A lot of things happened in Mrs. Wilson’s classroom. Some of it must have been good, but I remain haunted by one incident. I was only ten, and I still struggle to understand it.

Our class was assigned to do the February school newsletter. Various students visited kindergarten through sixth grade teachers to collect information. Some talked to the principal, the nurse, the band leader, the cafeteria staff. It was the primitive era of mimeograph machines and typewriters.  Pages were stapled together. Photography wasn’t possible, so everything had to be drawn by hand.

The front cover art assignment was the plum. I wanted to do it.

When Mrs. Wilson asked me to stay after school for a minute, I knew it had to be good. It was. She showed me a cover from several years ago and said, “I’d like you to draw profiles of Washington and Lincoln like this.” I was excited because I knew my art would be better.

The picture she showed me was really “young.” You would never have guessed who the two men were without labels. I knew a side view of an eye did not look like an oval. I knew a nose did not look like a banana. I knew an ear was not a curve. Mine would be realistic.

When I got home, I studied their profiles on coins and began drawing and erasing and starting again and again until they were perfect. When my parents proudly announced my work looked exactly like the presidents, I was thrilled. I left my picture on Mrs. Wilson’s desk the next morning.

She asked me to stay after school again. I knew she’d be happy.

“This isn’t what I asked you to do, Karen,” she said.

“But it is,” I insisted. “You asked me to draw Washington and Lincoln.”

“I wanted it to look like this,” she said, holding up the childish version.

“I can draw better than that,” I said. “Mine really looks like the presidents.”

“I know you can make yours look exactly like this one.  Do it over tonight.”

My face flushed. I was confused. By the time I walked home, I was crying. I told my mother what Mrs. Wilson had said.

“Why would she want me to draw like a baby?  Why wouldn’t she want me to do my best?”

My mother leaned against the kitchen counter with her arms folded. She was silent for a long time as she looked at me. This was not like her. My mother was a chatty, bustling woman with the energy of five people. It was unusual for her to be still and quiet at the same time.

“This will be a hard lesson,” she said.  “You’re awfully young to be running up against it, honey.”

She told me there were people in the world who wouldn’t be interested in my best efforts. She said some would be resentful. She said they wouldn’t understand my determination. Doing things my way, not their way, would irritate them. She said I might be right but that it wouldn’t matter. They wanted what they wanted and my arguments wouldn’t make any difference. She said the more I resisted, the more insistent they’d be to prove their point at any cost.

She said I’d have to learn when I could back down or compromise or hold fast.

She said that being true to myself would come at a price sometimes.

“You’ll have to decide if you’ll stand by your work or not, Karen.”

I told Mrs. Wilson I would not re-draw it. She got another classmate to do it exactly the way she wanted it.

To this day, I remain baffled. Why would she want me to be mediocre?

I asked my husband Cliff, who was a sensational teacher before he became a principal.  I have never seen him be wrong about any aspect of education.  He said, “You’re trying to make sense where there is none.” He told me about Harry Chapin’s song, “Flowers Are Red,” where a little boy drew a page of flowers and leaves in every possible color and refused to change it for the critical teacher who responded:

Well, the teacher said, “You’re sassy.
There’s ways that things should be.
And you’ll paint flowers the way they are.
So repeat after me.”

And she said, “Flowers are red, young man.
And green leaves are green.
There’s no need to see flowers any other way
Than the way they always have been seen.”

There really is no sense to what happened to me or to the little boy. Some things in life are not about talent or happiness or what my daughter calls “the magical rainbow universe.” It’s about understanding when to draw a line in the sand.

I drew mine. Mrs. Wilson drew hers. And that’s the long and the short of it. 

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12 thoughts on “Fifth Grade: Fifty-Year Puzzle

  1. Wow. I love/hate this story. It would be easy to say, “What a terrible teacher. She should never be allowed near kids.” But think about what you did: that brave act, that helped you become who you are. Life is not about what you are given, but what you do with it. Love these posts, Karen!

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  2. This is so true and poignant, I almost cannot stand it. I have so much sympathy and empathy for children who are treated like this at the hands of adults who have no idea what kind of short and long-term harm they are doing. Kudos to you for courage and conviction to call all of your faithful readers attention to this.
    With love and devotion, Cliff

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  3. Wow Karen, did you go to my school? I don't remember you, but I think we had the same teacher. My class was taken outside for art class one day in sixth grade and told to draw anything we saw that looked interesting. I drew an old tree trunk that had been hit by lightening and twisted. I drew the bark using blue and yellow, red and black and orange and green colored pencils. I thought it looked pretty much like what I saw. I did not use brown or gray. The teacher ridiculed me in front of the whole class. Everybody laughed. “Who ever saw a striped tree trunk? What color are tree trunks, class?” “Brown,” they all chorused. But I saw all those colors and more. I did! I didn't have enough colors in my box to do it the way I saw it. What I lacked at 10 was the confidence to defy authority and stand up for myself. When I was in my twenties I spent an entire day in the National Art Gallery staring at tree trunks painted with blue and yellow and red and cried like a little kid, finally vindicated! It was one of the most healing moments of my life. Through the ages, Renoir, Monet, Manet, Cassat and Cezanne finally spoke silent truth to my battered child heart. I am so glad you had the courage to stand up for yourself. For some of us it takes a lifetime to undo such childhood traumas.

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  4. With love and devotion to you for saying the thing that finally helped me find closure, and I don't care if that sounds trite. When you told me about the Harry Chapin song and I drew flowers and leaves the “wrong” colors, I felt better instantly–after 50 years of sadness over this incident.

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  5. Your story broke my heart. At least my criticism was done privately. I was lucky to have a straight-talking mother who told me the hard, cold truth that day. And your redemption came at the museum when you saw the beauty of your own vision among the finest artists ever. A monumental day!

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  6. Wow, Karen. First: It constantly amazes me the repetition in life. Whether it was a teacher, parent, sibling, friend, stranger, there was always one who squashed people who just happened to be on their ladder. Two: Cliff is right. Sometimes there are no answers, just memories. Three: THANK YOU so much for never, ever being that person! you were always supportive, truthful, and expected the very best we could give.

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  7. Your 5th grade experience with the teacher is thought-provoking. Several years ago, I was invited to speak at an assembly with k-5 students. I was to talk about art and the museum work I did–I was the Education Coordinator at the time.Sometime during my talk, I took out a box of crayons and asked children to come up to paint the color of the sky. They all fought for the blue. I told them that the color of the sky was all in that box of crayons. So sad that children were brainwashed by teachers who told them that the sky is always blue. Now I still see parents passing their judgements on art just because they were not worldly enough to realize there could be flying Santas or violinists or horses just because they have never heard of Marc Chagall. I would spend an hour and a half teaching surrealism, only to be shot down by a parent's remark of “What's THAT?” It really is more difficult to teach an adult than a child.

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  8. I appreciate knowing there are teachers devoted to helping children find their truest expression by observing and imagining, rather than just accepting the commonplace. We are all better for your patient wisdom.

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