This I Believe

Dean - Cicero, New York
Entered on July 3, 2006
Age Group: 30 - 50
Themes: creativity

I believe in paper mache. Come on, think back, you remember paper mache. If you are of a certain age, the paper mache project was pretty much a required ritual , probably at more than one grade level during your elementary-school days. I say, “of a certain age,” because as education has become more about testing and less about discovering, the simple joy of making something with your hands is harder to justify.

For the uninitiated, paper mache is a liquidy goop that you can use to harden just about any form that you can make. Back in the day, you would mix warm—not hot water— with some amount of flour—please don’t measure it—to form a runny, yet somewhat thick paste. You would then dip narrow strips of newspaper into the goop and cover whatever shape you wanted—anything from a soccer ball to a fire-breathing dragon. Let it dry for a day or two, paint it as you wish, and your masterpiece is complete.

Nowadays the flour has been replaced by a powder that will not succumb to mold, meaning that the paper mache dolphin that you made in Second Grade could become a family heirloom. And it should, for paper mache occupies a unique position in the pantheon of school projects. And if you did not get to do paper mache I am afraid that your school system failed you.

Paper mache is special because—it cannot work! There is no way that a paper mache project can accurately resemble what it was supposed to be. In a world where we all too quick to beat up on ourselves for “not measuring up,” it is good to get rid of that “perfectionist” notion right away. Kids may get stressed over whether their drawing or painting is “just right”; with paper mache there is no such tension—it is impossible for it to be just right. The first of many such moments.

Paper mache is the great equalizer. When my First Graders are working with paper mache, it matters not whether they are at the top of the class or struggling every day, a great leveling takes place when they dip into the goop; they are all just kids squealing at how it feels on their fingers. I suspect that Jefferson may have had some paper mache in a hidden corner at Monticello.

Finally, no one can do paper mache alone. The stuff is too sticky, your hands get too messy, and your project that started out as a frog is starting to resemble a giraffe. You have to turn your friend at the next desk to make it through; something we could use a little bit more of. There is no survival of the fittest in the paper mache world, for none of us are fit to complete the task.

Just as none of us are perfect or have that “just right” answer most of the time. The sooner we learn that the better. In case you’ve forgotten, mix up a bucket of paper mache.