Back to 7th grade

Last week, I did an artist-in-residency at the United Nations International School here in New York.  I haven’t spent time in a school since my trip to Vietnam last spring and it was nice to hang out with young creative minds again.

I talked with a few groups of high school students, kids who were serious about art and preparing their portfolios for college.  I told them about Jack’s experience at RISD and let them page through a big pile of my sketchbooks. But most of the time I worked with 6th-8th graders — doing fun drawing exercises, talking to them about the purpose of art in their lives, showing them how to make comics out of their everyday lives, explaining how they could use journals to explore the world.

This age is a crossroad for creativity as tweens (ages 10-12) change so quickly from children into teenagers. In 6th grade, they are still interested in drawing and imagining and reading comics, still unselfconscious enough to plunge into any new activity with enthusiasm. A few months later, as puberty begins to roil their brains, they are focussed instead on how others see them, entwined in group dynamics, masking a loss of confidence with cynicism. It’s harder to get through to kids at this age, to get them to sink into the pleasure of drawing without constantly kibitzing with their friends, to listen to directions and suggestions, to avoid self-flagellation and choruses of “I’m no good at drawing.”  When the dust of preadolescence clears, former crayon artists will have divided into those who will continue to paint and draw and those who will never try it again.

I try to step into that fray to show that drawing can still be fun, still matter, still have a degree of cool and that  it’s not just for a select few who think they have talent. I ask the kids who say they can’t draw if they do draw. How often do they draw outside of art class? I ask them if they can remember drawing with crayons every day when they were 4 or 6. I tell them drawing is like learning to play a video game or shoot a basket, that failing is part of how you learn your way. I show them my own failures, how I improved, and all that drawing has brought to my life.

It’s an interesting challenge and increases my respect for middle-school teachers all the more.

Oddly, this was the first time I had ever worked with kids in New York, but many shared my perspective as a “third culture kid” who had grown up in lots of different countries. I explained that living on four continents and going to a dozen and a half schools before I was thirteen had shaped me into the person I am and had forged my perspective as a writer and an artist, my interest in investigating the things most people take for granted. Growing up as an outsider is the best perspective for an artist to have. New York is a city of outsiders, the perfect place for an internationalist to put down roots.

I have visited a dozen schools in the past year or two. I always come home exhausted and a lot smarter.