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Blessings and Circus Cars

The mildly waxy scents of cheap watercolor paint and Elmer’s glue mingle in the air of the classroom in which my mom and I sit; me, a fourth-grade student at Sycamore Hills Elementary, and she, my mom, who made it a priority to visit my class at least once a quarter for lunch and whatever afternoon classes I was having. Thursdays were my favorite because that was when I had art class, followed closely by Tuesdays, which were music. I came by those loves honestly, because my mom loved both art and music and had exposed us to both from a young age; today, she happened to come on a Thursday, so there we were, awaiting the instructions of Mrs. House, a woman who was small in stature but massive in artistic talent and usually equally as impressive in patience. Today, she was perhaps having a rough day. I can’t blame her. Teaching art to a bunch of fourth graders is not for the faint of heart.

Our project that day consisted of creating circus cars out of colored construction paper, behind which we would ultimately place our watercolor portraits of animals to create the effect of animals in cages. Describing it now, it seems a strange activity in which to involve children; adult me recoils a bit, and I think it would perhaps have been better to create trees and set the animals in amongst those. Be as it may, there my mother and I were, puzzling over the template that we had been given to create the top of the circus car. I remember how it was “supposed” to look quite vividly; three primary points, with the center more pronounced, and with an arabesque flair. The technique we were to use was not dissimilar from that used to make snowflakes from paper folded over itself multiple times. With only a few uniform cuts with a pair of scissors, voila’, a perfectly symmetrical snowflake. While there is presumably such a thing as a perfect snowflake, in my case, there was no such thing as a perfect top to my circus car. I used the construction paper we had been given, followed the instructions closely, and upon making the cuts as prescribed, wound up with an entirely different shape. I remember my mom sitting beside me, watching and occasionally helping. When we unfolded the top of the circus car and saw how different it looked, her smile contrasted dramatically with my frown of concern. Well, look at that. That’s pretty neat, K-belle. MOM! No, it’s not neat! It’s wrong! Look! Never one to be accused of overmuch self-possession, I was obviously upset and gestured almost frantically at the other students’ circus cars, which were all more or less the same and reflected the example provided almost exactly. I see your graceful chariots, my fellow students, and raise you a jalopy. Kristi. My mom’s voice was gentle but firm. Yours does not have to be the same as everyone else’s. But. Mom…my voice trailed off and I remember how much longing I felt looking at the work of my fellow students and then looking back at my own.

It was seemingly such a small thing, making my circus car correctly. But to me, it was symbolic of my larger failure to fit in no matter how hard I tried. My mom took the circus car top and adjusted it slightly. Then, she took a deep breath and said, You are different. The way you think and do things is very unique. That is a very good thing and I hope that later you will realize that. For now, you need to take my word for it that it’s okay to be different. It’s okay to be unique and to do things differently, even if sometimes it means interpreting the instructions differently than anyone else. At that precise moment, Mrs. House came by. Oh! she exclaimed, and then looked at the car top more closely. Well, that’s an interesting take on it! We’ll put this one at the front to lead the procession! And with those few elation-inducing words, she bustled off to another corner of the room. I sat there, and with the support of these two women, both of whom had likely encountered their own struggles with being “different” at various junctures in their lives, I glowed inwardly and my insecurity abated. They had given me their blessing to be genuine and even though such a small thing, at this stage in my life, when I had yet to question the words of adults (much) and perceived my parents and teachers as (mostly) all-knowing, it was huge.

An incredible amount of vulnerability is required to expose oneself as an outsider to one’s tribe through creative expression. It takes an even greater toll to deem oneself an artist, because that title comes with it all the social notions of what that means about a person. So many stupid assumptions, and regardless of whether one formally or informally engages in the world of art as an “Artist,” imposter syndrome is very real because to me, it’s not art if you’re not exploring, which means that sometimes you don’t entirely know what you’re doing or how it will turn out.

Because of said imposter syndrome, I didn’t claim this mantle on a regular basis until my mid-thirties, and even then, it took the urging, cajoling, and earnest persuasion of my most tenacious friends and roommates, and yes, my mother, for me to arrive at that point. I don’t take it for granted that I had this kind of support and have fallen back on the comfort offered by that Thursday afternoon in my art class on more than one occasion in which I was stricken with self-doubt. I have learned the importance of not aligning with one’s tribe all the time if that means sacrificing trueness to oneself, but my arrival to which point was buoyed by moments like this one. I wish that all of us could receive this kind of blessing from parents and teachers, but I know that just as often, the opposite is true. And this writing is intended to express that it’s important to surround oneself with these people who will uplift and drown out the doubters within and out. So the task is to accept and look for the good. Trust your creative self. Carry the moments of true validation closely to your heart and trust that my mom was right in her assertion that being different is a very good thing.

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