Regular readers, I suspect of which there are none, might recall a mention once of a teacher I had during elementary school in Jonesboro, Tennessee. While I’m still evenly split on feeling sure about her name, either Ms. Smith or Ms. Samantha, I feel pretty certain her high Elizabethan forehead and mane of Farrah Fawcett hair were actually married by follicle roots, not the wig I suspected as a child staring up at her, and the way her hairline began like the oncoming Genesis device somewhere over the zenith of the curvature of her tall forehead, like looking up at Washington at Mount Rushmore from beneath his chin. I also remain certain she is exclusively responsible for my need to build up dense detail into mosaics of confused yet patterned epic scale expanses of ink spend.
I believe I was in first grade the year I met Ms. S. I came from a broken home with a single mother working two gigs to pay the bills for her own and two bouncing baby boys. I had ample anger management issues, later manifesting in screaming hysterics that left me crumpled on the floor and my mother exhausted, a passing phase fortunately, though the shrinks probably thought they helped. They didn’t, the kids and councilors at the summer cap for crazy children did. A post for another day. Typically I didn’t really get on well with other kids, though not for lack of trying. I had no confidence, obsessed about myself constantly, was wired with abundant nervous energy, perpetually lonely, often felt that sort of wounded entitlement children of broken families feel, a mix of guilt and of feeling cheated, feeling at a disadvantage, feeling like you’re owed what other people can take for granted because you’ve suffered more than they have. Desperate to be liked by anyone that’d give me time of day or half a second. Clingy and curious and quick to adopt behaviors that seemed to receive approval from others. Some things don’t change much, really.
Ms. S, guided by motivations I can only guess at though suspect dwell in needing to get me to focus, or at least, to sit quietly and stop distracting others, gave me challenges. At first, she flipped a carbon copied page of some lesson thing and quickly drew a bunch of overlapping squiggles on the back with a Bic ballpoint pen. Sort of like a field full of bow tied shoelaces, pretty complex for something she did in seconds, maybe the perception of time is relative though, as I believe I watched her with a slack jaw, for not only did this woman have beautiful feet in those big 70’s hollow wooden triangle pumps, the sort that seemed fashioned out of the devices used in billiards to get the balls arranged into a tight triangle. She had the deft wrist of a practiced master illustrator. At least, as far as 6 year old me knew.
She turned the page around, as though there were a distinct bottom end to the field of shoelace bow knots, the galaxy of squiggles, and pushed it towards me. She opened a drawer in her metal bodied, wood topped desk and drew out a Crisco container filled with crayons. She instructed me to try to find a picture inside the ball point lines and pull it out with color. Her only challenge, not to use the same color to fill in adjacent spaces.
I have no idea what was taught that day, just that I felt distraught for not finishing before being tapped on the shoulder and told the time had come to get my things together and head for the bus for home. I had begun the image early in the day, and worked on the image through lunch. Since no one interrupted me, clearly my focused efforts were a relief to the instructional staff and classmates.
The next year I changed grades and while I only saw Ms. S occasionally she did get me to help with a project of coloring big posters what were hung up around the school. The building was one of the trendy round structures with an open seating plan divided up by cubical walls on wheels, with one wedge fixed that served as the library, and another fixed wedge full of the principal’s office, admin, and nurse’s station. By third grade I’d become a regular fixture around the principal’s office. If not for getting into trouble, then for missing the bus home, or one time for having red bumps that turned out to be chiggers, little bugs that burrow under your skin. I always felt proud for dodging lice, though when I think back, chiggers were nothing to brag about, either.
The round school building had an inner hub that contained an amphitheater with riser style seating where We got to assemble regularly for announcements & presentations, for bus safety films that I remain scarred by, for occasional Warner Brothers cartoons, for the talent show that turned into a lesson about needing to learn how to say now lest artistic vision be sacrificed to appease a mob for a smidge of temporary popularity. A Tom Sawyer moment turned sour, if you will. Where you could sit near the older kids to rubberneck the copy of Kiss Alive 2 double album that folds out for all to see and envy because one kid has a cool older brother that would probably have a coronary to discover his younger sibling has liberated his prized new vinyl and has taken it into an auditorium full of snotty children eager to look with their hands rather than their eyes.
A wide hallway ran around the circumference of the hub, the thoroughfare for children to access any part of the flying saucer facilities. The project Ms. S pinched my elbow for was to color in big posters of various childhood personalities, mostly Peanuts and Sesame Street characters, that grinned and hammed over top tips and mantras the organizers hoped the kids would take to heart, encouragements to smile, be considerate, brush regularly, hold the door, wash up, let a teacher know if you need to potty, etc. I’d been tapped the high honor of coloring Big Bird and maybe a couple other characters, though Big Bird is all I can remember, because my artistic deviation, my embellishment, haunted me the rest of my time at that school. Thankfully Mom met a guy and married him and we moved to Telford. Telford sucked, but at least I got to escape the albatross Big Bird turned into.
I worked on coloring that bird for what seemed like days, careful to stay in the lines, to not muddy any details from the marker drawing likely done using an overhead projector to project the image on the poster board from a transparency so that someone older and more capable could trace it for kids like me to color. I distinctly remember kneeling on the industrial tight weave carpet to color the image on the poster board and being able to smell the residual odor of the markers used to make the drawing, that fat black marker with the delta nib, angled to give the option of using point for thin line or full wedge for fat lines.
Working on the posters gave kids permission to work away while classes happened around them. Retrospectively, I probably got tapped since I had racked up more hours in detention than most kids, and mine were all for refusing to nap or settle down or stop doodling or playing baseball on my desk using my hands as the players. I never got up to any real mischief, except for the time I apparently dropped a brick on another kid’s finer in kindergarten, a kid I’d later be friends with in Telford, go figure.
Considering how often I’ve been an easy scapegoat for others due to having a loud mouth, trusting others too quickly out of general loneliness, and a naïve understanding of the world at large, still not sure I actually did the deed, and when I asked Randal in years later one sunny afternoon riding our banana seat bikes along the gravel roads between our properties Telford, he said it’s what his mother’d been told, but no one thought there’d been any malice in it, just clumsiness, what you’d expect from kindergarteners with bricks. I wish I could remember ever having broken someone’s finger, both to justify feeling bad about it, and to understand how I can remember painful events from when I was three almost photographically, but smashing another kid’s hand, malice free or not, seems strange to forget. Did I get blamed, or did I actually do it and blank the memory out. Do I have no memory because I didn’t know I’d done it? Randal was a good friend, and for the duration of the time I lived in Telford, we were buddies.
Wonder if he grew up to become a funny car builder / mechanic / racer like his father. Wonder if he couldn’t pursue a racing career because some asshole kid smashed his hand with a brick in kindergarten. I’m exaggerating, his fingers were fine, you’d have never known one had spent time in a popsicle stick splint when he was younger. Any rate, hope he’s well, he was a cool kid and his folks were always nice to me. They just hid the bricks when I stopped by.
Before anyone forms an opinion that I was a brick bearing brute set on abusing others as a child, or otherwise, please rest assured I spent most of my youth, up until 9th grade, getting bullied mercilessly. Particularly in 7th and 8th grade. More than enough to make up for breaking Randal’s finger, I think, if karmic debt had to be paid.
The poster took a long time, and a whale load of various yellow tinted crayons, one Lemon or Ultra Yellow Crayola after another, until I got all the feathers and eyes filled in. All that remained: the beak. And that’s when something artistic inside me spoke up and said time to add some contrast, too many adjacent spaces with the same color, how about something different?
Big Bird ‘s bright pink beak did not solicit the accolades and adoration of my classmates I might’ve hoped for.
For the remainder of my time there through the end of second grade, despite my pleas with teachers to have a chance to redo the beak, or have another image to color as a replacement, the pink beak remained hung in the round hallway for all to regard, tapping their chins and frowning with consternation. At best, people said, the child is strangely color blind. He’s too young to be making a lewd statement, and no one even thinks about rainbow parades yet in centennial 1976 - 77 Tennessee. They’re thinking Star Wars and Kenner toys and wondering who’s the weird kid that doesn’t know Big Bird’s beak is the same bright canary yellow as the rest of him?
To be continued with Part 2: Architecture School Year 1 Semester 1