properly.” “I don’t know if I see her going into the business world…but…” (Not to mention, I don’t think my child will be writing in swirly letters in her 20’s). “Well, she’ll have to have a signature.” “Well, we all have our own signature- we’re allowed to sign our names however we want.” “That’s true, but…” That’s basically how it went. It ended with me saying that I’d just appreciate any encouragement of her creativity, and her offering the consolation of a package of prepared worksheets for her reading log assignments that were a bit more “fun.”
Even though I’m usually careful not to let my daughter see any negative feelings I might have towards her school or teacher, I let her know that mommy didn’t agree with her teacher, and that I want her to keep being her creative self. I also sign her up for an art class at a nearby studio.
And then one day, about a month later, after school, she takes out her folder and whispers to me, “Mom- I’ve been drawing the bird heads really tiny on my papers so the teacher can’t see them,” And she shows me one proudly. It’s so small, the teacher probably can’t distinguish it from a stray mark. But there it is- the bird head is back. I feel a huge wave of relief. I laugh a little, and give her a hug, and a high five.
When I was a new mother- I remember reading that saying, “You can’t prepare the path for your child, but you can prepare your child for the path.” Looking at the tiny bird head, I know she is prepared, her identity well established, even if it has to keep a tiny bird head as a place holder while she’s at school. The teacher may not see it, but my daughter knows it’s there.
Even though she’s only six-years-old, I often feel such admiration for Audrey. Her persistent bird head speaks of how we as humans preserve our identities in difficult spaces. Before he made it as a full-time musician, my husband used to listen to music on his iPhone to and from his draining office job- often composing and notating his own songs on the bus or subway. After he died I found a record of these songs and melodies in the voice notes section of his iPhone. In the background I can hear he was getting on a train or bus, or walking on a busy city street while quietly singing a little melody into his phone. It was his placeholder while he worked at a 9-5 day job for many years. But later it became so much more than that; it became his path. Those little melodies that haunted me as I held his phone up to my ear listening to him hum or sing as though he were alive and well on the other side of the line, were the notes with which he hung on for dear life to who he was and what he was meant to do.
My job as Audrey’s parent is less about helping her become who she’s meant to be, and more about helping her preserve who she already is- her freedom of expression, inventiveness- her way of seeing the world. While I often wish I could afford to send Audrey to a different school where her creativity can be nourished and appreciated, this hidden bird, this small act of defiance from a practiced rule-follower, tells me that she’s going to be OK, that she’s not going to go down without a fight, that somewhere, even amidst the test-centric, rote learning she does, she will find the space she needs to survive. In real life, few of us get to attend a school with a piazza and an atelier fully stocked with art supplies. In real life, what we believe in and who we believe ourselves to be, is often put to the test. As a young widow and only parent, I myself feel quite lost these days in a middle class suburb of mostly intact families. But I carve out this space you’re reading right now…these words and sentences where I feel at home, like myself, and just as my husband did with his softly hummed compositions, I too hang on for dear life.