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:
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!