Want to know a secret? How about two secrets?
When I was in eighth grade, I got a D in art.
When I was in ninth grade, I failed English.
How was such a thing possible for a kid who was practically born with a pen in one hand, a pencil in the other? (Ouch...sorry, Mom!) How could I, who loved (still love) art and writing more than anything else in the world--even tamales--how could I have made such a poor showing at the things I loved to do? Obviously, there's no single answer to that question. To be entirely honest, both were at least partial consequences of my own, shall we say, unique approach to education. In other words, I failed English because I had been pursuing a long-term in-school truancy project, and my English teacher just happened to be the one with the gumption to turn me in to the Assistant Principal. The dance of cause and effect in that case was clear. But the near-failure in the art classroom the previous year was more complicated; it took place before my little "I know so much about this stuff I don't need to come to class" phase.
When I talk to kids (and adults who are younger than me) I get the impression that things haven't changed that much in school-centered art education at the Grade 5-8 level. In my school--which was and is an excellent public school nurturing kids who needed a challenging, creative curriculum--there were two art teachers, and I got the one who seemed to have the idea that kids weren't interested in learning how to really use art tools and materials, compose pictures, understand color, or look at the work of actual artists. I'm not sure how much choice she really had about her curriculum, and from what I learned during my eight years teaching college, I now believe she might have had less control over what she taught than I assumed as a kid. But I got that D in art class because, even as a kid, I most definitely wanted to learn how to make real art, and learn about real artists, and that wasn't what we were doing in that class. I don't know for sure, but I think I refused to do the work--or I did the work in a way that showed my contempt. Another possibility is that I honestly did my best but got a D because I also had "an attitude" or because I'd belittled the curriculum. I suppose both are likely. Either way, it appeared that the teacher thought little of my art skills.
I didn't realize this until early the next year--the same year I flunked English, my first year in high school. I should mention that my school ran from fifth through twelfth grade, so that middle school and high school were in the same building and sometimes involved the same teachers. At the beginning of ninth grade, I learned that a course was being offered (during my free period!) in drawing and painting studio techniques, and to get in you had to have a sample artwork approved by the teacher. Guess who the teacher was?
I almost didn't try out. I thought she couldn't possibly want me in the class, and I wasn't sure I wanted to learn studio drawing and painting from her, anyway! In fact, I thought I'd have been happy never to have seen her again in my life, and I bet she felt the same way about me. But for some reason, I prepared my best drawing (a pencil study based on a Man Ray photograph of Salvador and Gala Dali) and pounced on her the next day after class. The look on her face nearly sent me away again, but I stuck it out and showed her my work.
"Wow," she said when she saw the drawing. "This is actually really good!" We talked some about the difference between working from photos and working from life, and then she said, "Okay, you're in. Class starts next Tuesday; take this slip to your guidance counselor and he'll add you." She handed me back my drawing and gave me a squinty-eyed smirk. As I turned toward the stairs to carry the add slip to my counselor, she said, "You know, if you'd done work like this last year, you wouldn't have got that D!"
I stopped, turned, and faced her. "If you had let me do work like this last year, I would've got an A."
I took Drawing and Painting Studio from her for two more years, and Photography my senior year with--finally--the other art teacher. They were all good classes, and they taught me a lot of methods and skills I still use every day. Sometimes I wonder if, in some weird way, I needed that D in order to convince myself I was serious and committed about making art.
I was fourteen when I became an artist and a poet. I guess I've always gotten a lot of mileage out of Doing It Wrong.