In 2006, I was a public school Art teacher in NYC. This was a Monday:
With large craft scissors aimed at six-year-old eye level, Emelia serpentined through the classroom, leaving the spared in her wake. She flew through tiny chairs and tiny tables, her weapon drawn, eliciting yelps and screams from some, frightened laughter from others. I chased Emealia through the classroom, but she had size on her side, tripping over nothing, expertly dodging strewn smocks, the casualties from the previous art class.
Emealia flew around the tables, her maniacal laughter whipping past me as fast as her long black ponytail. She never hurt anyone, but the fear she imposed was monumental, and her presence sent shivers and shakes from the other 26 students in the room. I couldn’t calm them all.
When I caught up with her eventually, I did my best to tackle her gently, avoiding the scissors as they snipped through the heavy air, inches from my face.
What ensued was always worse. She crumbled, tossing the scissors aside, curling into a ball and scratching at her face. I talked to her, soft quiet words that did little to stop her.
Eventually – 20 or so minutes into a 45 minute class – she stopped, hid under one of the tiny tables and quietly sobbed into her knees. I’d hand her some supplies, and occasionally she’d draw under the table for a few minutes when her tears relented.
I spent that year trying to understand Emealia. I am not proud to say I essentially ignored the other students in my art class in order to do it. I would give them a project, get them started, and then chase and tackle and try to calm this troubled child. The school was not remiss. Psychologists were brought in, her home life investigated, and everything came back copacetic. Behavioral specialists were solicited, but inevitably, as soon as one aid left, out came the rage, the scissors and the nails against her face.
One day asked Emealia why she was so angry. She turned to me and threw the words at me like daggers, “What’s the point, anyway?” I should mention she was six.
In all the years I taught, I had a lot of students that reminded me of Emealia. I’ll admit none so drastic or severe, but similar in their rage and their despair. Many of them had seen the underbelly of the world way before their time, others were neglected, some just very lost.
A few years later, Desiree reminded me Emealia. Her scowl seemed permanent, and her angry words bubbled to the surface and overflowed into almost every conversation. She flung paint around the room – she preferred red because she said it reminded her of splattered blood. She smiled as it stuck to the walls and dripped down to the beige linoleum floor.
I was a little more seasoned and I thought that it might be useful to have some professional artists come to the class to show the students what they might strive towards. We had a wardrobe designer come to the class to talk to the students about their potential futures. Desiree was mesmerized. She sat, red dripping paintbrush down, for the rest of the class and the rest of the year. She worked with me after class on creating costumes, the bedazzler her new best friend. Desiree became less angry – she didn’t lose the scowl entirely, or the biting words she flung in frustration. This isn’t a Michelle Pfieffer movie, after all. But she saw something she wanted, and she was learning how to go after it, in small steps, day after day.
There has been so much recent education conversation about 21st century skills, and about how our American students lack them. Communication, collaboration, problem solving, critical thinking and creativity are all on the list. But one thing that isn’t is “seizing opportunity.” Sure, there’s a lot in that phrase, and it’s pretty important to integrate good communication, problem solving skills and creativity into the search for opportunity. But recognizing opportunity, chasing it, tackling it, and making it your own is a different skill all together, and it is one that can change a life course. It is about more than cognitive ability. It is about self-esteem, confidence and self direction. It is about understanding the landscape of life at a very young age, and chasing something tangible all the way into the future.
We can not expect children to know how to do this without guidance. It isn’t an easy skill. But in a world full of opportunities, perhaps more now more than ever before in our history, we owe it to them to teach it. All children deserve to know the answer to the very serious question: “What’s the point?”