Standing on one’s feet for four hours should be exhausting. At the end of the Art @ Suite 100 opening last night, the fatigue lurked in one corner of my mind waiting to spring. But Genevieve Casey walked me from the parking space we found a block from McCoy’s to the restaurant where one of the showing artists and her family waited to dine with us. I could tell my body had reached the limit of endurance. The strength of Genevieve’s arm and the lingering glow from a successful event kept me walking, one foot in front of the other, all the way to where Lori Hooten Roller and her amazing daughter Kris Roller stood with outstretched arms.
But now my body chides me for forcing it to keep going, from 4:30 a.m. when the first alarm rang yesterday to nearly midnight when I finally stopped moving.
When I came downstairs this morning, I stood in the hallway looking at a piece of art done by my son half his life-time ago, in seventh or eighth grade. The memory of my first sight of it overtook me.
The phone rang, the twentieth century kind, blaring from the table in the living room. A voice said, “Mrs. Corley, I’m having trouble with your son.” I collapsed into a chair. The early teen years had bludgeoned Patrick, compounded by health issues that defied explanation despite countless tests and the combined wisdom of his local doctors. Difficult times for us. What now, what now?
The woman identified herself as the art teacher. Art? Thanks to his aunt Penny Thieme, my son truly loved art. I could not fathom how he would be difficult in art class. But I listened. “He won’t follow directions,” the teacher continued. “He won’t do what I tell him.”
At first, I assumed that I understood her complaint. Patrick’s dark defiance had plagued me as well. Though my philosophy of parenting encouraged free-thinking, Patrick crossed even my boundaries during that time. Then the art teacher said that my son refused to fulfill the assignments.
She had caught my attention. “What do you mean,” I asked.
She coughed and harrumphed. I waited. Then she said, “He keeps drawing small things.”
Small things? “What do you mean,” I repeated. “And why is that a problem?” I heard a ponderous sigh. “I give him a whole piece of paper and he uses only a small corner of it, or draws a tiny scene right in the middle. It’s wasteful.”
Even now, thirteen years later, the echo of my hysteria lingers in the living room where I sit to write. “That’s the problem you have with my son? You want him to fill the page? You don’t like the size of the paintings he makes in your class?” Derision bubbled from my belly. “Good God, ma’am, you are a teacher, not a drill sergeant. An art teacher, not a supply clerk. Art should have no limits, least of all those imposed by narrow-minded people.” I slammed the phone onto its cradle. The satisfying sound of that petulant act reverberated throughout the house.
I thought about my last argument with Patrick, about the dark moods which had driven a wedge between us. I looked around the house at the detritus of the normal life which I had tried to construct for my fatherless son. The laughter died on my lips. My face sagged.
I did talk to Patrick. I told him that the art teacher had a thing for not wasting paper, and what would he think about drawing bigger pictures. He stared at me for an agonizing moment before responding. “I know all about it,” he told me. “She says my pictures don’t fulfill the assignments because I’m supposed to use the whole paper. But aunt Penny says that art is personal, and I should draw what I want to draw.”
What could I say? My worries in that era far surpassed the real estate utilized by an eighth grader in art class. My son’s mysterious health problems defied diagnosis. My own unexplained breathing issues sent me to the hospital once or twice a month. My husband had taken yet another job out of town, leaving me to cope on my own with bills, my boy, and the sad state of my unattended house.
I told my son that I thought he should try at least to get along with the teacher, and make sure that she had no room to criticize him other than his proclivity for tiny pictures. He gave me that long reflective look which I had come to know so well. He told me that he would try. I left it at that.
A few days later, the teacher called me at work to tell me that she was worried about Patrick. I asked if her concern involved wasting paper. She fell silent and then snapped, “Well, see for yourself when he brings home what he did in class today. I think he is very disturbed and I think you are neglecting him.” She terminated the call. I sat with the receiver in my hand listening to silence.
That night, my son brought his latest work to me, carefully rolled and secured with two paper clips, one at either end. I stifled my trepidation as the piece unfurled. I studied the piece without saying anything for a few minutes. Finally, I met my son’s eyes. We had no need for words, but I said the first thing that came to the surface on a jumble of competing responses. “Well, Buddy,” I began. “I see you learned to use the entire page. Well done.”
And then laughter erupted. Suddenly, the haunting fears gave way to a flash of understanding that maybe — just maybe — everything eventually would be all right.