Carle - Part 2
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?”
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.