A few summers ago, I was strolling through a street festival, admiring the incredible talent on display. I remember a painter who created a giant likeness of Bob Marley with his hands, in sync with Marley’s music. That same summer, I heard a friend play violin with the Symphony Orchestra and saw another portray Uncle Vanya on the professional stage. Artists, all of them, and I was envious.
How were these people so talented and I was not? I have vivid memories of sitting in art class, at age eight, and being told that my drawings were below par. I struggled through clarinet lessons. I couldn’t dance. My stories were boring. I was so shy I never dreamt of trying out for the school play. I was asked to be the prompter once but fell asleep halfway through the show. Yet I knew which of my friends were artists and I admired them. Sure, I played fullback on the rugby team and I conjugated French verbs with the best of them – but an artist I was not.
And then a funny thing happened. I moved 7,000 miles away from my home in England and became an elementary teacher at a remarkable school in Colorado. I watched the children. They painted pictures, glorious pictures. They sang and danced, all of them, every week. They played dress-up in their classrooms and put on plays for each other. They wrote amazing stories. They sewed and built and glued. Most importantly, they were celebrated.
Teachers created safe and inviting spaces where art could flourish. Everybody’s work was up on the wall. Everybody’s. All students got up on stage for the musicals. And if more than a few people wanted to be Annie or Peter Pan or Dorothy, then there were more than a few. Nobody was told they couldn’t do it, so everybody did. “Be yourself; take risks; explore; learn from your mistakes; create; turn it into something else; go for it!” These are the messages the children heard and they are the same messages my own daughters hear at the school today. My children create. They know they have the freedom to make art and music and dance, wonderfully.
I don’t even know if they have more or less talent than I did at their age. It doesn’t matter because they believe they have. I believe in them. My seven-year old has informed me that, when she grows up, she is going to be an author, a concert pianist, a horse trainer, a teacher, and an artist – all at the same time. And I say, “Why not?”
As for me, I once got to help out in a play with seven Dorothys. A passion for the theater was born. Now I run a theater program for kids. I have learned something about myself. I may still have two left feet and I still draw stick figures, but I believe I am an artist. And I will never again fall asleep during the show.
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