Reclaiming Childhood Power with Coloring Books

There’s a story that I’ve told for years, a story that represents my early disappointment and dislike of school.

In kindergarten, I was assigned to color a bird brown, but I thought brown was too typical. I’d been reading Zoo Books and learning about parakeets, toucans, and other birds at home. I knew birds could be practically any color or any combination of colors. I decided, therefore, to use my creativity, knowledge, and the tools (crayons) available to me to create a colorful bird.

A few days later, I received my teacher’s response: a frown face at the top of the coloring assignment. I had failed to follow instructions, and following instructions was what mattered in school.

I was crushed that my teacher didn’t like my imaginative attempt at art. I was sad, then discouraged, and finally angry. In the years that followed, I largely disconnected from school, stubbornly refusing to do assignments if I couldn’t see their value. I’d sit still with arms folded, embodying the stubbornness of a bull (yep, I’m a Taurus). Instead of learning to follow instructions, I learned to question schooling.

The stubbornness and questioning have largely served me well, especially as I’ve become invested in unlearning inequity, injustice, and social conditioning that we’re taught in and out of school. If I’d been too attached to school or too invested in following instructions, I might not have spent time analyzing what felt or appeared unfair. And I had a lot of time to reflect while not doing assignments.

Recently and randomly, I felt called to coloring again. I ordered a coloring book of forest trails, extending my love of hiking into art and looking again to tread another path. When the book arrived, I opened it to the first page and began adding color to birds on a branch:

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It wasn’t until I’d colored birds yellow, blue, and purple that I realized I was recreating this early childhood memory. I was choosing colors based on intuition and inhibition. I was creatively following my own path, calling back my early identity as an artist.

I share this story because it’s got me thinking about the power of recreating, re-enacting, and ultimately rewriting early experiences. Rather than being trapped in old narratives, it’s possible to remember and revise them. Now, when I’m adding color to each bird, I’m seeing myself as an artist with power, as an artist whose intuition can contribute to personal and collective healing.

As a child, I wanted my artwork to bring joy, and I was sure that colorful birds could do that. Then the teacher’s frown face communicated the opposite: her dislike and disappointment with the work. It’s taken me years to sort out her response from mine and to appreciate—deeply value and feel gratitude for—the disconnection I felt with school.

Now I can see that early school experiences rooted in me the courage and conviction to stand TALL for justice. They helped me question authority and value self-determination. They fueled my desire to be an educator, but one who’s never quite comfortable in school. They allowed me to understand ageism and were surely the origin of my alignment with ecofeminism.

Rather than swinging from one extreme (following instructions) to the other (resisting assignments), I’m wondering what it might mean to value the wisdom and reclaim the power from these early childhood experiences. I’m wondering how I’m recreating these early experiences and the stories I tell about them as I keep coloring bird by bird. I’m wondering how this work of reflecting on the past helps with articulating and acting on commitments. And I’m wondering how the adult/teacher self might be more accountable to the kindergarten/student self and to all selves looking for their artist + activist efforts to be nourished.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Answering the Call for Artistic Activism: Yes, I’m an Artist!” or “Disrupting the Mind-Body Split.” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

Mantras to Stand TALL for Justice

This week I returned to teaching First-Year English (FYE), a course focused on information literacy, academic writing, undergraduate research, and the first-year college experience. This course helps students in making the transition to college, asking research questions, and navigating academic disciplines and the larger university system. The goal is for students to see themselves as critical readers, writers, and researchers—agents with response-abilities to make change.

With the start of this new school year, I’ve been thinking about who I was as a college student and who the students I teach might be. I’ve been considering what hopes I hold for the students and myself and what I might say to encourage students to conduct inquiries that really matter in the world. Teaching at this time feels especially important and even urgent. How might I spark students to social action? How might I play a role in helping others identify and act on their purposes? How might I teach in a way to inspire speaking and writing UP?

And wouldn’t you know that in the midst of such reflection, I come across a poster that speaks to me (and in a gas station bathroom, of all places):

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I can’t count the number of times I’ve repeated mantas about grounding and growing tall:

“I am grounded. I am safe and protected. I am securely rooted.”
“It is safe for me to be seen. It is safe to speak my truth. It is safe to be me.”
“Even when scared, I show up. I stand TALL.”

Stumbling upon this poster felt like confirmation that there’s value in sharing these mantras as wishes, hopes, and goals for students. There is real power in standing TALL—steady and true, like trees—in our commitments … in acting as our best selves, witnessing injustice, speaking truth, countering dehumanization, honoring ourselves and others, asking for more, and demanding justice.

Standing TALL, as I understand it, includes more than physically standing as part of a protest or demonstration. Yes, that physical presence is important, and it helps us see how presence—where and when to put one’s body, words, and actions—is always already political action.

Two examples:

For a student of color, attending the predominantly white university already makes a claim of one’s right to belong within that space. Attending classes already involves standing TALL. It already involves resilience and courage in the face of everyday microaggressions.

For a white student, choices to speak against microaggressions, to study white supremacy, to build cross-racial relations, to embrace marginalized stories, and to rethink one’s worldview similarly involve standing TALL. To shake up/off what’s been inherited and normalized involves the groundedness to be true to one’s self, while striving for change.

In other words (words I’ve encountered through yoga asana practice):

To stand TALL, we must “root to rise.”

This wisdom is more than metaphor. The deeper the trees’ roots, the taller, wider, and more expansive trees grow. Similarly, the stronger the feet and the firmer their planting, the higher humans can stretch—literally, becoming taller.

Growing roots can be hard because it requires stability and resolve—and at a time when students are uprooted. Transitions can feel especially unsettling, as though the ground is constantly shifting and the horizon always unknown. The transition to college, whether from high school or work or parenting or another place in life, can take us to new ground, too, literally and figuratively.

When so much is shifting, it can help to come back to grounding, again and again. And it can help to remember why we’re needed in the world, standing tall among others, a voice against racism and tyranny and violence and what’s wrong.

To the students in my FYE courses and, truly, to all of us as writers, speakers, and actors in the world, I share some mantras for finding the courage to speak, write, and act:

May we get rooted in what’s true, what’s peaceful, what’s equitable, and what’s humane. May we be grounded and courageous in our commitments. May we write-speak-act for justice. May we stand TALL. May we root to rise. May we rise to what is asked of us at this time and in the times to come.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Answering the Call for Artistic Activism: Yes, I’m an Artist!” or “Disrupting the Mind-Body Split.” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

Re-Reading Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

In preparation for a course I’m teaching this spring (“Writing for Social Justice”), I’m lucky to be re-reading Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. In this powerful YA novel, Alexie describes growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation and navigating interactions in the rural, white high school.

Alexie’s narrative reveals much about systemic inequities, colonization, marginalization, and disenfranchisement. I hope students will relate to the main character Junior (Arnold Spirit) and find their way into thinking about central concepts of (in)equity, (in)justice, agency, power, and rights, which we’ll be studying throughout the semester.

I’ve loved this book since I first read it in 2008. That summer, I took The Absolutely True Diary on a multi-day hiking trip. I’d spend each day thinking about the book while hiking and each evening reading in the dim light of remote huts. Being removed from my daily life and with long stretches of time for reading + reflection, I read with a sense of both/and—both true separation from Junior’s experiences and total immersion in the importance of his story and its implicit call to action.

As I’m reading this time, I’m taking notes on major themes/takeaways for social justice, tracing the emotions impacting different characters (heart); key social, cultural, historical, and educational concepts (head); and the potential for action (hands). Here is my list, which is sure to be revised as the semester begins and as I process with students.

I’d love reflections, additions, or suggestions by any of you who have read the book. And if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it!

Themes/Takeaways for Social Justice:

  • Identities are always already intersectional: Race, class, gender, ability, geographic/regional location, nationality, ethnicity, linguistic background, religion, sexuality, and other facets of ourselves—cannot be disentangled or pulled apart, but instead shape all our lived experiences.
  • Oppression and privilege are embodied: Our bodies hold histories, legacies, generational knowledges, grief, joy, and even trauma and injustice.
  • White people interfere in many ways and typically with/through “good intentions.”
  • Oppression is internalized, limiting one’s sense of self-worth and erecting so many barriers/boundaries to jump over—and at every possible level: with one’s self, at home, in one’s community, and outward to the nation-state and international relations.
  • Both internalized oppression and internalized privilege/supremacy are pathologies—and with very different historical, social, and material consequences.
  • Schooling in the United States is, by design, separate and unequal. While the myth of the meritocracy persists, students encounter entirely different educational experiences—with many students facing what Jonathan Kozol has called “savage inequalities” (or grossly underfunded schools that cheat people out of their futures).
  • As a gendered construction, masculinity limits knowledge about and expression of emotions. At the same time, masculinity over-emphasizes/encourages physical dominance (e.g., fist fights and basketball). Men’s friendships, then, are shaped by the suppression of emotional expression—despite the obvious emotional tenor of any/all friendships—and by related performances of heteronormativity.
  • We always choose: if not solidarity, then complicity. Though only a few may be bullies, many make the bullying possible. In the words of Desmond Tutu: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Or, as Elie Wiesel put it: “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
  • Inequities stack up and feed into each other, so that colonialism walks hand-in-hand with systemic racism … and racism with loss of land and resources … and loss of land and resources with poverty … and poverty with dis-ease … and dis-ease with addiction/alcoholism … and addiction with death … and death with grief … and grief with loss of spirit, of hope. This downward spiral (or cycle of socialization) necessitates a total overhaul to break such structurally sustained dehumanization.
  • Hope is so important and so complicated! As Alexie writes (in Junior’s words): “I don’t know if hope is white. But I do know that hope for me is like some mythical creature” (51). It’s associated with possibility, mobility, and self-determination. Systems of oppression/colonialism/marginalization work, in part, by shutting down hope. In turn, any movement for justice must involve reclaiming hope.

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