When my brother and I were children, my parents believed in nurturing our talents and helping us become whatever we wanted to be. Kindergarteners have a very small skill set, but they get to paint a lot, so one September day I brought home a roll of manila paper. It was heavy with paint, damp and creased from where my fingers clutched it on the walk.
Prepared to gush over any bit of artwork, no matter how rudimentary, Mom and Dad watched me unfurl the paper and thrust it their way. Stunned, they stared at the masterpiece I’d so casually brought into the house. It was like something out of Jackson Pollock – The Kindergarten Years. Bright splashes of color dotted the paper, flirting and frolicking in an arrangement that dazzled the eye. Abstract and playful, it was the work of a confident painter, one much older than five.
The next day they quietly began saving for a fancy art school. I would be the first artiste in the family, and they wanted to make sure I had an opportunity to mix more media than crayons and fingerpaints.
Excited to show off their daughter’s talent, they had the picture framed and hung in a place of prominence over the dining room table, where we could admire it.
And then one night during dinner, as my brother kicked me under the table so my parents couldn’t see, my mom turned to me and asked, “What made you decide to put that dab of blue right there?”
“What?” I asked, more worried about Mom catching me kicking my brother back than about answering her.
She repeated her question.
I shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“Well, what about the red, right there in the corner? What inspired that?”
“I don’t know.” Thinking the chat finished, I surreptitiously fed another pea to our golden retriever, who hovered hopefully beneath my heavy wooden chair.
“And the yellow?” she tried again, waving one hand at a few blobs.
“I don’t know,” I repeated. “It’s not mine. I didn’t paint it.”
Silence, as my parents’ forks froze over their plates. When my mom could form a coherent thought, she asked, “You didn’t?”
I shook my head, oblivious to their tension and, not understanding that my entire future as an artist hung on my next word, said, “No.” Then I went back to shoveling stuffed peppers in my mouth because, really, they were delicious.
“So, uh, who did?” my mom asked gently, as if hoping my answer had been a mistake.
I looked up, mid-bite. Seriously, were we still talking about this? “I don’t know.”
“But why do you have it, then?”
“My teacher told us to take a painting home. I liked that one.” After all, even if I had no talent in the visual arts arena, I could still recognize a pretty picture when I saw it.
Silence. My parents’ eyes flicked to the picture. To me. To the picture – the one I hadn’t done with my own skinny little fingers and globby kindergarten paint.
They stopped saving for art school but, just in case, asked me to bring home a few paintings of my own instead of leaving them for my teacher to discard – an easy request since I created a new masterpiece every afternoon. And each day it was the same: a house with curtains in the windows, a slanting stick figure family of four, sun in the upper corner. Tulips. Grass. Our pets made an occasional cameo appearance. Sometimes there was a rainbow.
To this day my drawings look as if I did them with my left hand while crossing my eyes, but that’s okay because I never had art school aspirations anyway. I wanted to be something much more practical: an author.