Monday, August 3, 2009


I knew this kid once. I’ll call him Carle. He was in my class in third grade. This was years ago. I’d like to say that Carle was a complete success story, that he was able to overcome great academic difficulties and behavioral problems. If I said that, it wouldn’t be completely true. I can say that Carle and I became good friends. And that friendship, those memories are something I will always cherish.

My principal, who I held in high regard, suggested that I read Carle’s file (“permanent record” in teacher lingo) before the students came in at the beginning of the year. I usually never bother to do this. I am too busy at the beginning of the year setting up the classroom, getting desks cleaned out, writing curriculum, getting my final letters together for the kids, preparing the book lists and other paperwork required by the district. Besides, I really don’t really care what other teachers thought of the children or even what their grades were. I just try to be the best teacher I can be. I love the kids, support them, have fun with them and we learn a lot together.

Carle came to our school with a huge permanent record. It was filled with terrible notes and reports. His report cards were filled with D’s and F’s as well as venomous comments from teachers who obviously despised him. Behavioral referrals from teachers, notes about his violent behavior from counselors, discipline procedures “applied” by principals, observations from psychologists. I’d never seen anything like it. Frankly, I was pretty freaked out. This was Carle’s last chance in a regular public school classroom. He was expected to do something nutty or violent right away. My principal predicted that his stay with us would be intense and brief. Then he would be off to an institution where his education would no longer be the affairs of the school district. He was a last chance kid.

My principal assured me that any of this behavior would get him kicked out of our school. She was pretty sure that it would happen – and soon. She told me that he would probably only be there for a few weeks, one nine weeks period at the most. She chose me because I was the only guy teaching third grade. She also knew my history of working with challenging kids. It was a compliment in a way. Great.

Carle had already had an extra year of second grade so he would be one of the older students in the class. He was also huge, at least four or five inches taller than the next biggest kid. Almost as big as me. I had read his file. The guidance counselor assured me that she would be there when we needed her. She also assured me that we WOULD need her sooner or later.

I was apprehensive that first day. In a way I am always a little nervous. Sleeping is tricky before school begins. Would it go well? What would the class be like? Curriculum? Parents? Everyone would be a little jittery from meeting each other. Many children would have been in the same class the year before or back in first grade or Kindergarten. There is a certain sizing up that goes on those first few days. The kids try to see where the boundaries are. I try to establish reasonable boundaries but not come off too strong, or too mean, or too businesslike, or too demanding. It is a complex balancing act. All of teaching is – talk to a teacher. But that first day is especially so.

Carle came in with the others. He was edgy. This was his first day in a new school. He was bigger than the rest. I was his first male teacher. He certainly knew he was marked, right? He had seen his counselors, his principal, he had spent countless hours in “time-out”, he had been suspended so many times, brought up for expulsion, etc. His file was crammed with his misdeeds and the efforts to get him in line. Most kids’ permanent records are thin files when they reach third grade. They contain their shot records, report cards, family information and not much else. Carle’s was at least an inch-and-a-half thick. And it was a paper trail of a troubled kid and an educational establishment that didn’t know what to do for him.

During that first day I asked the kids to write and draw something to let me know who they were, what they liked, disliked, what they wanted from school, anything they wanted me to know about themselves so that I could be a more effective teacher. They were fun and interesting. A lot of kids wrote about their summer vacations, some wrote about best friends and family. Carle helped himself to crayons and drew a sunset. There were no words on his paper except his first name, middle initial and last name. The picture was magnificent. Not just well done for a third grader. It was an incredible explosion of bright and dark colors created in a few minutes. It was frantic and vivid and alive.

For the rest of the day Carle was subdued. He was attentive as I read The Giving Tree. He did not share anything but his name when we introduced ourselves. He played all by himself on the playground, drawing pictures in the sand with a pointed stick. We got through the first day with no real mishaps.

I read through the papers after school that afternoon and marveled at Carle’s drawing. He totally disregarded my instructions to write to me. This activity was intended as a window for me into the children’s writing, not simply an art piece. Carle had finished quickly and sat at his seat biting his nails and picking incessantly at large scabs on his legs. In many ways, Carle was anti-social. But this art. It was breathtaking.

When I read with Carle and had a written conversation with him later that week, it was clear that, while he was a year older than most of the children in class, he was pretty much a beginner with reading and writing. He was clever at mental math but had a hard time explaining what he was thinking and had little recall of basic facts. He used his fingers and drew tally marks for simple addition and subtraction. It would be a challenge working with him in as much as he seemed much younger than his peers academically. But my first impression was that Carle was a good kid, a little needy, but basically a good guy.

When I told him how much I enjoyed his art he brightened. He began to make art for me in class when others were having exploration time. He brought in art from home. Many kids are good at drawing one thing. They’ll draw cartoons or sunsets or flowers. Few are all around artists. Carle was. Once the kids were in computer lab sort of doodling around with “paint”. Most came back with quite simple pieces. Green hills, blue sky, red flowers and white clouds. That kind of thing. Carle came in with a piece he called “Shattered”. It had little multi-colored shards of shapes all over it. Every square millimeter of the space was covered. Where the shards overlapped, Carle had carefully filled in with another color. The effect was amazing. I hung up all of the art pieces that the kids gave to me. Carle knew that I liked his. When I took the papers down and returned them to the children a couple weeks later Carle gave his back to me. “I’d just loose it,” he explained shyly looking down. So I kept it.

Whenever we had a written response to anything, Carle drew. Sometimes he would write too, but his main form of expression was art. When he did write, his words were few but carefully chosen. In a poem about the sea, Carle wrote, “the salt wind silked my face”. Along with his well-crafted poem was one of the most beautiful beach scenes I had ever seen. There was a sea bird, waves caught in mid-curl as if in a photograph, swirling clouds, sand and… the salt wind.

Once I read a book to the class called Dear Willie Rudd about the memories of a white woman and her relationship with her African American housekeeper from her long ago childhood. The book is mostly a letter, an apology for not treating Willie with the respect she deserved. The letter is a lengthy retrospective wish that things could have been different, a wish to tell Willie how much she meant to the little girl, to tell her, what she never said while Wille Rudd was alive, that she loved her. At the end of the story, the woman, now quite old, attaches her apology/love letter to a kite and lets it drift off into the evening sky. Its message of respect was not lost on Carle.

Carle's response was the only one in the class written as a letter. His artwork showed Willie on a mountain peak, surrounded by stars. She had on an old fashioned hat with feathers. He wrote:

Dear Mrs. Willie Rudd,
It is too bad that you are dead now. Sorry. It was your time. My name is Carle. I know that you are up there with God. I wish I could have helped you with your work. I really do. I would like to see your face in the sky please ma'am. I hope I see you. I feel like I know you.

There are many little stories that come to mind about Carle and his brilliant art. He looked at the world with an artist’s eye. On the playground I would see him looking down a fence line, sketching shapes in the dirt with a stick and feeling the rough texture of pine bark seemingly wondering how he could capture that with his art. Once he pulled a piece of light cardboard from the trash and asked if he could have it. It was the back of a legal pad I had used up. “Sure,” I said. “What for?”

“You’ll see.”

The next day Carle gave me the cardboard back with this wonderful Peter-Max-looking drawing of a curvaceous young African American girl with one hand on her hip and one hand fluffing up her hair. He called it "Hubba Hubba". All around her were concentric rings of bright colors blended subtly together. She was dancing he said. He told me that the paper I gave him was amazing with all its rough bits and uneven surface. The color of it was exactly what he needed to bring out the bright background colors. “Do you know what I mean?” he asked.

“You are the one teaching me sometimes. You know that don’t you, Carle?”

He smiled and looked down and nodded.

I think our art teacher recognized Carle’s brilliance, but I don’t think she appreciated it. I went to collect the kids from art class one day and the students were all happy and chattering away. They had been working on “still life”. There was a little basket of objects placed in the middle of each table for the kids to draw as realistically as they could. It wasn’t the kind of activity that would normally captivate Carle. He liked to draw what was in his head, what he imagined.

I could never quite tell how Carle would feel on art days. While he was mainly self-taught (although it was easy to see that he had been taught by all the great artists he encountered as he read the world), in some ways he was more of a natural artist than our art teacher. True, his work still needed some tweaking, and it would never hurt for him to get some tips from an “expert” but Carle had something that most artists don’t have. It’s hard to put into words, but Carle was an experimenter, a thrill seeker, he went beyond merely drawing or coloring or recording. When he drew he was there. He put himself into his art like no one else I have ever known.

As the class came back from art, I could see Carle stomping down the hall with his bottom lip stuck out, an angry expression on his face, his arms folded across his chest (he was pretty transparent with his feelings). Emotionally he was a little kid in a big body. I gave a 'what’s up?' expression to Carle and the art teacher who was accompanying the kids back to the classroom. She just shrugged. Carle glowered. “What is it, Carle?”

“She wanted me to color my drawing like it was some sort of stupid coloring book.”

“Now Carle,” she said. “I can’t just let you do whatever you want to. How would it seem to the other boys and girls if you were the only one who didn’t have to color your drawing?” She turned to me in exasperation. “He simply refused to participate. After he was finished with this picture he just sat there.”

“I know what you mean,” I said to her. “C’mon Carle.” His drawing was balled up in his hand. As we got back to class I asked him to come out in the hall with me. I asked if I could see his piece. It was simple but incredible. The others had drawn their still life art in pencil and then gone over it with black marker and finally colored in their pictures with crayons. Carle’s piece was a careful rendering of exactly what was in front of him done in fine tip marker. There was a stuffed Raggedy Ann doll with loopy yarn hair, fruit, a book and other found objects in a frilly country basket draped in a patterned fabric. While it wasn’t the most creative piece he had ever drawn, I was amazed by the accuracy, detail and confidence. You could see the shine in the doll’s button eyes, the rolls in the fabric and how the pattern changed as it folded away from the viewer’s perspective.

“She wanted me to color this with crayons,” he said with tears in his eyes.  “Like it's some kind of damned coloring book page... Like I’m some kind of little kid or something.”

“Stop cussing.” I said. “That will get you into trouble.” He nodded, looking down. “I get it, Carle. Your piece is fantastic just the way it is in black and white. Coloring it would just mess it up.”

“You like it?” he asked, looking up and fishing for more compliments.

“I love it, man. Can I have it?” He took it from me, smoothed out the wrinkles as best he could against his leg and handed it back.

“Sure. You really like it? I mean I didn’t use my imagination like you said I should.”

“Carle, you can’t blame the art teacher. She has to teach twenty-five kids at a time.” I looked around as if to make sure no one was watching or listening. “She doesn’t recognize your talent. You, Carle… You’re one in a million,” I said conspiratorially.

He could not suppress a grin. “You like it?”

“I told you I did, didn’t I? Now listen, do what she says from now on with no complaining. She knows more about art than you do and these little exercises won’t hurt.” He nodded his head. “And cut that cussing out. Whatever you do at home is your business. I have no control over that. But in this class, in this school, cussing is not an option. Understand?”

“Yeah, sorry Mr. O.”

“Now get in there,” I said and gave him a noogie for good measure.

I have more stories about Carle. The way he teared up when I read certain sad stories. The way he was by himself - even in a crowd. The way he chewed his nails incessantly and picked his scabby legs until they bled. The road was not an even one that year. His temper flared now and then and when he was mad, he was difficult to calm. He did end up with the assistant principal now and again for a good talking to.  He didn’t do his homework very often. He didn't pay attention to spelling when he wrote, but it did develop over the year. He didn’t make friends with the other children. Not really. But they sort of tolerated each other. He did manage to keep his aggression to a minimum and never really hurt anyone. And how his art did shine!

When I think back on his school file, the one that would follow him through high school, it angers me. With all of the psychological reports, stories of his aggressive behavior and poor attitude, behavior contracts, poor grades and nasty notes, I don’t remember reading a single one about Carle’s art. It was his gift. Wasn’t there a teacher, counselor, principal or aide who ever noticed this? Not even an art teacher?  How could one not recognize this part of his intelligence?

When we said good-bye at the end of that year, it was hard. I was moving to another school and I knew that I would not see many of these kids again. There was Bryan with his big old heart and his love of playground games. There was Susannah who could make you cry with her writing – and often did make me cry. Every year is different because every child makes special contributions. Carle is one of those kids who made that year special for me. I hope that I did something for him as well.

Carle still had difficulty reading at the end of his third grade year, but he did pick up a book now and then to read on his own. He was still pretty anti-social and while he didn’t make any real friends among the children, we were friends. For that I am so grateful. While it wasn't always easy being his teacher, it was an honor.

1 comment:

Teresa said...

Wow, that is exactly what is important as a teacher--how powerful! Again, you made me cry with your writing.