I realize that most young kids struggle for an identity in the early years of their education. (Before my school days this period was referred to as “grammar school.” Sometime during the 1950s it became “grade school,” and after that, “elementary school.”) But I was lucky. My artistic abilities were recognized within the first week of the first grade. I had been taken with art from the moment I picked up my first crayon. Sometimes, I’ll confess even now, I walk into the school supplies aisle at Safeway just to take a whiff of a fresh box of Crayolas. It takes me back to grade school in an instant. Try it sometime! You’ll see.
"Tommy is very special. He is an artist!" my first grade teacher told the class at Stafford Grade School, a quaint little clapboard building with a belfry, complete with a very evocative-sounding bell that could be heard miles away. My mom often ate her lunch on our front porch on nice days to the tolling of the noon bell that we good, well-behaved students were allowed to ring by pulling the long rope in the hall. It was an honor reserved for those who got all their assignments done on time. It rang again at 3 p.m. and Mom knew that our yellow school bus would come lumbering down our narrow gravel road in about a half an hour.
Having a ready-made identity had its advantages. I never had any crises like being picked on by bigger kids. After all, I had been put into a special box from day one, and somehow that worked. Recess can be traumatic for little boys who can’t hit a baseball, but I was excused from that torture by reason of my special status. I usually took a drawing pad outside to recess, and was left alone to do my own thing.
I was hopelessly shy and somewhat insecure in those early years. As time went on, I gradually came into my own and emerged from my shell; and no one believes me now when I mention my unsteady start. Then, in the early years when I was first making my living as a professional public speaker (preacher), few who knew me then could have imagined my trepidation when I won the Clackamas County Fire Safety Poster Contest. Out of all the first grade students in twenty elementary schools in the county, I won. Eight children – one from each of the eight elementary grades – had been chosen as the best artists in the county. Of course, because I was only six, and the youngest of the group, the eighth-grader looked like a full-scale adult to me. I was terrified. But my teacher and our principal were elated.
The prize was an open-air ride on a fire truck at the main County fire station in Oregon City. When we got there, it seemed like the whole world had shown up with cameras, microphones, and fire safety banners. The fire siren wailed; the fire truck was roaring, all shiny and red with bells clanging. I was so overwhelmed and petrified that I fainted! Fortunately, that wasn’t mentioned in the local paper the next day. They showed pictures of all the winners smiling and waving with the firemen in full fire-fighting regalia. We all got our names in the paper, in any case, and no one seemed to miss the little first-grader who was whisked away to his home in his family’s nice, secure, green 1949 Buick.
On a less grandiose scale, our school district – which consisted of five schools – had an annual art contest that I won every year in a row. As time went by, the kids matured and became aware of "school spirit." Winning awards of any nature was tantamount to saying: "Our school is better than your school!" Like playing little league sports, winning for your school was highly praised. The attitude was always sort of unspoken... "Well, Tom can’t hit a baseball – let alone catch one – make a basket, or kick a football worth beans. But, so what? He always wins the art contest for the school." Even some of the more trouble-prone bully types who were destined to be "jocks" in high school, gave me a wide berth. "Are you going to win the art contest for us again this year?" they would ask. Winning was very important. Even thought it wasn’t all that big of a deal to me, it did go a long way toward giving me the real self-confidence that I carried into my adult life.
Most school teachers at the time were not specialists, but instead taught all subjects, including arithmetic, English, and history/geography – then becoming known as social studies. Music and art, taught by well-meaning teachers, were subjects that were based on the abilities or lack thereof. Art was one of those subjects that many teachers used to occupy the students now and then. It usually went something like this: "Take a blank sheet of paper and draw something! And be quiet!" I was usually the only one in the class that took such a challenge seriously. While the kids and teachers counted the minutes until the three o’clock bell, I would diligently and feverishly work on a drawing, hoping for enough time to finish it.
An interesting thing happened when I reached the seventh grade. Organized sports began to become a regular part of school life. Friday afternoons became "game days," when kids from other schools in the district would compete with us – a precursor to high school sports where even adults would take interscholastic competition very seriously.
Along with the sports, complete with matching uniforms drums and trumpets, came a new thing that everyone (except me) loved. It was called a pep rally. A true American tradition, the idea was to get the school spirit revved up to support the home team. The theory is that it is the cheerleader’s job to pump the crowd up – to energize the team to victory. I was required to attend, of course, and yell and carry on appropriately to insure that our screaming and chanting would have some mystical, magical effect on the team’s performance. I found it grindingly boring and a gross waste of time. It simply didn’t interest me. Okay, I was a stick-in-the-mud. But I still find it dull, even to this day!
My seventh grade history and civics teacher also taught art. He was, however, actually a genuine artist; and really taught us about perspective, mixing colors, the color wheel, hues, values, light and shadows, tints and shades – and even some basic drawing and pen & ink techniques. By the time most of the students got to this point, their interest in art was about zero; and Mr. Poole knew this. I think his goal was to try to keep the kids as calm as possible before releasing them like a heard of stampeding cattle to get even more hyper at the pep rally.
I usually tried to ignore the hubbub, and work on my art project de jour. One sunny Friday afternoon after the mob hit the gymnasium, I was slowly putting my oil pastels away when Mr. Poole came over and asked me: "You really don’t have any interest in all that do you?" I assured him that I did not. "Would you rather stay here and work on your art project?" he asked simply. It was like asking if I would like a bowl of ice cream or a plate of canned lima beans. He went to talk to the principal and came back with permission to skip all sports-related activities if I were investing that same time doing art instead. He added with a wink… "The word is, just win the art contest again this year. That’s the deal!"
And what a deal! I was rapidly outgrowing my student’s desk as a workspace, so Mr. Poole moved me to a six-foot folding table in the back of the room where I spent the next year in not only art class, but civics and history as well. The agreement was that I could work on my art at my work table in the back, apart from the class, if I paid attention, participated in the class while drawing, and got good grades in both. Piece of cake. I love history and am a political junkie to this day, having learned multitasking before they even made up a word for it.
Mr. Poole and I skipped all those rallies thereafter, working together on our own projects and talking – real adult talk. It was the first experience I had with what we now call "male bonding." It wasn’t sexual at all, or anything like that, but I loved him. It was different from love of family members and the like. It was a wonderful experience – a very self‑affirming and securing time, which stood me in good stead for years to come.
One day he asked me a question that caught me totally off guard. I guess every young person at some point has to ask himself realistically what he is actually going to do when he grows up. "Have you considered a career in art?" he asked matter-of-factly, looking me straight in the eye. "Career?" I thought. "Since when do twelve-year-olds seriously think of careers?" But he was deadly serious. "My dad says that artists starve," I answered lamely. "Well, would you rather be full and miserable doing something you hate, or hungry and happy doing something you love?" he asked. This was heavy stuff for an eighth grade kid, to be sure. But then it got heavier.
"You are better right now at your age than I can ever hope to be," he said quietly, "and it would be a tragedy if you went into some profession that wouldn’t make you happy in your life...especially with your talent. You were born to do art, and I really hope that you will find the aspect of it that will make your life fulfilling."
He was so right. I looked him up years later, after he retired. We picked up right where we had left off. I was living overseas then, and couldn’t stay long but I wanted to thank him for all that he had done for a young art student those many years earlier. I was kind of chocked up as I began... "I don’t know if you remember what you told me once years ago...” I paused to collect myself, when he continued for me... "I remember like it was yesterday, and I meant every word of it. I’m just so glad that you took my advice.”
I never saw him again. During the intervening years, traveling around the world, I often thought of him and of my debt to a great teacher. When I learned that he had passed away, I hung up my cell phone, drove into a parking lot, and cried.